The announcement on the information line of the Pacific Palisades Democratic Club one recent day said a lot more than intended.
“Our guest tonight will be San Francisco Mayor Gay-vin Newsom, a candidate for governor,” the voice intoned. Not Gavin, but Gay-vin.
It didn’t really matter whether the woman recording that message slipped or really didn’t know how to pronounce Newsom’s first name.
Either way, it’s pretty clear his chances to win the governor’s office will largely depend on public feelings about the items for which he is best known: his 2004 executive order legalizing same-sex marriages in his city, regardless of state law, his notorious “whether you like it or not” exclamation about such unions. This statement was used as a key element in TV commercials that last year helped pass Proposition 8 and its ban on such marriages.
His words and actions likely will help him in next June’s Democratic primary election, as Democrats – aside from African Americans – voted strongly against Proposition 8. But the issue would surely hurt him in a November runoff against any of the three major Republican hopefuls, because GOP voters went overwhelmingly for the gay marriage ban while independents were split.
“It’s always right to do what’s right,” Newsom intoned the other day before speaking to a mostly-black town hall audience in one of the grittier parts of South Los Angeles. He’s not backing off his support for gay marriage.
But, he insists his “whether you like it or not” quote was taken out of context. “I was talking about how the courts always step in to help minorities, and gays will be the next. In 1967, 70 percent of Americans opposed interracial marriage. If we had let the people decide, do you think you’d have interracial marriage today? These are individual rights we’re talking about, and it’s just not right to say separate but equal is wrong for African Americans, but OK for gays and lesbians.”
He jokes that, “I wonder what my wife would have done if I’d gotten on one knee and proposed to her this way: ‘Will you civil union me?’”
Not too many politicians these days make matters of principle key elements of their standard stump speeches, like the 42-year-old Newsom. This may be part of a strategy of being completely up-front about his beliefs, a necessary piece of his effort to win public trust.
Trust has been an issue for him ever since he was forced in 2006 to admit he had had an affair with the wife of his (former) best friend and campaign manager. “You have to earn people’s trust,” he said. “I didn’t try to hide from what I did or equivocate about it. And the people of San Francisco had the chance in 2007 to vote against me, but they reelected me with a 74 percent margin. They know me best.”
Newsom’s main rival on the Democratic side next year will likely be state Attorney General Jerry Brown, a former two-term governor in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Newsom rarely says much about Brown, but his chief campaign adviser, Garry South, speaks right up. “A retread,” he calls Brown. “When you put up one of those, it does not work.” He cites the example of Walter Mondale, the former vice president who was once the most popular politician in the history of his home state of Minnesota. When Mondale got the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination there after incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone’s plane crashed in 2002, he lost.
“They put up a retread,” South said, “and they paid the price. Brown (who will be 72 by next year’s primary) has an old frame of reference. Anyone who voted for him the last time he ran for governor in 1978 would be at least 50 years old next year.”
Newsom doesn’t touch that subject, knowing he would quickly be labeled ageist, and also aware that some of Brown’s longtime positions are now widely accepted. Brown’s environmental themes of the ‘70s, in fact, sound a lot like what Newsom hypes today, and claims what’s happened lately in San Francisco is the way of the future for all of California.
That includes subsidized health insurance for everyone in the city, subsidized solar energy installations, the promise of college expenses for all high school graduates who qualify, and an ability to bring in a balanced budget, on time and in difficult times.
“Everything we’ve done in San Francisco can be scaled up,” he says.
He gets some heat at home for taking credit for other people’s ideas, but responds, “I always talk about what we’ve done in San Francisco, not what I’ve done.”
His energetic presentations invariably draw positive responses from Democratic audiences. But so far, he’s been preaching to his own choir. One test will come when Brown formally enters the race and legitimately takes credit for many ideas Newsom likes to pitch. Another may come later, if he wins the Democratic nomination and runs up against a Republican with very different ideas.