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American Dreamer

Gavin Newsom is taking some huge risks in his quest to become governor in 2018. But a political player’s gotta play. A conversation with California’s most ambitious Democrat.

Lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom.


Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about politics that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the October 2016 Democracy Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

The lieutenant governor
of California does not wake up looking this way. His hair isn’t always raffishly shellacked. His closet isn’t only filled, Barack-style, with navy blue suits and pressed white shirts. Sometimes he leaves the $2 million house in Kentfield, the beautiful filmmaker wife, and the four kids under the age of eight in what can accurately be described as dadwear: a navy blue sweater and some worn-in jeans. At least that’s what Gavin Newsom was wearing when he met editor-in-chief Jon Steinberg one morning this summer at the Balboa Cafe, the Cow Hollow saloon that Newsom and his PlumpJack Group partners bought in 1995. The former San Francisco mayor, who turns 49 this month, had arrived early and was enjoying some quiet phone time. Through his earbuds piped a podcast featuring the writer Thomas Friedman, a friend, whose new book, Thank You for Being Late, describes the value of slowing down in “the age of accelerations.” Newsom is clearly trying to take that advice to heart. But it’s a tough task for a guy herding two mega-initiatives on this year’s ballot and relentlessly attacking Republicans on social media and raising funds for his 2018 campaign for governor. As became clear over the course of a 90-minute conversation, Newsom has little opportunity to “be late.” Not when he dreams of remaking California politics in his own polished, progressive image.

San Francisco: So, you and I have kids about the same age. Our oldest daughters are both seven, and they are of the age where they’re beginning to awaken to the world. How have you been talking to your daughter specifically about the presidential election?
Gavin Newsom: You know, my daughter’s met Hillary Clinton, so she’s got a strong bias. But she of course parrots me, and goes, “Oh, Donald Trump, I don’t like him!” I’m like, “That’s good!”

I’ve found myself trying to temper my opinions in front of my kids. I want to impart my values to them, of course, but I don’t want to stamp out their own ideas.
I’m with you. It’s interesting for me especially because I married into a big Republican family (1). So my father-in-law and all that side of the family are deeply conservative.

And where are they right now in this election?
Oh, they’re dying a thousand deaths [laughs].

And are you quietly enjoying their discomfort?
I’m enjoying every aspect of it. I’m like, this is your guy, this is your party. He is your Frankenstein. So it’s, uh… anyway. It’s never easy. Those are not good, easy conversations. I have a very successful father-in-law and family with very different political views. But, back to your point, I like having that diversity of opinion for our kids. I like that my wife grew up in that household.

Besides the presidency, California has a massive number of issues going before voters this November—there are 17 initiatives on the state ballot and then 25 in San Francisco. That’s ridiculous, right?
Yeah, it’s outrageous.

So at what point does direct democracy become too much democracy in your opinion? Because, to be blunt, you’re partially to blame for some of this outrageousness.
I don’t know enough about the 20-plus local initiatives to opine about why [San Francisco’s lawmakers] defaulted to the ballot. But a lot of things require ballot initiatives. I mean, my gun initiative (2) exists because these are things that couldn’t be done legislatively. Four of six items on that measure were previously vetoed by the governor. And I think that’s why direct democracy and our initiative process exists—to reconcile that. The marijuana initiative’s (3) another perfect example. It just had no prospect whatsoever of ever getting through a legislature.

Is that because legislators—even liberal California Democrats—don’t want to be on the record for voting yes on legalizing marijuana?
Yeah, and other reasons. If you’re trying to understand why it is that certain things happen in Sacramento, and certain things don’t, at the end of the day it comes down to the issue of incentives: We do what we’re incentivized to do. You’ve got to change incentives for good behavior, as opposed to just disincentivizing bad behavior. Special interests play an outsize role in governance and politics writ large—certainly at the state and federal level, more than at the local level—and money is at the root of the “why.”

So if money is at the root of all legislative action—or inaction—what is incentivizing you to support things like marijuana legalization, gun reform, and the death penalty repeal? I’m guessing you’re not going to say money.
Because I don’t want to spend my life being something. I want to actually do something. I want to accomplish something. I think, coming out of the experience of gay marriage, (4) where afterward there were conversations about recalling me—and even arresting me—I honestly just had this liberation of, “You know what? I survived this. I did what I thought was right.” The vast majority of people in my party can disagree with me. Family members, my father included, (5) were vehemently opposed to gay marriage. But I came out of that saying, “This is why I’m doing this. I want to stand up for an ideal.”

And now you’re emboldened.
It’s certainly why I’m out front on the marijuana legalization. Not because I think it’s good politics. The blogs say, “Why is he focused on this? He should be focused on jobs, on the economy, education reform, debt crisis, pensions, and all that.” Those are the things that poll well. I get all that. But I’m doing it because I think it’s a social justice issue, a racial justice issue, a criminal justice reform, and an economic justice reform. I feel obliged because it’s my job to have opinions, to not be ideological, to insist on evidence, and to opine on a moral crisis. Nothing frustrates me more than neutrality. I think Dante said, “The hottest place in hell in a time of moral crisis is for those that maintain their neutrality.” (6) Have a damn opinion!

But you have to admit that taking these positions and pushing big-ticket voter initiatives has also been very good for Gavin Newsom.
Maybe. We’ll see.

I mean, you have a track record, right? Winning the Care Not Cash initiative (7) in 2002 turned out to be really good for you. It might have even made you mayor.
Well, it was good for over 12,000 human beings that we serviced—

Yeah, but it also propelled you upward; it raised your familiarity with voters and gave you something solid to run on.
That and taxis. Everyone forgets about the taxi issues. I failed miserably, but I asserted myself on taxicabs!

OK, let me ask it differently: While your idealism and ethics and opinions are clear, isn’t being out in front on guns and marijuana also going to help you run for governor in two years?
I don’t know. I mean, honestly, you should join me when I try to get endorsements from some of the most powerful players in Sacramento. And when I don’t get those endorsements because of those two positions, then we can answer that question. Because, with all due respect, there is a reason why some of the most thoughtful and successful political figures in this state won’t touch these issues. And these are incredibly bright, capable individuals. I may be completely flawed in terms of the political calculation. That’s why I honestly don’t care about the political calculation. I am happy to burn out. I am not going to rust out.

There’s a quote that you gave 10 years ago in this magazine, (8) where you were talking about the Democratic Party in 2006: “We have a credibility gap because we have run out of good ideas.... We haven’t invested in the discipline of generating good ideas.” Do you still think that’s true?
Yeah, I think that’s still true. I think we’re desperate for leadership in this country. Period. The system is broken. We are failing too many folks. We in formal positions of authority are not doing our jobs. And that means we need to no longer be rewarded for failing.

You know who you sound a little bit like, when you say that we’re starving for leadership in this country?

Trump! He’s said it a million times: [bad Trump impersonation] “We’re desperate for leadership in this country!”
He’s right.

Even in the Obama era, you think that’s true?
Yes! People have referred to this as a hinge moment: A demographic hinge moment, an economic hinge moment, a technological hinge moment. So something’s happened, profoundly, to the plumbing of the world, and yet our politics are sadly completely outdated to address it. It’s a Cold War mentality from the geopolitical perspective, it’s an FDR mentality from my party’s perspective, and it’s an industrial framework from the other party’s perspective. And so I think I’m even more alarmed now by the lack of creativity and new thinking than I was 10 years ago.

How do you think that dearth of creativity plays out locally?
It’s interesting. You know, San Francisco is a cautionary tale. Because we do everything my party is asserting we should do statewide and nationwide. Yet we have, as Alan Krueger (9) likes to say in reference to income inequality, a Great Gatsby curve. It’s more acute here than in any other city in America. Which suggests that our tools are inadequate to deal with the problems. It’s absolutely necessary to have a higher minimum wage and paid sick leave and universal preschool and universal after-school and universal healthcare—all the things San Francisco does and leads the nation on. But all of these things are wholly inadequate to address these larger issues of what’s happened with technology and globalization that have detonated at the same time. And that’s the biggest issue of our time. So this is serious—I mean, this is code red for both political parties. And I just think the stale rhetoric in my party is not going to meet the needs of the world we’re now living in. So I worry about those things.

How does the way that you think about these problems—and about the future—differ from the way that Jerry Brown thinks about them?
At times I want to shake him and say, “Jerry!” But he is…he is a sage. There’s no one I know of who’s a more gifted, masterful politician. Period, exclamation, full stop. This guy is a master—though sometimes I want him to forget about everything he knows, so that we can go back to a little bit more idealism. But he knows what he’s capable of doing and what he can’t do. He said reform, quote-unquote, is “overrated,” which is a way of saying, “Look, there’s only certain things I can do, guys.”

And which things isn’t he doing, specifically?
I think dealing with the issues of debt and entitlement. I think looking at a 21st-century education system. But those take years. And Jerry recognizes that he was elected for solvency, he was elected for triage, he was elected to get the house in order, to be the adult in the room, and he has implemented and executed on that better than anybody could have ever imagined. He’s proven that you can be progressive without being profligate, which is, boy, a profound thing. But now what’s the grand strategy? What’s our plan for greatness?

Should you become governor, are you going to constantly have Jerry in the back of your mind—like a little Jerry Brown on your shoulder whispering advice to you?
Every day. If you’re not consumed by his success, you don’t belong as a candidate, let alone in that office. I mean, he has been extraordinarily successful. I’m mesmerized by him. At first, there was friction [between us]. I was aggressive on an economic development strategy. (10) And I wanted to see him do seven other things. He basically said to me, “Look, look, young man, just move aside, you have no idea what you’re talking about.” Basically telling me to shut up. But he was right. I wasn’t wrong—but he was right.

How were you not wrong?
I still think that we could do a lot more: Our party needs to become much more entrepreneurial. You can’t pay for all these progressive priorities without strong economic growth. And we have got to become the party of entrepreneurs, to be more business friendly, more job focused, create conditions for job creation and company growth. So Jerry and I had some friction at first. But as I moved past that frustration and reflected on it and have watched Jerry every day, I get it.

Do you still carry around your book of policy ideas that you lugged around when you were mayor?
Yeah, if you go in the back of my car, I mean I literally will show you, I’ve got stacks. It’s pathetic. I’m obsessed with best practices. [Walmart founder] Sam Walton talked about casing other people’s joints. If you’re not casing your competitors’ joints, they’re casing yours, and you’re going to be out of business. So for me that’s why I went to Texas with Governor Rick Perry to learn about their Texas One model. That’s why my economic report talked about the Third Frontier program in Ohio. It’s why I’ve studied the Singapore plug-and-play zones and Bavaria’s export strategies. There are these amazing best practices everywhere, and it’s about how we can incorporate them.

Did you just say “Bavarian export strategies”?
[Laughs] I just think…I love that Tom Friedman’s writing a book (11) about these accelerating forces. I mean, the world’s fast, and it’s getting faster. It’s not just flat, it’s fast.

This sounds like a pretty exhausting frame of mind to always be in. Where do you go to recharge—or, to use Tom Friedman–y terms, where do you go to “be late”?
Well, it’s interesting. My friend Marc Benioff (12) got me to start meditating.

Huh…so you and Benioff are, like, out there in the woods in Marin—
No, it was just in conversation. He gave me the space to not think meditating was, uh, odd. He was commenting about how some of his closest and most successful friends, some well-known people, all share that in common. And I said, “Really?” I remember it was just this sort of aha moment, where all of a sudden I didn’t think it strange. I thought maybe it was essential. And for the last two, two and a half years, I’ve been very devoted to it. And it’s been profound for me.

Getting back to the state ballot, many of the 17 initiatives—gun reform, marijuana, repealing the death penalty, parole reform—are like a social justice activist’s wish list. Do you have any fear that the left is pushing too far too fast, that we risk seeing the pendulum swing violently back in the other direction? It wasn’t so long ago that California was governed by conservatives, after all.
It’s tough stuff. All of it is. But there’s a growing consciousness on the right, not just on the left, that over-incarceration has failed us in America. You have 2.3 million people incarcerated, you have 4.7 million people on parole [or probation], you have 70 million people with arrest records that can’t get jobs. But I can see your point. We’re now in reform mode, but you can imagine ourselves tipping back. I mean, one has to be cautious about these things, but I think there’s a growing understanding that we went too far, and now we’ve got to come back.

Democrats do have a history of overstepping, don’t they?
But I think we can thread that needle quite easily. I have no sympathy for violent predators. I’m going to call that out, hold them accountable, lock ’em up. You’d better be sure about that. The vast majority of [prisoners] get out, though. I want to make sure when they get out, they don’t do it again. So that’s why I support strong reentry programs and reforms within the prison system. That’s just pragmatism. But when it comes to nonviolent, drug-related issues, I mean, here we are sitting in a bar where every night we’re selling Jack Daniel’s. Why the hell aren’t we arresting everyone here? Why aren’t we putting them in jail? Alcohol’s a hell of a lot more damaging to society than some mom, you know, out there in Modesto who may vape once or twice a week. I mean, the absurdity of that discrepancy is not lost on me, a purveyor of wine and liquor. (13)

A bootlegger!
I mean, how could I deny that reality? Look, with marijuana decriminalization, we’re not introducing anything new. We’ve de facto had it since 1996 anyway. I think by taxing it, we can get predators off the street. Drug dealers don’t card your kids, they don’t care about what they’re selling. We can get cartels out of our backyards, particularly up in Trinity and Humboldt and Mendocino Counties and other parts of the state. We can stop some of the violence on our border. It’s a game changer. All these things are profoundly connected.

Are you tempted intellectually by the idea of decriminalizing drugs across the board?
No. I think what Portugal has done (14) is an interesting intellectual model. But I’m not there. I’m focused on marijuana. That’s hard enough.

While you were mayor, you framed yourself as being kind of a Dianne Feinstein Democrat.
Oh, did I? Yeah, I kind of like that. Though not as much on social issues lately.

Exactly. She is vociferously against you on marijuana and some other things. Yet you are quite close to her personally. What are your private conversations like on this?
I’m such a huge fan of Senator Feinstein. She is a friend, supporter, mentor. But we disagree on this. (15) Every single one of her concerns is legitimate. I share the exact same concerns. I don’t want to see marijuana normalized in relationship to our kids. I don’t want to see our kids using and abusing this drug. I don’t want people smoking and driving. So I respect the spirit of what she’s saying. I appreciate it.

But she’s wrong.
No, she’s not wrong. I just happen to think that we can address those issues. And so she’s my target audience. My job’s to prove to her that we can do it.

What’s so interesting about Senator Feinstein, and what I kind of love about her, is how she continues to insert herself into the debates that we’re having not just in California, but also in San Francisco. She’s regularly writing op-eds about this Airbnb legislation or that housing policy. But that editorializing is something you haven’t done quite as much since you stepped away as mayor. Why?
Because I want to be respectful to Ed Lee. Particularly with the fact that I was the last mayor. I want to give him space. I owe that to him.

So are you holding your fire?
No, it’s not a question of fire. I have a strong bias toward Ed Lee—he was my city administrator, (16) after all. And I’m very sensitive to the challenges of governing a very diverse city in this period of time. So I offer my advice, counsel, criticism as needed, but I do it in a respectful way. Dianne has earned the right, having been a U.S. senator for decades, to do it her way. It’s a very different circumstance than mine.

But as time goes by, will you be butting in more?
[Laughs] As time goes by, yeah. But there’s nothing worse than that ex-mayor saying coulda woulda shoulda. I just don’t want to be that guy. I think it’s unbecoming. There is one well-known ex-mayor (17) in this town who just, you know, is like a seagull. Just comes in and, you know, [makes seagull pooping sound] on everybody and then flies away. You know, I just, that’s not who I want to become when I’m older.

So without criticizing Ed Lee directly, what would you do about some of the most pressing issues S.F. is facing right now, like affordability?
The question is, What can you do? I mean, there’s certain parameters. You want to solve the affordable housing crisis in San Francisco and the workforce housing? Build more housing. OK. That’s easy. So let’s just zone more housing. OK, where? Um, well, it can’t all be downtown, can’t all be high-rises. So you go, OK, well, why don’t I go into the neighborhoods? So let’s go to West Portal and let’s upzone. Let’s upzone on Chestnut and Union Streets right around the corner. Well, hold on, no, you can’t do that. That’s destroying our unique neighborhood character. OK, so now what is the solution? You know, a $6 billion affordable housing bond? Because that’s about the scale where you can actually impact the problem, not $150 million or $250 million—that’s small ball. More inclusionary housing? We already do some of the highest inclusionary housing of any city in the United States of America.

Ugh. It’s so hard.
Yeah, these are tough issues. So when I hear all these critics of the mayor, I don’t yawn, exactly. I don’t roll my eyes. But I’m sort of thinking that they’re lacking a little creativity. Because they’re playing in the margins. Even if they get everything they want, it’s going to make only a modest dent in a macro problem that’s so much bigger than the solutions they’re offering. And so I think you just have to change the conversation a little bit. Not abdicate responsibility, but change the conversation.

You alluded to this before, but I want to end on it because I’m fascinated by it: When you began your job as lieutenant governor in 2011, you seemed a little crestfallen. You came in with lots of ideas, you were really aggressive, you were ready to go. And then you were swatted down.
One hundred percent accurate.

Are you happier in this role now?
One hundred percent. I mean, I’m not one of those fatalist, everything-happens-for-a-reason people, but it almost feels like that: Everything happened for a reason. It was immeasurably frustrating the first year because I was aggressive on this economic plan. I hired the McKinsey and Brookings institutes to do this best-practices report. We had a press conference attended by literally 700 people. I was really proud of that work. And then it was—wow—the response was aggressive. And you know, because Jerry and I have known each other forever—literally, (18) I’ve known him all my life—everything about it was just weird. It didn’t look good for me. It was not appropriate. It wasn’t respectful of him in his role. And now I’m developing respect and admiration for Jerry that’s been really positive. So for the last three, three and a half years, and with three new kids, I’m thinking, How could it be any better? To learn what I’m learning from him? To understand the state at a much more nuanced level, to have this gestation to experience?

Sounds like a fantastic apprenticeship—is that how it feels to you?
Yeah, except Jerry would never say, “I’m Gavin’s mentor,” because Jerry doesn’t do that. But I’m studying and learning and trying to figure it out. I’m able to punch above my weight on a lot of issues like these ballot initiatives and, you know, have a voice. So yeah, I love it. I actually love it. But you’re right, it wasn’t easy.


1. Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s father, Ken, founded Larkspur-based Private Wealth Partners and donated some of his own considerable private wealth to George W. Bush’s and John McCain’s campaigns. His rightward leanings have their limits, however: He and his wife, Judy, have given thousands to their son-in-law’s campaigns for governor and lieutenant governor.

2. Dubbed the Safety for All initiative, Prop. 63 contains items Governor Jerry Brown already signed into law in July, including background checks for ammunition purchases and a ban on possession of large-capacity magazines. But Newsom’s initiative goes further, pushing for measures Brown vetoed, like classifying gun theft as a felony and requiring people to report stolen guns within five days.

3. If passed—as Newsom predicts it will be—Prop. 64, aka the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, would legalize possession and sales of small amounts of pot and allow the state to regulate and tax it.

4. Not two months into his first term as mayor in 2004, Newsom attracted widespread praise and scorn when he authorized the San Francisco county clerk to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Although the California Supreme Court ordered the marriages halted one month later, Newsom saw his approval rates skyrocket into the 80s.

5. Retired state appeals court judge William A. Newsom, whose friendship with former state assemblyman John Burton helped get Gavin appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors by Mayor Willie Brown in 1997.

6. The quote isn’t directly from Dante, but rather from John F. Kennedy, who was roughly paraphrasing the author of Inferno. Dante does give the neutral their own special place in hell, right near the entrance.

7. Then-supervisor Newsom’s 2002 ballot measure to replace cash payments to homeless people with supportive housing and services won heartily, with 60 percent of the vote.

8. From contributing writer Diana Kapp’s 8,000-plus-word interview with then-mayor Newsom, “Why Isn’t This Man Smiling?” (January 2006).

9. In a 2012 speech as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Krueger, a Princeton economics professor who has served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, described the “Great Gatsby curve,” which links income inequality to reduced economic mobility across generations.

10. In August 2011, early into his first term as lieutenant governor, Newsom released a 35-point action plan, An Economic Growth and Competitiveness Agenda for California. Two weeks later, Governor Brown named ex-banker Michael Rossi his jobs czar, a move seen by some as a slight to Newsom. 

11. The title of Friedman’s book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November), refers to the author’s busy friends showing up late to breakfast, which Friedman appreciates, because it gives him time to people-watch.

12. A longtime daily meditator, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff recently installed mindfulness zones on each floor of his company’s new offices.

13. Newsom founded PlumpJack Wines (now PlumpJack Wine & Spirits) on Fillmore Street in 1992. The company has since grown into a 17-property hospitality group, with wineries, resorts, boutiques, restaurants, and bars spread across Northern California. The company is now run by Hilary Newsom, Gavin’s sister. 

14. Portugal decriminalized low-level possession and consumption of all illicit drugs in favor of a treatment-centered approach in 2001. The program produced several benefits, including reductions in adolescent drug use and drug-induced deaths. Defying skeptics, overall drug use has not increased. 

15. Feinstein has long vocally opposed marijuana legalization, speaking out against California’s 1996 medical marijuana ballot measure and a failed 2010 initiative that would have cleared pot for personal use. With legalization back on the ballot this November, Feinstein is standing pat, helping pen the official “Argument Against Proposition 64” in this election’s voter information guide.

16. Newsom appointed then–Public Works director Ed Lee to city administrator in 2005 and renewed the appointment in 2010. Under Newsom, Lee led government efficiency reforms and a move toward cleaner vehicles and oversaw the city’s first Ten Year Capital Plan. 

17. Newsom is referring to former mayor Art Agnos, who has in recent years come out swinging against a waterfront Warriors arena, a plan to tear down a portion of I-280, the redevelopment of the San Francisco Flower Mart in SoMa, and a luxury condo complex on the Embarcadero, among other things.

18. In 1975, when Newsom was seven, Jerry Brown, who was just embarking on his first stint as California governor, appointed Newsom’s father to the Placer County Superior Court. Three years later, the governor promoted the elder Newsom to the state appellate court in San Francisco, where he served until 1995. That was the same year that Gavin became actively involved in city politics, volunteering with Willie Brown’s campaign for mayor.

Additional reporting by Caitlin Harrington.


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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