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Jennifer Siebel Newsom will be California’s ‘first partner.’ Her agenda is cultural change

Jennifer Siebel Newsom will be California’s ‘first partner.’ Her agenda is cultural change
Jennifer Siebel Newsom takes the stage to introduce her husband, Gavin Newsom, as the next governor of California, on election night. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

It was Gavin’s big moment. But first it was Jennifer’s.

An hour after her husband was elected California’s next governor, Jennifer Siebel Newsom took the stage alone at his Los Angeles victory party to extol his win, and welcome — in English and Spanish — all Californians to their extended family.

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It’s not uncommon for a political spouse to play election-night emcee. Less common was the message staring back at her on the electric-pink T-shirts of a cluster of audience members: WE LOVE GAVIN + JEN.

California’s first couple now finds themselves navigating notoriously thorny territory: political spouses who share double billing. The Bill and Hillary Clinton era showed how “two for the price of one” could simultaneously evoke a power couple’s combination of talents and a presumptuous elevation of an unelected wife.

And it gets even thornier. Siebel Newsom, who has built her public persona as a documentary filmmaker and advocate focusing on gender relations, is becoming California’s first lady at the moment gender politics in the country is at its most raw and combustible, after #MeToo and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

“People look at what you’re doing from a political lens,” Maria Shriver said of the first lady post, which she held from 2003 until 2011. “It’s underestimated what a great job it is, how much you can do — and also that it’s tricky.”

Siebel Newsom doesn’t project much nervousness about the high-wire act that awaits her. She looks forward to seizing the platform and to making California the incubator of cultural change she has preached for years.

“We obviously have a long ways to go,” she said, sitting in Newsom’s campaign bus during the final days of the race. “We have tremendous inequality. But because Gavin wants to pri-or-i-tize that” — her over-enunciation echoing her husband’s speaking style — “and I’m in the process of finishing a film that I think shows a path forward … to right the wrongs of the past and shift toward a more equitable society, I really think we could actually do that here in California.

“It’s a matter of priorities and a matter of political will. And I think we will have that in California with Gavin’s leadership and our partnership.”

Then she laughed, with the satisfaction of a filmmaker recognizing a good soundbite when she hears it.

“That sounded good!”

Siebel Newsom, 44, is a California native, one of five daughters in an affluent, politically conservative family from Marin County. She was a high achiever as a youth: academics (a bachelor’s degree and master’s of business administration from Stanford), athletics (a nationally competitive soccer player) and altruism (international aid work in Africa and Latin America).

And acting, which she decided to pursue full time after business school. But she found herself typecast in Hollywood as the trophy wife or the icy Hitchcock blond. Her age — a geriatric 28 — and her education were seen as a detriment, which led her to produce and eventually make her own films with a focus on gender dynamics in society.

Now Siebel Newsom has two under her belt — “Miss Representation,” which explores the over-sexualization of women by the media, and “The Mask You Live In,” which looks at the corrosive social pressures that boys face. A third film, “The Great American Lie,” a study of economic immobility through the lens of gender, is slated to debut in January.

She also runs a nonprofit group that aims to use films and social media to combat gender stereotypes.

“She's a really well-respected filmmaker in her own right. ... She was long into gender issues before it was trending. … She's a mom, she’s a political spouse,” said Amy Ziering, a documentarian whose films Siebel Newsom helped produce. “One alone would be a full-time job.”

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That Siebel Newsom is assuming such a high-profile political role at a tumultuous moment in gender relations is kismet, say those closest to her.

Newsom, who has appeared in all of his wife’s films and has incorporated “toxic masculinity” into his political vocabulary, acknowledged that the #MeToo reckoning had stirred up raw emotions.

“It’s been long overdue, and we’re all expressing ourselves in a way that a decade ago we weren’t. So I think it’s uncomfortable for many,” he said, adding that his wife had been wrestling with the topic for years. “The way she's presenting this debate is in a much safer place because she doesn’t look through the prism of politics and who’s to blame. It’s much more focused on what to do.”

But cultural change can be messy and divisive, particularly when questioning long-held norms. Feminists, from the suffragettes of the early 20th century to the #MeToo leaders of today, have often been accused of trying to tear the genders apart and of undermining traditional values.

“Calling men ‘toxic’ is both wrong and counterproductive,” said Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who wrote a critique of “The Mask You Live In” when it was released. “Ms. Newsom should promote gender peace — not war.”

Siebel Newsom was a constant and distinctive presence on the campaign trail. Upbeat and assertively stylish, she’s a confident public speaker and a cheerful wrangler of her four children.

There is also an undercurrent of vulnerability that at times rises to the surface, as it did on one October afternoon, when in a claustrophobic trailer in Stockton she appeared to be flattened by anguish.

The trailer housed an immersive exhibit on child abuse, each room staged as an everyday interior where mistreatment occurred. She wandered from room to room, listening on an iPod to children agonizingly detailing their stories. One moment she leaned against a wall for support, in another she flapped her hands in front of her face to dry tears. At one point, she moaned in distress.

Still, Siebel Newsom has spent much of her time exploring pain. Her films and public statements focus heavily on trauma, that of her subjects as well as her own, including abuse she says she suffered from a childhood coach and Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

“Self-flagellation,” she joked later when explaining her willingness to explore such emotionally charged territory. She then went quiet in contemplation, before choosing her words carefully.

“I feel like I’ve been given so much privilege. One of those privileges was there was an accident. I lost my older sister,” she said, trailing off after that brief allusion to the death of her sister Stacey, 8, in a golf cart accident.

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Collecting herself with a tissue and damp eyes, she continued: “I feel like it’s my responsibility to stand up for the underdog.”

When the emotional labor of her work gets to be too much, she goes “inward,” she said, turning to her family, their pets and her closest girlfriends.

That willingness to be publicly vulnerable is an asset, her husband said.

“It takes someone who is willing to put themselves out there in that space to bring people in, to invite people into a conversation,” Newsom said. “And that’s why I think she has the capacity to do more than many others that are unwilling to do that.”

Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, in San Francisco during a bus tour kickoff of his campaign for governor.
Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, in San Francisco during a bus tour kickoff of his campaign for governor. (Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

The Newsoms have been married since 2008, but Siebel Newsom’s first political role started two years before that, when she was “first girlfriend” to the then-mayor of San Francisco.

Months into their courtship, news broke that Newsom had previously had an affair with Ruby Rippey-Tourk, his onetime appointments secretary, who was also his campaign manager’s wife, while he was separated from his first wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle.

Siebel Newsom was a staunch defender — perhaps too staunch, laying the blame on Rippey-Tourk in public comments. After a minor brouhaha in the local press, she quickly issued an apology.

“It was a rocky start. All of a sudden, she was thrust into the spotlight,” said Nathan Ballard, who was Newsom’s press secretary at the time. “There was nothing in her life that could prepare her for this intense scrutiny.”

Being in the glare of politics has left its scars.

“I’m a very trusting person. I suppose you learn that you can’t be so trusting,” she said. “I definitely am more wary.”

Now she’ll take on her newest political role: “first partner,” a term she prefers over “first lady” — she sees it as more inclusive. But exactly what a first partnership looks like is to be determined.

Recent governor’s wives have taken different approaches to the role. Shriver, whom Siebel Newsom considers a role model, built on her well-established public persona as a journalist to champion key initiatives such as revamping the state history museum during then-husband Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure. Anne Gust Brown, in contrast, chose to avoid public campaigns in favor of wielding her influence in private. Not only has she been a trusted political confidant, but she also held the official but unpaid post of special counsel to the governor.

Siebel Newsom is quick to assert she does not consider herself to be her husband’s political equal.

“But,” she added, “I see that we complement and support each other, and I’m obviously a thought partner of his — and the main thought partner.”

Her influence on the governor-elect’s policy agenda, particularly his emphasis on early childhood development, was evident throughout the campaign. His new chief of staff, Ann O’Leary, served for years on the board of Siebel Newsom’s nonprofit, the Representation Project.

For now, Siebel Newsom describes her role in largely amorphous terms.

“The work I do really parallels and complements Gavin’s work,” she said, “because it’s about awakening people’s consciousness, shifting hearts and minds, attitudes and behaviors.”

But that emphasis on sweeping cultural change can be at odds with the incremental, compromising nature of governing.

“In theory, here's the danger of having a first partner who is involved in politics, like Bill and Hillary: One spouse has to do what's possible and the other spouse gets out ahead of the other with what's ideal,” Ballard said. “In Jennifer's case, she has learned where there is any daylight between her and Gavin. She is adept at sidestepping that so he can get things done.”

Still, allies say Siebel Newsom’s most refreshing quality is that she speaks her mind, political politeness be damned. Crystal Strait, chief executive of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, which made the GAVIN + JEN T-shirts, recalled Siebel Newsom joining several prominent male politicians at a recent protest against the Trump administration.

“She called out that there were too many men in office. In front of all these men,” Strait said. “She didn’t worry a reporter would turn to her and say, ‘What about her husband?’ ”

Nor did she seem concerned about condemning Google after the company was reported to have made a $90-million payout to an executive accused of sexual misconduct — a story she brought up unprompted in an interview.

“I’m horrified that any company would spend $90 million to make someone who harassed a woman go away,” she said.

Would she say the same as first lady?

“Absolutely.”

Would there be any hesitation?

“No, never. My poor husband,” she said with a laugh — and an addendum. “Let me clarify that. Gavin’s proud of me using my voice to stand up against injustices and inequities.”

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