For a man prone to belittling politicians, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco is proving to be a deft politician.
In his run for governor, he is summoning all the skills he can to shed the political baggage of his hometown, where taming a rowdy parade is the sort of thing that can set off a popular backlash.
He is known outside San Francisco for one thing above all: his renegade order legalizing same-sex marriage in 2004.
So Newsom has been trekking across the state for weeks, trying to show that the “gigantic order-of-magnitude change” he envisions for California entails much more than gay nuptials.
“One thing I’m not is an ideologue,” Newsom said Wednesday at a campaign stop in San Diego.
Among other things, the 41-year-old mayor is trying to live down the in-your-face video of him yelling to a crowd that same-sex marriage would someday be legal “whether you like it or not.”
Proposition 8 supporters who used it to great effect in ads for the November ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage have made it that much harder for Newsom to cast himself as less left-wing than the average San Francisco politician.
Newsom tried mightily to remake his image on a five-day swing across Southern California that ended Saturday in Palm Springs. While the state is mired in fiscal crisis, he told crowds, San Francisco’s bond rating has risen, and its rainy-day fund is robust.
“I’m a hard-headed pragmatist,” he told the news media in San Diego. “I haven’t been a profligate spender.”
In West Hollywood, Newsom turned criticism of his agenda on homelessness into a punch line to prove he can take on liberals.
“My body was burned in effigy at 18th and Castro,” he proudly told a gathering of bloggers as he described his program to replace cash grants with stipends for housing and services.
Rival is ready
Even as Newsom markets himself as a centrist, his top rival, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, is questioning Newsom’s mainstream appeal. His main line of attack is the case of Edwin Ramos, an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant accused of a triple homicide in San Francisco. Ramos had been arrested and released before the killings. Although his case is convoluted, Brown suggested that it could be used to show that Newsom has had a lax attitude toward crime and illegal immigration.
In a January interview, Brown suggested that the Ramos case would become a political “killer” for Newsom.
“It’s a tough issue,” Brown said. “We all have our stuff that we carry on our backs, and everyone’s going to exploit it.”
In response, Newsom condemned Brown’s “constant drumbeat of negativity in this campaign.” San Francisco authorities reported Ramos to federal immigration agents before the slayings, he said, but they failed to pick him up.
Newsom’s chief strategist, Garry South, took a more blunt approach to Brown, a former mayor of Oakland. “At the end of Brown’s two terms as mayor in 2006,” South said, “Oakland was the murder capital of California, with a homicide rate more than three times that of San Francisco. It also was designated the fourth most dangerous city in America based on FBI statistics.”
At this point in the race, Newsom is focused less on Brown than on introducing himself to Californians.
As part of his push to build mainstream credentials, he is playing up his professional background outside politics.
Private sector roots
The grandson of a San Francisco developer, Newsom spent a year managing real estate for Walter Shorenstein, a major builder and top Democratic Party benefactor. He went on to open a wine shop in the Marina District, part of the PlumpJack chain of businesses in San Francisco, Napa Valley and Lake Tahoe.
“Look, I’m a guy who comes from the private sector,” he said at a recent stop in Northridge. “I’ve created thousands of jobs, started a business that now has got 14 different businesses -- restaurants, hotels and wineries.”
Initially financed in part by heirs of oil baron J. Paul Getty, who are close to Newsom’s family, PlumpJack has made Newsom rich.
He reported assets of at least $6 million last year. But Newsom has played down his wealth and said he would not spend “one penny” of his own money on the governor’s race.
“I don’t have that much,” he told reporters in San Diego. “I wish I had a trust fund that people keep writing about, and one day if it’s found, let me know.”
Family connections also opened Newsom’s way into politics. His grandfather was a friend and advisor to Gov. Pat Brown. His father, retired Judge William Newsom, was close to Gov. Jerry Brown, as well as to John Burton, who will soon be chairman of the state Democratic Party. Thanks partly to Burton’s sponsorship, thenSan Francisco Mayor Willie Brown named Newsom in 1996 to the Board of Supervisors, the springboard to his 2003 election as mayor.
Personal turmoil has marred Newsom’s tenure, starting with a divorce from his first wife. He sought treatment for alcohol abuse after the revelation of his affair with a top City Hall aide, who was married to the manager of his reelection campaign.
Shortly before the scandal erupted, Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle he sometimes lacked the “intensity and passion” to be mayor.
“I sit there at a bar in a restaurant doing homework and getting food to go,” he said. “That’s not what I wanted to sign up for in my late 30s. I wanted a little more balance. I haven’t been able to find it in this job.”
He also called speculation that he might run for governor “garbage.” “It is such nonsense,” he said in the October 2006 interview. “I sit there, I cringe at the prospect that people actually believe that.”
Critics have questioned Newsom’s dedication to the job. Aaron Peskin, the San Francisco Democratic Party chairman, recalled Newsom’s departure for Hawaii hours after a 58,000-gallon oil spill near the Embarcadero in 2007.
“It was a dereliction of duty,” said Peskin, who was on the Board of Supervisors at the time. “This is the kind of thing that people come back from vacation for.”
In a breakfast interview last week in West Hollywood, Newsom said he went to Hawaii to propose to his current wife, actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom, and there was nothing he could have done on the scene to quicken cleanup of the oil spill.
He also described his doubts about work as a thing of the past.
“I’ve never felt more alive and more engaged,” he said between spoonfuls of banana-covered cornflakes. “I’m at a completely different point in my life, remarried, about to have a baby. No need to be sitting waiting for food-to-go any longer, so my passion has been completely rekindled.”