A March 15 Style article about the mayor of San Francisco gave an incorrect name for the organization of which Gary Bauer is president. It is American Values. (Published 3/18/04)
Before Gavin Newsom opened the doors of City Hall to same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses, the young mayor with the movie star smile made a few discreet cell phone calls to his elders.
Almost to a person, Newsom says, his kitchen cabinet of old-line liberal Bay Area Democrats like Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein warned the new mayor that he was committing political hara-kiri.
"Few folks said this is great politics," Newsom recalls. "Quite the contrary. Everyone was warning me: It's the right thing to do, but you don't need to do it. Why do you want to do it? Why? It was surprising how many people said that."
In the four weeks since Newsom wed the first same-sex couple and sparked "the wildfire" of gay marriage (as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist put it), his opponents have labeled him a "rogue mayor." Members of his own family said he'd gone too far. Gary Bauer, president of the group Preservation of American Values, called him "out of control." President Bush denounced Newsom's actions as "troubling" and said such civic meddling made it necessary for the nation to amend the Constitution to protect the sanctity and tradition of marriage.
Newsom's popularity in San Francisco has only soared. "His actions put him in the pantheon of civil rights trailblazers." This is Ross Mirkarimi, a veteran Green Party strategist, talking. Just a few months ago, Mirkarimi was working round-the-clock for Newsom's mayoral opponent. Now, it's only love. "He's done something marvelous and he's made us proud," Mirkarimi says.
By the time the California Supreme Court finally issued an order Thursday temporarily barring same-sex marriages in San Francisco, the city had granted licenses to 4,161 couples.
Newsom's opponents have declared victory, but the mayor says the issue is now where he wants it -- in front of the state's courts. It appears that Newsom's 15 minutes in the national spotlight just got extended.
A Life Outside Politics
The cameras love Newsom and Newsom loves them back. He is 36, basketball tall and as handsome as a page torn from a glossy magazine. His teeth are laser bright. He combs his thick dark hair back with styling gel.
"A classic man, like a movie star from the old days, like a Clark Gable or a John Kennedy," sighs Edgardo Chacon, his hairdresser for the last 10 years.
Does Chacon mean the late JFK or the late John Jr.? "Take your pick," Chacon says. "My female clients just love him. He's as beautiful on the inside as he is on the outside."
The new mayor claims that his life, unlike those of other career politicians, was pretty sweet before he became mayor -- and so he says he is not worrying about running for the Senate or governor.
"It's inevitable. It's one the few certainties in politics. Once you get elected, all of a sudden things change, you're more cautious, you play to the margins, you start explaining away things," Newsom says.
He is sitting in shirt sleeves recently at his big desk in the wood-paneled offices inside the city's gloriously restored City Hall, with its soaring rotunda reminiscent of the nation's Capitol. He was just out badgering the city staff about homeless outreach activities.
On the credenza behind him, Newsom, who suffered from dyslexia as a boy, has a pile of prominently displayed titles. His staffers say the books are not props.
Included in the stack: "Reflections of a Radical Moderate," by Elliot L. Richardson, who resigned as President Nixon's attorney general rather than fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. There's also a copy of "Against the Gods" by Peter Bernstein, a tome that examines the history of risk, from Greek gambling to chaos theory.
Interesting choices. "I think in my party, the Democratic Party, we've gotten cautious, we've gotten away from traditions of the party and core values," the mayor says. "We need to take risks and we need to risk our own careers and I'm happy to risk my tenure in elected office because that is hardly who I am as a person. I have a life outside of politics."
That is true. The new mayor is not only handsome, he is rich. He and his wife just sold their six-bedroom Pacific Heights mansion because it lacked privacy and are now looking for another home.
When he assumed leadership of the city, Newsom also had to sell his interests in a local restaurant, a cafe and a wine store, as the San Francisco charter requires. However, his company, PlumpJack Management Group, still owns a ski resort on the slopes of Squaw Valley and a 53-acre vineyard in Napa that produces a cabernet sauvignon that Robert Parker Jr. of the Wine Advocate called "a powerhouse red with great balance and equilibrium." The cheap stuff retails for $56 a bottle.
His friend, his lifelong benefactor and the money behind his business investments is none other than Gordon P. Getty, the opera composer and billionaire son of J. Paul Getty.
A charmed life? Consider that for a while, Newsom dated Jewel, the singer.
He is now married to a woman who, inevitably, is described in the media as "a former lingerie model."
Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, 34, is also a former deputy district attorney who prosecuted the infamous 2002 San Francisco dog-mauling case that sent a husband and wife to prison after their presa canario dogs killed a beloved lacrosse coach. Kimberly is now an anchor on Court TV and a legal commentator for CNN.
The Newsoms are bicoastal. The first lady of San Francisco spends the week in New York and flies home for the weekend.
A Hero Inside the City Limits
Political pollster David Binder said his recent surveys in San Francisco show overwhelming support for gay marriage and for Newsom, whose approval ratings just hit 69 percent -- "an astronomical figure in highly fractious and contentious San Francisco," says Newsom's former campaign manager Eric Jaye.
Binder is not sure the issue helps Newsom outside the Bay Area, however. "He has made some political enemies and nationwide public opinion is against him," Binder says.
But notice how everyone is already thinking beyond San Francisco. Newsom has been in office two months, but everyone assumes he has the ambition for statewide or national office. He has shot to the top of the list of up-and-coming Democrats under 40.
Within the San Francisco city limits at least, Newsom is now coming across as a bold crusader for equality -- while egging on President Bush, calling the White House opposition to same-sex marriage "cowardly" and "shameful."
From the outset, Newsom says, he knew the city would not be able to indefinitely marry gay couples. The mayor assumed the city would perform a few same-sex ceremonies -- as an act of protest -- and then get shut down by a judge. "I never imagined it would take weeks," Newsom says.
The California Supreme Court has narrowly focused its attention on whether the San Francisco mayor exceeded his authority by ignoring state statutes that define marriage as limited to heterosexual couples. On this, legal experts suggest that Newsom will likely lose.
But the city immediately filed a lawsuit that will work its way through the lower courts on the issue that Newsom says is the only one that really matters -- the mayor's contention that denying marital rights to same-sex couples is discriminatory and violates the equal-rights protections outlined in both the California and U.S. constitutions.
"I believe confidently that when we get to the constitutional question," Newsom said at a news conference Thursday, "I will prevail."
Note the singular pronoun.
"The mayor has just surprised us all," says Tom Ammiano, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Ammiano says he thinks Newsom's circle has been hyping, a bit, the political courage it took to grant gay marriages licenses in a city filled with same-sex couples.
"It was actually rather astute," says Ammiano, himself a gay man and gay rights crusader. "He benefits politically. This buys him a lot of goodwill. He preempts a progressive cause. He puts himself in a national spotlight."
During a bitterly fought mayor's race, Newsom was excoriated by the opposition as a spoiled rich kid out of his depth. The left wing of his own party in San Francisco had dubbed Newsom a stealth Republican.
His opponent in the tight runoff election, fellow Board of Supervisors member Matt Gonzalez, was a poet, a punk-rock bass player, a former public defender and a member of the Green Party. Newsom was the candidate of the old-line liberal-to-moderate downtown Democrats, the unions, the Asian American community and the homeowners on the city's less trendy west side.
It was the renters vs. the landlords -- and it was as personal a campaign as San Francisco has seen in a generation -- with almost all the venom directed at Newsom. When he took office -- following the eight-year reign of Mayor Willie Brown -- many people here expected Newsom to be a pothole-filling Chamber of Commerce centrist -- a pretty boy, but a bit dull, like Al Gore.
Though Gonzalez was portrayed as the radical outsider and Newsom the blue-blooded insider, the comparison always felt off-key. It was Gonzalez, after all, who was the son of a Texas tobacco executive, who went to Columbia and Stanford. Newsom was raised by a single mom who once worked simultaneously as a waitress, secretary and bookkeeper.
But even this is misleading.
'He Does What's Right'
Gavin Newsom's father agreed to meet for an interview at the Balboa Cafe, down in the old "Bermuda Triangle" in the Marina district, to explain his son.
Many, many years ago, the Balboa was a rough-and-tumble saloon. Today it is a pricey watering hole for the city's elite, attended by barkeeps wearing white jackets. It is also Gavin Newsom's haunt. He owned it until a few weeks ago, when he was required to sell off his interests in the Balboa and his PlumpJack Cafe next door. He's still seen in the places a few nights a week. Both serve his wine.
William A. Newsom III is 70 years old and was recently slowed by heart surgery ("I apologize if I sound like I'm speaking Greek," he says), but he takes a reporter's elbow and sits him down. The family, he begins, is Irish Catholic Democrat, fourth-generation San Francisco.
"That's why the stuff about Gavin being a secret Republican during the campaign drove us all nuts," the elder Newsom says.
Gavin's forebears immigrated from County Sligo in Ireland. His grandfather was a successful building contractor who worked on behalf of the presidential campaigns of Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson, as well as Pat Brown's run for governor of California. William Newsom studied law and was later appointed first as state court judge and later as an appellate judge by Pat Brown's son Jerry Brown when he became governor.
But the relationship that has mattered most is William Newsom's lifelong friendship with and service to the Getty family.
The senior Newsom attended high school, St. Ignatius prep in San Francisco, with the sons of J. Paul Getty -- Gordon and Paul.
"Gordon Getty grew up with my family," William Newsom recalls. Gordon's own father was distant, miserly and often in Europe. Young Gordon was particularly close to William Newsom's father, who acted as a kind of surrogate parent.
During a long career, and continuing today, William Newsom serves as an intimate adviser and manager of Gordon Getty's vast holdings and family trusts, valued in excess of $2 billion. He counseled on investments, charitable and political giving, and helped steer the family through divorce and tragedy. (William Newsom was tasked with helping to negotiate the 1973 release of kidnapped heir John Paul Getty III in Italy, the one who had his ear cut off by his assailants when his grandfather didn't want to pay any ransom.)
When Gavin was young, he joined his father and the Gettys on family vacations -- safaris in Africa and trips to Alaska. But William Newsom explains that though Gavin was often surrounded by the Gettys' wealth and luxury, the Newsom family itself was of much more modest means. "I was a judge living on a judge's salary," he says. (It all sounds a bit like Nick living in the cottage of the Great Gatsby's estate.) William Newsom and his wife, Tess, divorced when Gavin and his sister, Hilary, were quite young. Neither parent remarried and the family reportedly stayed close until Tess's recent death.
"Gavin was a trouble-free kid," William Newsom says. "He made good grades. He didn't do drugs." He worked as a busboy and had a paper route -- when he wasn't going on safaris to Africa.
Gavin attended Redwood High School in Marin County, where he was classmates with Sen. Barbara Boxer's kids. He played basketball and was an outstanding baseball pitcher. For college, it was Santa Clara University.
When Gavin began his career as a wine merchant and restaurateur, his partner was Bill Getty, Gordon's son, and it was Gordon Getty who provided the loans and investments that helped the company get on its feet.
During the mayor's race, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an investigative piece that concluded that of Gavin Newsom's 11 enterprises (cafe, resort, sports store, vineyard, etc.), the Gettys had invested in 10. The Gettys also generously provided help in the form of loans and gifts for Newsom's home and his wedding.
When Gavin got the bug for politics, his father's friends came in handy again. William Newsom was also a lifelong friend of John Burton, the leader of the state Senate in Sacramento. Burton had Mayor Willie Brown's ear, and Brown appointed Newsom first to a city commission overseeing traffic and parking, and then to an empty seat on the Board of Supervisors. Newsom went on to be elected to the board three times before his run for mayor.
When Brown first appointed Newsom to the Board of Supervisors, the joke around town was that it was a diversity hire -- the board needed a straight white male.
William Newsom says that his son "is a tough guy, he does what's right," but he adds that the mayoral race and the personal hits accusing him of being a lightweight and a pawn of power brokers like the Gettys took a toll on Gavin Newsom.
"It hurt," the father says. "He told me it hurt. Maybe that's why he is trying so hard now. Good. Bad. Whatever people think. He won't fail for lack of trying."
'This One Is Black and White'
It has been widely reported that Newsom decided "to put a human face" on gay marriage after attending Bush's State of the Union address on Jan. 20, in which the president spoke against same-sex unions, which were then in the news in Massachusetts.
"I always see both sides," Newsom says. "One of my problems is that I can always argue the other side, but on this one I can't. Because this one is black and white. It's discriminatory, period."
That night Newsom called his chief of staff, Steve Kava, who was very upset by the speech. Kava had listened to the speech with his gay partner of 10 years; they have two adopted children. "I just thought it was a personal attack on us as people," Kava says. When he spoke with his boss, "I was still a little emotional about it."
In the days that followed, thousands of same-sex couples packed the San Francisco City Hall to be married. The validity of their marriage licenses is now unknown, and will be decided by the courts. Newsom performed three ceremonies himself. One of them was the marriage of his chief of staff.