A man who has been at the forefront of California politics for a quarter century remains unknown to much of the state — Never mastered retail politics — Establishment figure riddled with self-inflicted errors — Polls show that the more people hear from him, the less they approve of him
If there were a political supermarket, California Governor Gavin Newsom would be in the generics section. He has figured prominently in the state’s political class for a quarter century, since San Francisco mayor Willie Brown appointed him to the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission in 1996 and to a vacant Supervisor position a year later. Yet he remains virtually unknown to the vast majority of people in the state – not his name and face, of course, which are ubiquitous, but his convictions and politics, his vision. No one really knows what he stands for or believes in. Ask ten people and you’ll get ten incompatible answers. He’s a “business-friendly moderate” and a “progressive change maker,” which means he is neither and nothing. He is, literally, just a politician.
Politicians fall into one of two general categories, technocrats and evangelists. The former gain voters’ confidence through their (at least apparent) mastery of legislative and policy minutiae, a zest for rolling up their sleeves and spending long hours in the law library. Think Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. Evangelicals lead from the heart with an alloy of personal conviction and near-religious fervor. The Ronald Reagans and Bill Clintons of the world.
Again, Newsom is neither. Despite his infamously tedious PowerPoint based speeches he’s no wonk, and he lacks the natural empathy that makes someone like Barack Obama come off as downright magical in certain settings. There’s a reason a San Francisco Chronicle columnist once referred to the former president as a “lightworker.” No one would tag Newsom with that appellation. He’s just there, for no other reason than that he has been for so long. He isn’t a leader, he’s part of the furniture. And in 2021 a lot of Californians want more than a handsome demilune in Sacramento.
It’s incongruous to refer to the rich, dashingly handsome chief executive of the world’s fifth largest economy as a wasted opportunity, but Newsom is just that. It’s hard to conjure a more charmed political career. His father, William A. Newsom III, was a state appellate court judge. More importantly, for three decades he was consigliere to the Getty family, in particular J. Paul Getty himself and later his son Gordon. When J. Paul Getty III was kidnapped in Italy in 1973 Judge Newsom was the bag man with the ransom money (delivered after the notoriously miserly J. Paul spent months negotiating the price down as his grandson was tortured, relenting only after the kidnappers cut off and mailed one of his ears to the tycoon, and even then only agreeing to pay an amount he could claim as a tax deduction – it’s worth keeping in mind that these are the sorts of people who formed Gavin’s worldview – and J. Paul certainly would have recognized and approved of his philandering over the years).
Starting when Gavin was a child the judge leveraged his position with the Gettys to craft his son’s business and political fortunes. Starting in middle school Newsom fils accompanied various Getty family members on traditional aristocratic grand tours of Europe, introducing him the cultural and political centers with which a future Establishment leader is expected to be at least conversant. A 2003 story from SF Weekly called “Bringing Up Baby Gavin” is well worth reading, if only for the portrait it paints of the world in which the embattled governor was raised:
Savvy Irish-American operator that he is, the judge continues to answer a reporter’s questions suavely and smoothly over lunch. His back goes up only when he discusses the San Francisco Chronicle‘s recent story detailing Getty loans to his 35-year-old son and Getty investments in Gavin’s “PlumpJack” businesses, including five restaurants, a Napa winery, a Squaw Valley hotel, and two retail clothing stores. The newspaper concluded that of the self-described entrepreneur’s 11 enterprises, Gordon Getty was the lead investor in 10. The article helped reinforce the view of some that the younger Newsom is a silver spooner who has grown wealthy not as a result of his own business moxie, but because of his connection to the ultrarich Gettys.
Suffice it to say, not many 35-year-olds have their own wineries, ski resorts, four star restaurants, and high end clothing boutiques. Judge Newsom’s financial and political savvy paid other dividends, and he wasn’t particularly discreet about the centrality of nepotism-by-proxy in his son’s nascent political and business careers. He boasted that Mayor Brown – one of California’s most legendary political operators in his own right – appointed Gavin to his first two political jobs based on their friendship. “Besides,” he told the Weekly, “they needed a straight white male on the board.”
Indeed, it is difficult to conjure a politician in modern times who ambled such a gilded path to power (soon to be former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo comes to mind, not the most flattering comparison). Along with the Gettys he enjoys the patronage of San Francisco establishment families like the Pritzkers, Fishers, and Trainas. The state and national Democratic parties have spent lavishly to secure his positions. In his first run for mayor of San Francisco the party spent more than $2 million and dispatched everyone from Nancy Pelosi, Jesse Jackson, and Bill Clinton to Bruce Springsteen to campaign on his behalf against a third tier Green Party candidate who at one point employed a “minister of propaganda” called h. brown.
Of course, politicians with abbreviated CVs and extensive financial statements have become commonplace not just in this country but around the world. Figures like Canada’s Justin Trudeau come to mind. However, in Newsom’s case that gilded but sparse resume may be coming back to haunt him.
A career marked by inevitability, invisibility, and unforced errors
Perhaps the fact that he entered politics was via nepotism and not by winning actual elections left an impression on Newsom that he was different, special. Despite his razor thin margin in his first real race against a political nobody, despite the fact that it took the biggest lights in his party and millions in outside spending to carry him across the finish line against that nobody, perhaps in the back of his mind he decided he didn’t really need the pesky voters in the first place. He certainly behaved accordingly.
Newsom quickly ensnared himself in multiple scandals and unforced errors, including an affair with his best friend’s and campaign manager’s wife, another affair with 19-year-old cocktail waitress to whom he was photographed handing a glass of wine at a taxpayer funded event (the girl’s name – you can’t make this stuff up – was Brittanie Mountz), a well-publicized and abbreviated stint in rehab he later claimed he “didn’t need,” and a near complete collapse of his relationship with city workers, especially the police and cable car operators. Local news was filled with stories about San Francisco’s crisis of confidence and downward spiral, with the Chronicle wondering “Where is Mayor McDreamy?” His first term was bereft of substance to the point that the paper observed “Searching ‘Gavin and Newsom and hair’ on Google reveals 86,900 articles. ‘Gavin and Newsom and Muni’ yields just 81,700” (then again that probably says as much about the media as the governor, but still).
As George W. Bush might have said, it was a heck of a first term. Meanwhile the city’s increasingly dystopian poverty, homelessness, addiction, and crime crises spiraled out of control throughout his mayorship even as the tech industry pushed living expenses to mind-numbing levels, presaging the statewide crises that metastasized on his watch as lieutenant governor and governor.
As Lieutenant Governor he was nearly invisible, a fact that has as much to do with the thankless nature of the job as with Newsom himself. Still, for eight years he seemed content to collect his taxpayer paychecks and spend his time building the necessary war chest and machinery to run for governor and, presumably, President. He didn’t make a name for himself, championed no causes, took no risks. It’s a safe bet that no one in California, including Newsom himself, can name a single accomplishment in those years, an unforced error of its own. Everyone knew he was going to run for governor, mostly just because he was there, and he was content to bide his time in the wings.
As Governor, well, choose a scandal de jure: His $30 billion EDD fiasco, his billion dollar deal for Chinese-manufactured coronavirus masks with a company that had been in existence for less than two weeks, his lies about increasing the state’s woeful wildfire prevention and fighting budget as conflagrations engulf the northern part of the state, allegations of another affair with a staffer, his Getty-supported winery receiving nearly a million dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds, and of course the infamous French Laundry incident.
Just this week, with millions of Californians still staring down the barrels of unemployment or reduced hours, decreased government assistance, and fast expiring eviction moratoriums, comes news that Newsom and his wife (beg pardon, “First Partner”) quietly sold their Marin County compound last month in an off-market transaction for a cool $6 million, a $4.5 million profit over barely two years. No word yet on the couple’s charitable donations over that period. At a certain point he’s just rubbing people’s faces in it. The truly sad part is, he doesn’t seem to realize it.
Lashing out at the wrong people
As the race tightens Newsom’s camp has run increasingly aggressive attack ads against the recall itself, and anyone who might even be possibly thinking about voting “YES.” It’s become all but impossible to avoid TV, radio, and online ads decrying “Trump Republicans” and the “Republican recall.” Last week a radio ad compared supporters of the recall to “January 6 insurrectionists.” This week the ads reached a hysterical pitch, calling the recall a “matter of life and death.”
It is a desperate politician who literally warns his constituents that they could perish if they commit the mortal sin of voting against him.
It’s also a curious tack when you consider that recall organizers working on a shoestring secured more than 2.1 million signatures in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 and a substantial proportion of independents swing liberal. It’s theoretically possible that only Republicans signed the petition (which would require a good proportion of the entire GOP population in the state) but it’s highly unlikely. Moreover, given that even a strong majority of Republicans swiftly condemned the riots in the capitol, it’s a safe bet that “January 6 insurrectionists” aren’t exactly a big cohort driving a recall in California. On the other hand, the ad risks alienating people still on the fence, the way Joe Biden’s “you ain’t Black” remark alienated moderate Black voters.
The administration’s closing strategy is also a perfect emblem of Gavin Newsom’s political career: As Establishment as they come, deaf and dumb to what actual human beings think and feel. That most voters, particularly in California, have moved on from Donald Trump is lost on his camp. The Donald was political gold for Democrats for more than four years, none less than Gavin Newsom. That’s a tough habit to break, and he doesn’t seem any more inclined to go to political rehab than he was to kick the sauce 15 years ago. He and his team seem oblivious to the fact that outside the Sacramento-Bay Area bubble people are far more concerned about wildfires, COVID-19, homelessness, crime, drought, and the state’s overall economic health after 18 months of economic upheaval. All of which are huge problems for Newsom: With the exception of the surprisingly – shockingly, when you think about it – robust economy, which has little to do with him, he earns low marks on the key issues. His margin of error is gone: One more major wildfire, one more hideous crime, one more well-intended but poorly executed COVID-19 mandate, one more let-them-eat-cake moment could well be the tipping point.
All of which helps explain why those increasingly strident attacks are decreasingly effective. Despite outspending recall proponents by a nearly 10-to-1 margin he has slipped in the polls, by a lot. According to the moving average of polls from fivethirtyeight.com, in just the last five weeks the recall swung from an 11% advantage for Newsom to a statistical dead heat. That is not the trend line anyone wants to ride into an election.
The above chart ought to cause cold sweats and fitful nights for his staff. It seems that the more Californians hear from and learn about Gavin Newsom, the less they like him. Many are listening to him for the very first time, and many don’t seem to like what they hear.
At the end of the day, of course, this is California. Democrats have indicated they’re willing to spend half a billion dollars to keep Newsom in the governor’s mansion for another 18 months (fun with math: That works out to almost exactly $1 million per day for the rest of his term, just to keep a warm Democrat in the capitol. Imagine what could be done with that kind of money for, say, the homeless crisis). If for no other reason than cold, hard cash it remains more likely than not that he will survive the September 14 recall election and remain governor of the world’s fifth largest economy.
Yet after 25 years of entitlement and privilege, after the French Laundry “let them eat cake” moment, after innumerable personal and political scandals compared to even a few months ago his position is far less secure. If he does ultimately lose, he will have plenty of time to reflect on what happened.
It will be one tough look in the mirror for the erstwhile Mayor McDreamy, who will have only himself to blame.