Must Reads: How eight elite San Francisco families funded Gavin Newsom’s political ascent
Gavin Newsom wasn’t born rich, but he was born connected — and those alliances have paid handsome dividends throughout his career.
A coterie of San Francisco’s wealthiest families has backed him at every step of his political rise, which in November could lead next to his election as California governor.
San Francisco society’s “first families” — whose names grace museum galleries, charity ball invitations and hospital wards — settled on Newsom, 50, as their favored candidate two decades ago, said Willie Brown, former state Assembly speaker and former mayor of the city.
“He came from their world, and that’s why they embraced him without hesitancy and over and above everybody else,” said Brown, who is a mentor to Newsom. “They didn’t need to interview him. They knew what he stood for.”
A Times review of campaign finance records identified eight of San Francisco’s best-known families as being among Newsom’s most loyal and long-term contributors. Among those patrons are the Gettys, the Pritzkers and the Fishers, whose families made their respective fortunes in oil, hotels and fashion. They first backed him when he was a restaurateur and winery owner running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1998, and have continued their support through the governor’s race.
They are not Newsom’s largest donors: The families in total have given about $2 million of the $61 million that donors have contributed to his campaigns and independent committees backing those bids. But they gave while he was a relative unknown, providing crucial support to a political newcomer in the years before his campaign accounts piled high with cash from labor unions, Hollywood honchos, tech billionaires and donors up and down the state.
Now the families appear poised to see their investments pay off.
These donors are mostly liberal, inspired by Newsom’s history as an early supporter of progressive causes, including same-sex marriage as San Francisco mayor in 2004. But some are Republicans, including President Trump’s new ambassador to Austria, who are drawn by Newsom’s background as a small businessman.
The front-runner’s opponents have attacked him for his connections. During the primary, two of his Democratic rivals, Antonio Villaraigosa and John Chiang, painted Newsom as the beneficiary of wealth and privilege. John Cox, his GOP opponent in the November election, reiterated the theme in a new website titled “Fortunate $on.” And an independent expenditure committee supporting the Republican spent a quarter-million dollars late last month on an ad calling Newsom “a child of privilege, his path greased by family and political connections and billionaire patrons.”
Newsom, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this article, has long been tied to San Francisco society.
His father, Bill, was a lifelong friend of Gordon Getty, the son of oil magnate J. Paul Getty — they attended high school together. Bill Newsom later managed the Getty family trust on behalf of Gordon, estimated by Forbes to be worth more than $2 billion in 2018. Bill Newsom was so close with the family that he helped deliver the ransom money after the 1973 kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson, John Paul Getty III.
During Gov. Jerry Brown’s first tenure, he appointed Bill Newsom a judge, and the Newsom family had close ties to Willie Brown, former state lawmaker and California Democratic Party leader John Burton and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The Gettys’ support has played an important role in Gavin Newsom’s personal, professional and political life.
He has said he was primarily raised by his mother, who at times struggled to make ends meet. But Gordon and Ann Getty viewed him as a son, according to interviews the couple gave to the San Francisco Chronicle and W Magazine, and they provided him with experiences his parents could not afford, including an African safari when he was a teen, Newsom said in an earlier interview with The Times.
“It all goes back to the Gettys as far as Gavin is concerned,” said Jerry Roberts, former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and an expert on Bay Area politics.
In addition to helping fund Newsom’s early business ventures, the family has been a mainstay as he pursued his political ambitions. Eighteen Gettys — including Gordon, Ann and actor Balthazar Getty — have collectively donated more than a half-million dollars to Newsom’s nine campaigns, starting with a total of $750 to his 1998 campaign for supervisor. Members of the family have spent more than $362,000 supporting his current gubernatorial bid.
A spokesman for the Gettys did not respond to a request for comment.
Through his friendship and business partnership with Gordon and Ann Getty’s son Billy, Newsom was at the center of the social scene led by the younger generation of San Francisco’s wealthy families. Those relationships would form the foundation of his life in politics.
“These kids had all grown up together, or played sports or gone to school together or later dated,” said Catherine Bigelow, a longtime San Francisco society writer. “In the early ’90s [they] didn’t want to go to the parties their parents were going to. Billy and Gavin opened a wine shop and restaurant when they took over the Balboa Café, creating this really cool scene.”
This was San Francisco before the tech boom and before social media. The Balboa Café, a Marina standard that Billy Getty and Newsom bought and updated, was described by the New York Times in 1998 as “a glittering nexus for Gen-X San Franciscans with social and political connections.”
That year, Newsom ran his first campaign: a bid to hold on to a supervisor seat, which then-Mayor Willie Brown had appointed him to fill. At the time, the Chronicle wrote that Brown valued Newsom’s “easy familiarity with San Francisco’s upper crust.”
One check in 1998 came from Doris Fisher, the billionaire clothier who decades earlier founded the Gap in San Francisco with her husband. It was for $500, the most an individual could give, according to city law. An attempt to reach Doris Fisher through the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund was unsuccessful.
Newsom raised a little more than $55,000 and won a full term.
Running unopposed for the same seat in 2000, Newsom continued to court influential donors. Billionaire Bay Area real estate broker George Marcus and his wife, Judy, gave $500 donations to Newsom in 2000. They’ve given in tandem to his campaigns ever since.
A few years later, Newsom raised $4 million in his first mayoral campaign, helped by the same famous families.
The bid drew donations from 15 different members of the Pritzker family, descendants of the founders of the Hyatt Hotel chain. For Lisa and husband John Pritzker, who moved away from his Chicago-based family to become a prominent San Francisco investor and philanthropist, the contributions were part of a long tradition of giving to Newsom. A spokesperson for John and Lisa Pritzker said they were unavailable for comment.
The money went toward a flood of last-minute phone calls and mailers in a race that polls deemed too close to call on election day. Newsom, then 36, defeated fellow Supervisor Matt Gonzalez by a slim margin to become the city’s youngest mayor in a century. Soon after he was sworn in, he drew national headlines by ordering the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
More than a dozen members of the Swig family also cut checks to Newsom during his first mayoral campaign. The family ran the iconic Fairmont Hotel, which was built atop the city’s Nob Hill in the 1930s, then expanded from a single luxury hotel into a worldwide chain.
Rick Swig, 67, said Newsom made a point of paying respect to the families who are the spine of San Francisco’s history, society and culture, what he called “the city’s DNA.”
“That’s important recognition that I think that we who have been born into those families find important,” said Swig, who has donated more than $30,000 to Newsom’s campaigns.
As the leader of San Francisco’s tourism bureau, Swig tangled with Newsom as mayor. Putting aside their differences, Swig said, they reached an agreement about tourism spending that ultimately benefited the city — the goal of all of the families who have been stalwart Newsom backers, he said.
“These are families that have been around for a long time. They’ve been very dedicated to supporting culture, supporting social causes and also putting their money where their mouths are, and keeping their businesses in San Francisco through the good times and the bad times,” Swig said. “There are guys in Washington who make fun of San Francisco values, but really San Francisco values are those that find their core in the families that have been around 75 to 150 years, who have supported everything ... good about San Francisco — social, political and business. And Gavin recognizes that, appreciates that and respects that.”
Susie Tompkins Buell, the co-founder of clothing brand Esprit and outdoor retailer North Face, remembered Newsom as a young man.
“He was the boy about town. Everybody wanted to date him,” she said, recalling that one of her daughters was in a relationship with Newsom in the 1990s. “He was the smartest, the best-looking. He went through a cocky stage, and then an arrogant stage. Now he’s in a total serving stage. He paid his dues, I’ll tell you.”
Tompkins Buell said that while she always believed Newsom was charismatic and bright, she watched him mature as an elected official, husband and father.
“I’ve known him socially for a long time, but then when he was mayor, I observed a very evolving person as he handled his problems and grew into his job,” she said.
Tompkins Buell and her family have contributed more than $110,000 to Newsom’s political endeavors over the years, appreciative of his environmental and social policies, such as his efforts to redirect the city’s cash payments to San Francisco’s homeless to housing and services.
“I’ve watched him closely and I was very, very impressed by the quality of his visceral understanding of the problems we have,” she said.
Tompkins Buell is a confidante of Hillary Clinton who has spent millions of dollars backing Democratic candidates and causes. But Newsom’s support among San Francisco’s elite crosses party lines.
“We’re one of the few long-term, old-school Republican families in the city. This says a lot about Gavin, that he gets our votes, too, because we’re looking at 80 years of Republicanism,” said filmmaker Todd Traina, son of the late shipping magnate John Traina and philanthropist Dede Buchanan Wilsey. His brother Trevor, also a Newsom donor, is Trump’s ambassador to Austria.
Altogether, 10 members of the Traina family have given more than a quarter-million dollars to Newsom’s campaigns.
“We all separately backed him and we never internally talked about it,” Traina said, noting that he appreciated Newsom adding a businessman’s perspective to the Board of Supervisors. “It wasn’t that we said we were making a family decision. It was more that we just all agreed that we liked him and we liked what he stood for.”
He added that his ties to Newsom go back to their time as teenagers, when Newsom attended Redwood High School in Marin County and Traina attended University High School in San Francisco.
“We were sports rivals and we had the same group of friends, and he just really had a winning personality and was very likable,” Traina said. “He was very similar to the way he is now — spunky, bright, charming, he lit up a room. I wouldn’t have known at the time he had a definite interest in politics, but he has always had the same personality.”
The Traina family roots go back to shipping magnate John Traina, who was married to Dede Buchanan and then romance novelist Danielle Steel. Buchanan, whose great-grandfather founded Dow Chemical, later married real estate magnate Alfred Wilsey. She remains a major philanthropic force in the city, notably raising more than $200 million to rebuild the earthquake-damaged De Young Museum.
“We deeply love the city and we love the traditions of the city, and we were brought up to be charitable and to understand the significant importance of giving back,” Todd Traina said.
Richard Guggenhime, a prominent San Francisco attorney who provides financial advice to wealthy families, has spent four decades working for various civic boards. Currently on the city’s airport commission, a position to which Newsom first appointed him, Guggenhime has given Newsom more than $30,000 in his bid to become governor. In 1998, his wife, Judy, now chairwoman of the San Francisco General Hospital foundation board, gave Newsom $250 to help kickstart his supervisor campaign.
Richard Guggenhime did not respond to a request for comment.
Roberts, the Chronicle’s former managing editor, said the role of San Francisco’s most prominent families in public life has shifted over the years. They have largely stopped seeking public seats, but still try to control the levers of power.
The longtime support for Newsom underscores that point.
“They phased out of any public visibility. But behind the scenes, they were still the ruling class,” Roberts said.
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