Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom gives his opening statement in a debate. Photo by Chris Stone

By Ben Christopher | CALmatters

Gavin Newsom has a book that he says every Californian should read: Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.

The book is an obvious choice for the 51-year-old Democrat who polls say is most likely to become California’s next governor because of one of its central insights: visionaries need a “Big, Hairy Audacious Goal”—a BHAG.

“Like the moon mission, a true BHAG is clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort,” the book explains. “People like to shoot for finish lines.“

Newsom likes to shoot for finish lines too.

“I’d rather be accused of (having) those audacious stretch goals than be accused of timidity,” he said.

He rose to prominence as San Francisco’s new mayor in 2004, when he presided over the first same-sex weddings in the country. Now campaigning for the governorship, he has proposed remaking California’s healthcare system, its housing market and its early childhood education system in ways that seem both revolutionary and daunting.

“He thinks creatively about policy and enjoys following ideas where they go rather than prejudging them as unrealistic,” said Keith Humphreys, a Stanford psychology professor who co-led with Newsom the state’s committee to study marijuana legalization.

Critics call him starry-eyed—or worse. Over the years, Democratic and Republican foes alike have called the made-for-Hollywood politician a “narcissist,” a credit hog, a “snake oil salesman” and a “vapid pander bear.”

But no one could accuse him of failing to think big.

Newsom bristles at the suggestion (made often) that he is the product of privilege. His mother, Tessa Menzies, was 20 when he was born, and divorced Newsom’s father, William, a few years later. She largely raised Gavin and his sister by herself, working as a legal secretary, a waitress, a bookkeeper, then finally a realtor.

“He is a working class guy who has worked really hard with his bare hands, with a phenomenal support group,” said Geoff Callan, Newsom’s brother-in-law.

But that’s one hell of a support group.

His grandfather worked on the political campaigns of Gov. Pat Brown and President Truman. Newsom’s father was the legal fixer for oil scion-turned-composer and philanthropist Gordon Getty. He later became a judge, appointed by his pal, Gov. Jerry Brown.

When then-Mayor Willie Brown appointed Newsom to the San Francisco Parking Commission in 1996 and then the Board of Supervisors at the suggestion of Burton, William Newsom took credit: “It was based on Burton’s friendship with me,” he told a reporter in 2003.

That powerful network has followed Newsom ever since. As the Los Angeles Times detailed, eight Bay Area families have jump started his political ambitions at every turn. That includes, most notably, the Gettys, who also provided seed money for Newsom’s business career. Newsom has gone on to found or co-found nearly two dozen ventures almost always with a little Getty help.

Earlier this year, Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Bretón labeled Newsom the “the living embodiment of privilege.” The column assailed not only his good fortune, but also his ability to skate by lapses that would have tanked less connected, rich, white, male, or handsome candidates.

The most famous such lapse: Newsom’s well-documented affair with his appointments secretary (and the wife of his then-campaign manager) in the mid-2000s.

Newsom envisions himself as transformative for California. His proposal to usher in a state-run single payer health insurance program has received much of the attention—and the bulk of the scoffing from detractors. But he has other ambitious, pricey proposals.

He has called his “cradle to career” education plan, which includes expanded prenatal services and universal preschool, his top priority. He has also set a statewide housing construction goal of 3.5 million new units within the next decade, a target most analysts dismiss as wildly unlikely.

But big hairy audaciousness has worked for him before.

Granted, his performance of same-sex marriages made Newsom politically toxic outside much of San Francisco for years. But in retrospect, it seems an uncannily deft political move.

“He read the tea leaves well,” said Bill Lee, the city administrator at the time. Newsom and his defenders insist his motivation wasn’t political.

Another success came in 2007, when his administration launched Healthy San Francisco, a subsidized health program for city dwellers. But critics argue it was former Supervisor Tom Ammiano who initially proposed the idea and did much of the grunt work to bring it to fruition.

Even some of Newsom’s allies concede that he wasn’t always intimately involved with the day-to-day.

“He’s more of a big picture guy,” said Lee. “I never, ever…got a sense from Gavin about details.”

Former colleagues of Newsom’s in San Francisco were sharper tongued.

Chris Daly, a former San Francisco supervisor who regularly clashed with Newsom, says the former mayor’s penchant for “regurgitating irrelevant statistics” and business-school lingo was merely a tool to “obfuscate” when politically useful.

These days, Newsom acknowledges missteps from his mayoral years. “When you’re younger you tend to want to take credit for everything.”

Whatever growing up Newsom has done in the intervening decade he attributes to being a father. In 2008, he married Jennifer Siebel, a feminist documentary filmmaker. They have four kids, ages 2 to 8.

The job of lieutenant governor, which Newsom easily won after his failed run for the top position, is notably low on responsibilities. But to the extent Newsom has left a mark, it has been by taking big, controversial positions.

He was the only statewide politician in 2014 to endorse Proposition 47, a ballot measure that reduced an array of felonies to misdemeanors, and he was a driving political force behind the legalization of marijuana.

“I think Gavin is happiest when he’s focused more on the big picture,” said Stanford’s Humphreys. “He will, I suspect, thrive in that aspect of the gubernatorial role.”

If you believe the numbers, Newsom will likely get the opportunity. Two weeks out from the election, he leads in public opinion polls and has raised roughly $44 million to Cox’s $14 million

On a mid-October Sunday, Newsom met at Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s headquarters in the city’s Grand Lake neighborhood for a mid-morning pep-rally.

While Schaaf stuck to standard, accessible prose to energize the crowd, Newsom’s speech was like a cross between an undergrad lecture and a poetry slam.

He extolls California’s diversity with talk of “practicing pluralism” and the state’s “web of mutuality.” When he endorses early childhood education, he speaks of the synaptic “pruning” of the infant brain.

Sometimes even reporters are stumped by the intricacies of Newsomian English. He speaks of “iterative processes,” “foundational principles,” and policymakers who “lack intentionality,” when most humans might simply say “trial and error,” “values” and “don’t have a plan.”

To his most ardent supporters, Newsom’s love of jargon is a testament to his analytical brain and his prodigious memory.

Others are more skeptical of his shtick. While on a tour promoting Citizenville, a book he co-authored, Newsom was confronted by Stephen Colbert on his satirical late night political show, The Colbert Report.

“Big is getting small and small is getting big,” Newsom said, trying to explain the thesis of the book.

In a display of exasperation, Colbert flipped toward the back of the book. “Is there a bullshit translator?…What are you talking about?”

A book review in the San Francisco Chronicle was kinder: “breathless and dizzying (and often disconnected), but ultimately powerful.”

Which some might say is a pretty good description of Gavin Newsom himself.

This is an abridged version of the full article, which is available at—a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

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