Trump presidency eases Gavin Newsom's path in his second run for California governor

The first time Gavin Newsom ran for governor, he dropped out of the race in deference to a seemingly unbeatable fellow Democrat, Jerry Brown.

“He was the right person at the right time, and I’m really glad I stepped aside,” Newsom said on a recent visit to Los Angeles. “We needed the old sage.”

Newsom, who once mocked Brown’s comeback as a “stroll down memory lane,” settled for the almost powerless job of lieutenant governor, easily winning two terms.

Now, with Brown, 79, nearing retirement, he is gunning for the governor’s job again. This time, patience, calculation and lucky timing have combined to make him the early favorite in next year’s June primary.

Newsom, 49, has deftly used his office as a platform to call for tighter gun control, legalized marijuana, a ban on new offshore oil drilling and rollbacks of university tuition hikes. Next up: universal healthcare.

His agenda carries broad appeal in a Democratic state that has been drifting leftward for more than two decades. With much of California seething over President Trump, the climate could hardly be better for the unabashed liberal politics of a former San Francisco mayor still best known for his trailblazing 2004 decree legalizing same-sex marriage.

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“You want resistance to Donald Trump?” Newsom asked a crowd of plumbers and steamfitters at a Bay Area union hall in March. “Boy, bring it on, Donald.”

Newsom faces fierce competition from at least two viable Democrats: former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime nemesis, and state Treasurer John Chiang. But neither starts with the lopsided advantages of Newsom.

Drawing heavily on Silicon Valley donors, he has raised almost $12 million, outstripping his rivals by far. Newsom’s rhetorical blasts at Republicans — mostly Trump these days — are a hit on social media, yielding 1.3 million followers on Twitter and more than 700,000 on Facebook.

The California Nurses Assn., a powerful player in statewide races, has endorsed him. And the liberal Bay Area, where his support is strongest, plays an outsize role in picking the winners in California primaries.

Newsom was a popular two-term mayor, winning reelection with 74% of the vote. But in the two decades since he burst into San Francisco politics as a young protégé of Willie Brown, his predecessor as mayor, he has put off many colleagues.

Some, like San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, see him as too willing to do the bidding of campaign donors. He recalled Newsom’s appearance in an Airbnb television ad urging San Francisco voters to reject a 2015 ballot measure that would have limited short-term home and apartment rentals. Newsom has accepted more than $225,000 in campaign donations from Airbnb employees, much of it within weeks of the measure’s defeat.

“Follow the money,” Peskin said. “The fundamental issue is: Are we going to have a governor who governs for the people, or for the special interests that he’s beholden to?”

Newsom’s alliance with Airbnb is no surprise. He was an early champion of the sharing economy and digital revolution. In San Francisco, he moved the lieutenant governor’s satellite office out of a drab government building and became the star tenant of a trendy shared office space for tech startups.

Newsom’s 2013 book, “Citizenville,” called on government to make better use of technology, but his frequent lapses into Silicon Valley jargon can fall flat, as it did when he was promoting the book on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

“Big is getting small, and small is getting big — technology has the ability to level the playing field,” he told host Stephen Colbert.

“What the … does any of that mean?” Colbert asked to a roar of laughter, his profanity silenced by the first of several censor beeps. “Is there a ... translator? What are you talking about?”

Garry South, the top strategist in Newsom’s first campaign for governor, has urged him to keep in mind that many Californians facing financial hardship see little hope for themselves in the tech economy that’s flourishing in the Bay Area.

“When you’re in Fresno or San Bernardino, you can’t be talking in such highfalutin terms that people don’t really grasp what you’re saying,” he said.

Newsom, who calls the widening gap between rich and poor “the biggest challenge of our time,” is still fine-tuning his agenda. He said it would include wider access to prenatal care and preschool, expansion of an income-tax credit for the poor, bail reform and a universal healthcare plan modeled on the one he pioneered in San Francisco.

“The work’s been done; the question is how we scale it,” he said.

At the same time, Newsom promises fiscal restraint and economic growth.

“I’m the only candidate for governor that’s actually created jobs,” he told the plumbers and steamfitters. “I have close to 1,000 employees, 23 small businesses.”

That would be Newsom’s PlumpJack network of high-end restaurants, bars, nightclubs, wine shops and hotels in San Francisco, Napa Valley, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Lake Tahoe and Palm Springs. The businesses have spun off at least $4.1 million in personal income during his tenure as lieutenant governor, his tax returns show, and last year he reported more than $11.8 million in assets. His state salary is $142,577.

Newsom said he no longer manages PlumpJack day-to-day, but sometimes weighs in on strategic decisions, such as investment opportunities or the design palette of a new venue.

His once-turbulent private life has settled down. His early years as mayor were marred by a personal unraveling — divorce, excessive drinking, a scandal over his affair with a City Hall aide. In 2007, he declared he would be “a better person without alcohol in my life” and sought informal treatment. He says now that he quit drinking for two years, then resumed drinking wine.

He also remarried and moved with his wife, actress and documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, to a house on a Marin County hillside overlooking San Francisco Bay. They are raising four children: Montana, 7, Hunter, 5, Brooklynn, 3, and Dutch, 1.

“I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but there’s an empathy, there’s a connection — anyone who has kids understands it,” he said. “There’s a sensitivity to the world around you that’s sort of deep and enriching and fulfilling. I feel more complete as a human being.”

Newsom’s father-in-law, an avid hunter who lives in Montana, bought the family a freezer for their garage to store the venison, elk, duck and pheasant that they like to eat.

“I’m a hunter,” Newsom told the union crowd when a man in the audience grumbled about his support for gun control.

Newsom, who in his younger days shot lizards with a rifle on visits to his father’s place in the Sierra foothills, said he has hunted ducks and enjoys skeet shooting, but nonetheless supports background checks for gun owners.

The hunting might surprise some of Newsom’s fans on Twitter, where he skewers the National Rifle Assn., calls Trump an “ignoramus” and brands House Speaker Paul Ryan with the nickname “Cowardly Ryan.”

At the union hall in Concord, Newsom said he was looking forward to succeeding Brown as Trump’s chief adversary in deep-blue California.

“We’re going to push back in very aggressive ways,” he said. “I guarantee that.”

About this story: This is one in a series of articles about the candidates vying to succeed Jerry Brown as governor of California in the 2018 election. Learn more about them at latimes.com/CA2018.

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Twitter: @finneganLAT

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