San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who built a national reputation pushing cutting-edge -- and controversial -- policies on same-sex marriage, healthcare and other issues, launched an exploratory bid for governor Tuesday.
His move placed the 40-year-old, two-term mayor out in front of a large Democratic field eyeing the race to succeed Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is barred by term limits from running again in 2010. Newsom said he expected to decide by year's end whether to proceed with a full-fledged candidacy.
The first open-seat governor's race in 12 years is expected to draw a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls, including former governor and current Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi and former Controller Steve Westly, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2006.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has also been widely discussed as a possible candidate, although he faces reelection in 2009, which could complicate any run for higher office. Among Republicans, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner is seen as likely to run.
In an interview Tuesday, Newsom said he was mindful of the city's somewhat eccentric reputation and alluded to the "values" issues -- political code for gay rights and other left-leaning positions -- that opponents may try to use to his political detriment. "Bring that on," he said after signing the papers creating his campaign committee.
"We're about civil rights and equal rights, you better believe it," Newsom said. "I'm proud of that; I'm not going to hide from that. . . . So now let's talk about healthcare, education, the environment. Let's have a conversation about your kids and what you want this state to look like five, 10 years from now."
Newsom, who blends movie-star looks with a wonkish devotion to public policy, faces other impediments apart from the strong competition.
There is a long list of California mayors, and ex-mayors, who have tried and failed to win the state's highest office. In recent decades that includes San Francisco's Joseph Alioto, Los Angeles' Tom Bradley and Richard Riordan, and San Diego's Pete Wilson, who lost in his first try for the office before becoming a U.S. senator and then winning the governorship in 1990. Wilson defeated Dianne Feinstein, who had left the San Francisco mayor's office two years before.
"One of the prerequisites of becoming governor seems to be having already won statewide office," said Tony Quinn, a nonpartisan election handicapper, who noted that California is so large, even the mayors of its biggest cities are a mystery to most voters outside their home region.
Newsom also starts from a political base -- a world-famous liberal bastion -- that is less than ideal for a statewide candidate. "While California is clearly purple to blue in most state races, it's not nearly as blue as San Francisco," Quinn said.
Newsom also has a stain on his past, an admitted affair in late 2005, after the end of his marriage, with the wife of his campaign manager and deputy chief of staff. Newsom apologized for the transgression and said he would seek treatment for alcohol abuse. Voters apparently forgave him; he was reelected last November with 72% of the vote. He is engaged to marry actress Jennifer Siebel later this month.
Despite those hurdles, Newsom could emerge as a serious contender. He can make the case for change against a pair of candidates -- Brown and Garamendi -- each of whom has been on California's political stage for more than 30 years. Newsom can also point to a record of creative initiatives that have turned San Francisco into a sort of policy laboratory of the left.
He is probably best known outside San Francisco for his role as a champion of same-sex marriage. In early 2004, Newsom ordered the city to grant a marriage license to any couple requesting one. The move led to years of legal wrangling that resulted in May's state Supreme Court decision declaring a fundamental "right to marry" in California that extends to couples of the same sex.
Apart from gay rights, Newsom has pushed to make the city a civic leader in environmental policies and healthcare. He started a program to recycle restaurant waste into bio-diesel that will eventually power a fleet of city vehicles, and he hired a global-warming "czar" to find ways for San Francisco to reduce its carbon footprint.
The city is also the first in the country to provide universal access to healthcare for its residents, regardless of their ability to pay. The plan has drawn criticism and a lawsuit from small-business owners -- and the restaurant industry in particular -- for its cost.
Newsom, who is seen as a moderate by San Francisco standards, also earned national attention for his efforts to reduce cash payments to the homeless while increasing the availability of so-called supportive housing, where residents have access to substance-abuse and mental-health counseling.
"He's used the role of San Francisco mayor not just in the traditional way, making sure Muni buses arrive on time, but to pursue innovative policies on a number of national issues," said Corey Cook, an assistant professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.
As governor, Newsom said, he would have three priorities: reducing poverty, providing universal access to healthcare and improving the state's education system. Boosting student test scores and reducing class sizes would be two measurements of success, he said, but only part of a change that would urge closer collaboration between Sacramento and local governments. "It's not just funding everything at a higher level," Newsom said of his goal for schools.
He acknowledged the hurdles he would face as a big-city mayor courting voters in the suburbs and rural stretches of California. But Newsom insisted that the issues he has addressed as San Francisco mayor are ones that concern virtually every Californian.
"Healthcare. Education. What's going on with the roads. Quality-of-life issues. . . . The environment," Newsom said. "All the issues tend to be remarkably similar."
Times staff writer Lee Romney contributed to this report.