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Newsom eyes return to spotlight as California governor

October 6, 2018
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FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2018, file photo California gubernatorial candidate. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, stands on a chair as he addresses supporters, during a stop in Modesto, Calif. California's race for governor pits Newsom, a Democrat and former San Francisco mayor, against Republican businessman John Cox. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — For eight years, Democrat Gavin Newsom bided his time as California’s lieutenant governor, a job with little responsibility and little interest to him. He was so eager to start the next phase of his political life that within three months of winning a second term in 2014 he announced his candidacy for governor.

Now he’s a heavy favorite to defeat Republican John Cox in November and become California’s top elected official. And already questions are coming about what many believe is his ultimate goal: president.

Newsom says he’s not considering that possibility. Yet few believe him, he acknowledges, not even his friends. They’ve seen him as presidential timber since he was a high school student wearing a suit and tie to school.

With perfect hair, sparkling teeth, deep-pocketed supporters and a meteoric rise to national prominence, Newsom always seems headed for something bigger. Right now, he insists, that’s limited to being governor of the nation’s most populous state.

“I have no interest in anything to do with any of that,” the former San Francisco mayor said of a run for president. “I mean, I don’t know how else to say it. It’s just anathema to anything I’m interested in in life.”

Newsom relishes the idea of replacing Trump administration foil Jerry Brown as governor and being the point for California’s resistance to the president. Left unsaid is that perch leaves him perfectly situated to create a more appealing national profile for Democrats should he decide the White House no longer is anathema.

Riding in the back of his campaign bus through the Central Valley recently, Newsom went over his life story and pushed back on the persistent narrative that’s dogged him since the start of his political career — that he had a privileged upbringing and rode the coattails of his father’s wealthy and connected friends to political success.

He doesn’t deny his father’s friends are wealthy and connected. Bill Newsom was close to Gordon Getty, who inherited a multi-billion-dollar oil fortune, and was lifelong friends with Brown, who also was governor during Newsom’s youth. Getty invested in Newsom’s first business.

Cox has seized on the narrative to paint Newsom as out of touch and opportunistic.

But Newsom, about to turn 51, insists that ignores his struggles as a child with dyslexia raised by a mother who held multiple jobs and moved all the time, and a father who, despite his connections, faced constant financial pressures. His parents separated when Newsom was young.

“I grew up very differently,” he said. “Everybody thinks I was born at 18 or 20.”

He was privileged to know the Gettys, he said, and to get experiences he’d never otherwise have, like foreign vacations they paid for as a teenager. But it wasn’t his whole reality.

“Going on vacation once a year was not my life 360 of the other days,” he said. “My life was working. Mom crying at night because she’s struggling and stressed out.”

With help from Getty and, he said, 12 other investors, Newsom was in his 20s when he opened his first business, a San Francisco wine store called PlumpJack. The PlumpJack portfolio would grow to include boutique hotels, wineries, bars and restaurants mostly in Northern California. Newsom has largely stepped away from the business and turned over management to his younger sister, Hilary.

Newsom said he hasn’t decided how he’d build a separation between his businesses and his role as governor. He said he’ll fully step away from all decision-making but won’t sell his interests.

California Democratic power broker Willie Brown, then San Francisco’s mayor, gave Newsom his first political job when he appointed him to the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission and later, at the urging of longtime local Democratic lawmaker and operative John Burton, to a vacancy on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Burton and Newsom’s father were childhood friends.

“I thought that he’d serve the city quite well,” Burton said. “And life’s proven I’m a prophet.”

At 36, Newsom was San Francisco’s youngest mayor in a century when just three months into his term he ordered marriage licenses be granted to same-sex partners, a move that immediately thrust him into the national spotlight.

He was credited with advancing the civil rights of gays and lesbians more than a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide. But he also was faulted by many Democrats for foisting the issue into the 2004 presidential campaign, in which Republican George W. Bush was re-elected, long before same-sex unions were widely accepted outside liberal coastal enclaves.

Thousands of couples were married in San Francisco before the state Supreme Court shut it down.

Now, the decision is central to his pitch to voters — that he has the courage to do the right thing, no matter the consequences.

As mayor, he also was known for his homelessness and health care initiatives, and for scandals in his personal life.

His “Care Not Cash” program reduced cash assistance for people living on the streets and replaced it with housing and services. “Healthy San Francisco” provides basic health care to everyone in the city, even those living in the country illegally, funded largely by businesses and the city’s general fund.

But he had a sometimes rocky relationship with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. His ambitious pledge to end homelessness never came to fruition and that problem now is more pronounced than ever.

After his glamorous marriage to prosecutor-turned-Court TV personality Kimberly Guilfoyle ended in divorce, it came to light he’d had an affair with an aide who, at the time, was married to Newsom’s campaign manager and close friend. In his current race, he says he’s been open and honest about the episode and learned from it.

Guilfoyle went on to work for Fox News and now is dating Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son. Newsom married Jennifer Siebel, an actress and filmmaker whose work has focused, among other things, on gender stereotypes. They have four children.

Newsom has focused his campaign on opposition to Trump. He supports a state ballot issue to rescind a gas tax increase earmarked to improve infrastructure. Cox has made the repeal a focus of his campaign.

Newsom also has pledged to build 3.5 million housing units by 2025 to provide more options for poor and middle-class families, a promise many experts find overly ambitious, and to extend health coverage to the uninsured, including immigrants living in the country illegally.

On the campaign trail, Newsom memorizes his speeches and all the facts and figures that go in them, a necessity because of dyslexia, a disorder that makes it difficult to read and comprehend written words.

“I just have to quadruple prepare, which is just not easy,” Newsom said, then added: “But look, I’m only here because I do all this.”

During his recent bus tour, he demonstrated the laborious coping mechanism he’s developed to retain what he reads. He underlines important information, then goes back and rewrites key points in his own hand. He dates the page and stores them in binders separated by subject matter.

“You will never find my fifth-grade teacher (to) say, ‘I always knew he was going to be governor,’” he joked. “There’s no teacher in my life — they’re all just sitting here going, ‘How the hell did that happen?’”

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