Gavin Newsom is a problem. But for whom? Before Democrats overperformed expectations in last year’s midterms, the answer seemed to be Joe Biden. Many saw Newsom as angling for a 2024 presidential run. Hale, handsome, and unabashedly liberal, the California governor cuts an appealing contrast with a politically damaged Biden and a congenitally unpopular Kamala Harris. Now, Biden has beaten the odds and will, barring some unforeseen event, carry his party’s banner into the 2024 election. Yet Newsom continues to reach for the national stage, his aspirations clearly extending beyond Sacramento. What is he up to? What is his worldview? What sort of man is he—and what does he seek?
California’s 40th governor was born in San Francisco on October 10, 1967, the first of two children born to William A. “Bill” Newsom III and his wife, Tessa. The couple had married a year earlier, when Bill was 32 and Tessa 19. They would divorce in 1972, the same year that TCI, a high-flying technology investment firm for which Bill was corporate counsel, went into a tailspin. The family home was far from stable, and Gavin claims that some of his earliest memories are of his parents fighting about money.
Bill’s own father, William A. Newsom II, the son of an Irish immigrant, had come up in the rough-and-tumble world of San Francisco’s mid-century machine politics. A protégé of Boss Bill Malone, who dominated patronage jobs statewide during the postwar period, thanks to his relationship with Harry S. Truman, Newsom II thrived in the highly regulated Bay Area building business. He spent his hard-earned money sending Bill to St. Ignatius (SI), a Jesuit prep school popular with the city’s old-money families.
Newsom II managed to stay afloat as Malone’s star faded, accommodating himself to the rising tide of bourgeois liberalism. Beset by Estes Kefauver’s anticrime crusade, Malone was turfed out of state party leadership in the mid-1950s by brothers Phillip and John Burton, leaders of a new generation of socially progressive liberals that would dominate the state party well into the twenty-first century. Demonstrating his graduation from machine skullduggery to progressive campaigner, Newsom II helped steer Pat Brown’s successful campaigns for district attorney and, later, governor.
While his father was bridging the divide between machine politics and cultural progressivism, Bill climbed the class hierarchy. At SI, Bill met Gordon Getty, son of J. Paul Getty, then the world’s richest man. Gordon would stay at the Newsom house, and the two boys became inseparable. Over the next five decades, they intertwined their families and businesses, creating a launchpad for Gavin’s political career.
Gordon and Bill graduated from SI in 1951, four years ahead of Pat Brown’s son, Jerry. After college and law school, Bill went to work for the Getty family and Getty Oil. Following a stint in Italy, Bill returned to California, met Tessa, and tried to settle down. But at the urging of the Burtons, he ran for state senate in 1968. Bill lost, but his brother-in-law Ron Pelosi, brother of Paul Pelosi, secured a seat on the Board of Supervisors. (Later, Bill would blame his divorce on the strain of campaigning, though the divorce came four years after the race.)
Gordon’s brother Paul, a director at TCI, put Bill on the company board. Bill spent much of 1969 and 1970 touring Europe with SS-officer-turned-CIA-agent-turned-corporate-consultant Otto von Bolschwing, exploiting the latter’s considerable network of continental banking contacts to scare up business. Tessa stayed behind with the kids. But TCI’s grand ambitions never materialized, and after regulators caught some investors making undisclosed syndicated sales of its stock in a dragnet that pulled in then-governor Ronald Reagan’s appointment secretary, investigations effectively killed the company.
Bill managed to avoid the fallout from TCI’s implosion and remained in the good graces of the Gettys. His marriage fared worse. In late 1973, freshly divorced and living with a pet otter named Potter, Bill found himself tasked with the most delicate challenge of his life. John Paul Getty III, Paul’s son, had been kidnapped, tortured, and mutilated by Italian gangsters. The family initially suspected the kidnapping was a prank by the youngest Getty to pry money from his notoriously tightfisted grandfather. But after the ‘Ndrangheta kidnappers mailed one of the young man’s ears to a newspaper, Bill was dispatched to Italy with $3.2 million and graduated from friend to tax fixer to literal bagman.
Getty gratitude aside, Bill needed a stable income. Calls got made, and, almost immediately, brand-new governor Jerry Brown, sworn in that January, appointed Bill to the state bench. A year later, in 1976, J. Paul Getty died, leaving control of the enormous family trust to Gordon, who was then striving to make it as an opera singer and handed off management of the trust to Bill.
Bill Newsom found himself at the intersection of San Francisco’s elite, a vast fortune, and a new generation of liberal leaders dominating Bay Area Democratic politics. San Francisco had always been a hard town—a city of sailors, smugglers, slums, and smut. Hard men like Malone had built it and run it. Now things were different. Younger people were taking the reins of government, ushering in change, and consolidating social progress, as they saw it. Yet no sooner had enlightened oligarchy arrived than the wheels began to come off.
It can be hard to see today, but the new liberal establishment in San Francisco was emphatically not of the counterculture. Individuals, especially indolent rich kids, transited between mainstream society and more radical milieus, having sex and doing drugs. Cultural change broadly elevated new identities, mobilizing new claims for representation. And opposition to the Vietnam War profoundly shaped the politics of the state and nation. But elected officials by and large migrated to the counterculture—they rarely emerged from it.
As a result, San Francisco’s young liberals were, in many ways, as surprised as anyone else when, between 1975 and 1978, the Bay Area was rocked by waves of counterculture-connected violence, all of which threatened to undermine the new liberal project. The upheaval turned Bill Newsom and his confederates from a rising elite into a self-conscious oligarchy.
Much of the turmoil was linked to a peripatetic Communist cult called the People’s Temple. Willie Brown had been in the state assembly for more than a decade when he met Jim Jones, the Temple’s brooding, charismatic leader. Fiercely intelligent and fanatically hardworking, Brown had left rural East Texas after high school, worked his way through college and up the ranks of the Young Democrats, and eventually befriended John Burton. Jones, himself a political refugee of sorts from rural Indiana, worked Brown hard as his guide to the city’s Democratic establishment. Soon, Jones was meeting with everyone from the governor to First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
Jones got access because he could deploy thousands of his fanatical followers to get-out-the-vote operations. In 1975, the Temple’s mobilization efforts buoyed San Francisco politician George Moscone’s mayoral candidacy. Moscone won a close race and credited Jones with his victory. His opponents accused Temple members of stuffing ballot boxes. Newly elected district attorney Joseph Freitas, a close Moscone ally, appointed a special investigatory committee but tapped a senior member of the Temple to run it. Jones and his supporters were, unsurprisingly, cleared.
By the time the Temple mobilized to support Harvey Milk’s 1977 supervisor campaign, however, things were coming unglued. In defiance of heavy-handed intimidation efforts, the press had begun reporting on the various abuses perpetrated by Jones and his followers, high-profile members had defected, and alarmingly large numbers of adherents were decamping to Jones’s commune in a remote corner of Guyana. This culminated in Congressman Leo Ryan’s fact-finding mission to Jonestown, his assassination on a nearby airstrip, and the mass murder-suicide of nearly 1,000 cult members. Nine days later, as San Francisco reeled from the Jonestown revelations, former councilman Dan White gunned down Moscone and Milk inside City Hall. A woman named Dianne Feinstein became mayor.
The violence of 1978 slammed the door on a melding of the establishment and the counterculture. Instead, the young liberals in charge of Bay Area Democratic politics locked down the scene. Activists were to be coddled, paid off, and symbolically embraced, drawing on the Bay Area’s new defense-backed technology wealth where necessary. But the actual management of politics and government was to be left in the hands of the narrow stratum of highly educated, well-heeled, and interconnected people who found themselves standing in the wreckage of the 1970s. Radical chic: yes. Radicals in charge: no.
Complicating matters, that year voters passed Proposition 13, a state constitutional amendment that drastically capped the ability of the state legislature to raise property taxes. Instead, California turned to income, excise, and sales taxes to fund—or, more precisely, fail to fund—the ever-expanding budget that special-interest payouts would require. Mid-century California spent big to build big, constructing everything from a vast statewide university system to aqueducts of unprecedented scale and sophistication. Now, California found its fiscal hands tied, with fewer ways to raise money and increasingly particularistic groups demanding it.
The tax revolt against these ambitious spending programs coincided with a creeping antigrowth ideology emerging from the environmental movement. In 1969, the same year Bill Newsom was touring Europe with Otto von Bolschwing, David Brower lost control of the Sierra Club over his hostility to nuclear power. A decade later, Brower’s de-growth attitudes predominated, both within the Sierra Club and the larger establishment mainstream. Bill Newsom, veteran of the world’s largest private oil company, would soon join the organization’s board. The Golden State’s animal faith in a boundless future was starting to fade.
Thus did Gavin Newsom come to political consciousness in a California whose dynamism was yielding to unlimited claims on the state in tandem with structural and cultural mechanisms for imposing austerity. His political career, until very recently, has been characterized by the balancing of these contrary forces.
Gavin Newsom graduated from Santa Clara University in 1989. Severely dyslexic, Newsom speaks often about the early-morning reading routines he learned in school and carried with him through his education. Two years later, he went into business with Gordon Getty’s son Billy. Over the next several years, Newsom would start 11 businesses, mainly in the hospitality sector—restaurants, retail, and a winery. Gordon would be the lead investor in ten of them, even after Newsom’s falling out with Billy. Gavin and his father also went into business together, with the Gettys, on several real-estate ventures. His holdings quickly bloomed into the mid–seven figures, and when Newsom reached his mid-twenties, he felt ready to enter politics.
Via the Gettys and his restaurants, Newsom had become the center of the Generation X set among San Francisco’s social elite. He socialized regularly with his generation of trust-fund babies, who bore such names as Pritzker, Swig, Fisher, Marcus, and Guggenheim. In 1995, his father pushed him into the ring. Bill reached out to Willie Brown via John Burton to suggest that Gavin host a fund-raiser at one of his restaurants. Brown, forced out of the legislature by newly imposed term limits, was running for mayor of San Francisco. Despite three decades at the heart of California politics, Brown could still appreciate Gavin’s unique fund-raising access in the hyper-insular world of San Francisco high society.
Brown appointed Newsom to the Parking and Traffic Commission in 1996 and, when a seat opened the following year, to the Board of Supervisors. Newsom presented himself as an unabashed social liberal but stressed the need for fiscal responsibility at the municipal level. This translated into three key initiatives: accountability for rider experience on municipal transit; friendliness to real-estate interests; and ending cash support to the homeless, in favor of concentrated services. The last of these, seen by the Left as an austerity measure, invited backlash from the radicals—and raised Newsom’s profile as somebody with whom San Francisco’s business community could work.
With Willie Brown term-limited as mayor, Newsom ran and dominated the first round of balloting in November 2003, taking nearly 42 percent of the vote. Newsom then won the December runoff against Green Party–backed board president Matt Gonzalez, but his lead shrank to 5 percent, despite outspending Gonzalez by roughly ten to one—a shock that appears to have shaken Newsom’s confidence in the liberal oligarchy model he had inherited.
Newsom married Kimberly Guilfoyle, who was then working for district attorney Terence Hallinan, in December 2001. Gordon Getty spent lavishly for Newsom’s reception, laying out close to $250,000, according to official disclosure documents. After gaining notoriety trying a high-profile case, Guilfoyle pivoted to media and, in late 2003, decamped to New York for a job with Court TV. The couple became bicoastal, just as Newsom was elected mayor.
The marriage soon fell apart under the strain, and the couple announced their intention to divorce in January 2005. Guilfoyle continued to fulfill the occasional official function that required the city’s first lady. But Newsom was unabashedly single, and his romantic life became the subject of considerable speculation. He briefly dated a 19-year-old model and collegiate lacrosse player, who, like Guilfoyle, was a registered Republican. He then dated several television actresses, even attending a Scientology-backed fund-raiser in Los Angeles with one.
Newsom’s status as eligible bachelor made him interesting, but it was his deftness at playing the culture warrior that sent his approval ratings skyrocketing. Almost immediately upon taking office, and through the first half of 2004, Newsom personally issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in open defiance of state law. The state supreme court’s move to invalidate the marriages that August only strengthened Newsom’s brand as an unapologetic, fighting liberal. Many on the left who had seen him as a crypto-conservative rallied around Newsom’s banner. Indeed, he featured prominently in statewide advertising opposing Proposition 8, the successful 2008 ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California.
But behind the scenes, Newsom had begun to spiral downward. Drinking heavily, in 2005, he began an affair with Ruby Rippey-Tourk, his appointments secretary. In addition to being a subordinate responsible for doling out administration jobs, Rippey-Tourk was married to Alex Tourk, who was Newsom’s campaign manager, loyal aide, and close friend. The affair remained a secret until February 2007. The couple divorced, and Tourk resigned from Newsom’s reelection campaign.
The revelations cast Newsom’s louche behavior, previously the subject of digital-media amusement, in a darker light. Reports that he had arrived drunk at a San Francisco hospital on a Friday night to comfort the family of a murdered police officer further damaged his reputation. He sought treatment for alcohol abuse and tried to keep a lower social profile. Today, Newsom denies that he was ever an alcoholic and emphasizes that he went to a life coach rather than to rehab. But whatever the reality, the Tourk affair pushed him to concentrate on his relatively new relationship with actress and producer Jennifer Siebel, a fellow product of San Francisco’s upper crust and, at least until their marriage in 2008, a Republican. The couple now have three children.
Despite the hits taken to his reputation, Mayor Newsom cruised to reelection. The same-sex marriage fight had become a template for his mayoralty: he won political success, especially with the Left, by relying on symbolic action that suggested material implications to come, but without committing to following through. The municipal government joined the Kyoto Protocol, declared San Francisco a sanctuary city, and committed to paying for universal health care. Newsom marched with striking UNITE HERE workers. At the same time, crime and homelessness worsened, holes opened in the budget, and housing costs soared.
Newsom had, in effect, made a big bet that the Democratic Party was going to become more like him: socially liberal, devoted to the politics of recognition, and focused on flooding allied groups with taxpayer money, even if that money disappeared into a veritable rabbit warren of interlocking nonprofits. That bet paid off handsomely.
In 2010, Newsom flirted briefly with the idea of running for governor, but quickly and prudently took a backseat to Jerry Brown, who was returning to reassert the power of the Bay Area liberal oligarchy in Sacramento. Newsom, whose political instincts had kept him ahead of the curve, recognized that spending eight comparatively inert years riding shotgun to Brown as lieutenant governor was the right play.
That fall, Newsom ran almost 4 percentage points behind Brown, despite Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman spending lavishly on her race against the once and future governor. Newsom spent his first term as lieutenant governor trying to build a brand nationally and within California. He hosted a talk show on Current TV that few watched. He published a book called Citizenville that few read. In 2014, running for reelection, Brown and Newsom captured considerably more of the vote, but the gap between them remained unchanged.
Almost immediately after winning reelection as lieutenant governor in 2014, Newsom launched his gubernatorial campaign. Running in the state’s first jungle primary—in which all candidates participate, regardless of party, and the top two vote-getters move on to the general election—he seemed headed at first for a face-off against former Los Angeles mayor and fellow Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, who pitched himself as a friend of education reform. As Villaraigosa’s campaign faded down the stretch, however, Newsom’s rose. In November 2018’s election, he crushed Republican businessman Jon Cox, hauling in more than 60 percent of the vote.
As governor, Newsom attempted to replicate his mayoral model at the state level. He quickly ran into trouble. When labor-backed state legislators pushed to reclassify most independent contractors as employees, Newsom jumped in with full-throated support. This alienated the giant gig-economy tech companies that had enriched San Francisco during his mayoralty. Newsom pushed aggressively for increasingly permissive criminal-justice reforms and ever more stringent environmental standards. Crime and energy costs exploded. California’s poverty rate worsened, and its population shrank. After the 2020 Census, the state lost a congressional district for the first time and appears on track to lose several more after 2030.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Newsom’s notorious decision to dine maskless with aides and at least one major lobbyist at the tony French Laundry restaurant, while the rest of the state was locked down, spurred populist hostility to the governor. In 2021, Newsom faced down a recall election, with the same share of voters rejecting his recall as had elected him governor in 2018. But running for reelection last year, he lost nearly 3 percentage points of vote share running against token competition. Five counties flipped from blue to red, and several swing congressional districts remained in Republican hands.
Newsom therefore finds himself in a peculiar spot as he begins his second term. He’s politically unbeatable in California, but California is no longer a credible model for the rest of the country. He has four more years to govern, but four or five years to wait to launch a presidential run, barring the unexpected in 2024. The consequences of his policies are already landing in his lap, and he’s reversing course on everything from criminal justice to shutting down the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. With Dianne Feinstein planning to retire, Newsom might angle to appoint himself to her seat. But that would amount to leaving the most powerful governorship in America for four years as freshman senator. Meantime, he seems to have all but surrendered himself to the reemergence of machine politics, driven mainly by the state’s ravenous public-employee unions.
For whom, then, is Gavin Newsom a problem? For California, perhaps. But as the state’s political system moves inexorably toward a patronage-driven machine, the individual characteristics of its leaders will only diminish further. Newsom may have exploited Californians’ appetite for symbolic politics, but he did not create it. And he’s been powerless to stop the draining of the state’s vast resources into special projects and fiefs.
If Newsom is to be a problem for America, he’ll need to tap deeper symbolic veins than the ones that have moved Golden State voters. His efforts to do so have felt thin and unconvincing to date. His record is nothing to brag about beyond the West Coast. Can he bridge the vast gulf between California and the nation? To win the presidency, he will almost certainly need to leave his decades-long governing record behind. But a bridge with no pilings is no bridge at all. Unmoored as a matter of ideology and vision, Newsom may prove to be first and foremost a problem for himself.
Top Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images