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Gavin Newsom's life story is a study in contrasts

The San Francisco mayor, in a tight race for lieutenant governor, calls himself a 'pro-business Democrat' while trying to persuade voters that he's not just the Gay Marriage Mayor.

October 16, 2010|By Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Francisco — It's not easy being Gavin Newsom.

In righteously progressive San Francisco, the two-term mayor who calls himself a "pro-business Democrat" has been slammed as too conservative, even as he grappled creatively with chronic homelessness, signed into law the city's groundbreaking universal healthcare program and even helped make composting compulsory. Everywhere else, though, he's the liberal who rubbed the nation's nose in gay marriage.

Gavin Newsom: In the Oct. 16 Section A, a profile of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is running for lieutenant governor, said a city report put San Francisco's homeless count at 13,500, half of whom are on the street. In fact, the city report, based on a four-hour visual survey on the night of Jan. 27, 2009, listed the number of homeless at 6,514, and identified 2,709 of them as "unsheltered." —

Now, as the 43-year-old finds himself in a tight race for lieutenant governor against Republican incumbent Abel Maldonado, he will need to persuade voters that he is more than the Gay Marriage Mayor — and that they should give him a job he mocked as meaningless before Jerry Brown muscled him out of contention for governor last fall.

The apparent contradictions don't stop at City Hall.

Newsom grew up in two worlds. He is a self-made son of a divorced mother who scratched his way from the lower middle class to the heights of San Francisco society as a wine merchant and restaurateur. His father, a retired state appellate court judge with deep roots in San Francisco's Democratic establishment, is best friends with oil heir Gordon Getty, manages Getty's family trust and has opened gilded doors for his son.

As a child, Newsom was whipsawed between competing realities: living with a mother who worked three jobs and vacationing with the Gettys, meeting the famous Leakeys in Africa or visiting Hudson Bay to see polar bears denning.

"Gordon Getty is someone who has very significantly shaped me," Newsom said during an interview in his downtown campaign headquarters. But, he added, "My name is Newsom, not Getty. No trust funds in my life."

Even Newsom's good looks have been a mixed blessing. Like Cyrano's nose, Newsom's physical gifts — the tall, graceful silhouette, the Gordon Gekko hair, the electric white teeth — haven't always served him well.

"People love to psychoanalyze Gavin," said Mimi Silbert, a drug rehab pioneer who helped him through a personal crisis three years ago. "One, because of that upbringing. Two, just look at him. Here is this handsome guy who refuses to change the way he does his hair even though everyone in the world tortures him about it."

In February 2004, a few weeks into his first mayoral term, Newsom became an instant hero to many when he abruptly began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In May 2008, after the California Supreme Court upheld the right of gays to marry, Newsom inadvertently gave opponents of gay marriage the sound bite of the year, declaring that gay marriage was coming "whether you like it or not!" Six months later, voters passed Proposition 8, the ballot measure that would amend the state Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

"No one regrets that more than him," said senior Newsom advisor Mike Farrah. "He was taken away by the moment."

In 2007, Newsom's personal life imploded in a sex and alcohol scandal around the time his first marriage collapsed. He had been drinking the night he arrived at a hospital to comfort the family of a fatally wounded police officer, according to news reports. He was spotted around town with an underage date, who was seen drinking at one social function they attended, the San Francisco Chronicle said. He admitted he had had an affair with his appointments secretary, who was married to his campaign manager and deputy chief of staff.

Newsom sought help from Silbert, founder of the Delancey Street Foundation, a highly regarded rehab center for hard-core drug addicts.

"I am not sure I would call him an alcoholic," Silbert said. "But from Day One, I told him no more alcohol — and he stopped drinking."

Newsom has left a trail of betrayed friends and colleagues, many of whom say they will never forgive him for the affair. The voters forgave him, though; they reelected him with 72% of the vote.

He has been groomed for higher office since he was appointed by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to the Parking and Traffic Commission in 1996. The following year, his politically connected father urged John Burton, then a Democratic state senator, to lobby Brown to appoint his son to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a body so diverse the position was jokingly called the "straight white male" seat.

Newsom went on to serve three more terms on the board before becoming mayor. His mentors have also included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to whom he is related by marriage, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

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