Mayor Gavin Newsom standing before San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Bill Wilson Copyright © 2009
BY MARK LEIBOVICH
Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, has an emergency button under his desk that was installed 30 years ago after former City Supervisor Dan White entered City Hall through a window and fatally shot Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Not knowing what the button was for, Newsom kept pushing it on his first day in office, only to have three sheriffs rush in repeatedly.
Newsom says he has not had occasion to press the button since, although the mayor admits he is tempted to whenever meetings drag on or when reporters ask him annoying questions or when he becomes bored, something that happens easily.
I was sitting in Newsom’s office in May, and the mayor was fidgeting behind his desk, which is neat except for a few side-by-side stacks of collated papers. These are what Newsom calls his CliffsNotes, part of an elaborate system of self-education he developed over several years.
Newsom struggled with severe dyslexia as a child and compensated by rereading, underlining, bracketing and scrawling comments in the margins. “I just butcher a book,” he explained to me. “Everything I underline I assume is important to me.” Interns type up what Newsom has underlined and produce a set of notes for him. “Sometimes I will make CliffsNotes of my CliffsNotes,” Newsom said. He described the practice as “really pathetic.” But it works for him and illustrates a larger point about people with learning disabilities: when a person struggles to learn in conventional ways, he said, you adapt “in ways that can nurture creative solutions.” Doing so can also promote “audacious goals that many would dismiss as irrational.”
That may well be the best description of Newsom’s latest ambition: to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as the governor of California even as the state is in the midst of one of its recurring cataclysms. They come along once or twice a decade, sparked by natural disaster or some fiasco of overcrowding (prisons, schools, roads) or shortage (water, energy, cash) or civic rebellion (taxes, cops, Gray Davis). California always seems to produce more spectacle than anywhere else in the country, and that goes for its meltdowns too. Calamity is just part of the equation here, as if God gave California so much glamour and grandeur and great weather that he had to throw in some apocalyptic menace to provide a little balance. Earthquakes, say. Or Sacramento.
Californians, would-be governors included, have learned to take crises in stride. “People have been declaring this place on the brink of extinction for decades,” said Newsom, who was born in San Francisco and reared in the city and in the adjacent county of Marin. When I visited him in his office, Newsom, who is 41, had just finished rereading his notes on one of his favorite books about the state, “Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003,” by Kevin Starr. Newsom’s CliffsNotes for “Coast of Dreams” fill 77 pages. He gave me a set, after leafing through them to make sure he had not written anything embarrassing in the margins.
“California had become . . . a reality in search of a myth that had once been believed in,” Starr writes in a passage highlighted by Newsom. “That dream, in fact, had been the first and only premise of the Schwarzenegger campaign.” Those days, in the early years of this decade, were the last time real life overwhelmed the state’s ability to govern itself — that’s when voters recalled their governor, Gray Davis, and once again looked beyond “reality,” to Hollywood, for their next savior, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Six years on, California’s political culture seems no less dysfunctional. The state’s most urgent problem is its lumbering wreck of an economy. Not surprisingly, given California’s size, more people have lost jobs and more homes have been foreclosed on and more big banks have failed here in the last year than in any other state in the country. The state faces a $24 billion deficit, and Schwarzenegger recently joked that his finance director has been placed “on suicide watch.” “California’s day of reckoning is here,” Schwarzenegger said in a speech in early June, though in fact many Californians are convinced that the state is past its day of reckoning and that the governor is approaching his “end of days.” (Whatever his successes and failures, Schwarzenegger has at least nourished California politics with endless opportunities for movie allusions, double entendres and overall goofiness — some of it occasionally clever.)
Schwarzenegger still exudes a celebrity aura that transcends politics, no matter how unmanageable they are. Schoolchildren and tourists crowd hallways to glimpse him before he appears at the Capitol — scenes that resemble red-carpet openings of “Kindergarten Cop.” Shrieks announce his arrivals. “The Arnold alarm,” one Statehouse reporter called it. There was no Gray Davis alarm.
The former Mr. Universe has shrunk greatly in political stature, now that he has become ineligible for re-election (thanks to term limits), unpopular (a 33 percent approval rating) and incapable of asserting his will over an unyielding Legislature and ornery electorate. And there is a general recognition that Schwarzenegger’s substantial assets proved no match for the daunting disorder of the state’s politics, something even Schwarzenegger admitted to me recently: “The bottom line is, even me as a celebrity governor — even with that, I can’t penetrate through certain things.”
And yet, the governorship of California remains an oddly seductive job. It doesn’t matter that the office has become a graveyard of political aspiration, that Davis was actually considered a rising national star at one time. State Attorney General Jerry Brown — yes, that Jerry Brown — recently called the job of California governor “a career ender,” which is notable given that Brown, a two-term former governor, now 71, seems intent on ending his career back in that office. Indeed, Brown is a big reason that the 2010 governor’s race in California might be the most compelling political show in the nation next year. You have nationally known Democrats. You have socially moderate Republicans who favor abortion rights and, to varying degrees, gay rights (if not gay marriage itself), in a state whose traditional strains still run deep. And above all, you have a diverse and, to some degree, radically discordant group of candidates striving to win over one of the country’s most disruptive places (the California of Silicon Valley and the counterculture) and one of its most conservative (the California of Reagan, Nixon and tax revolts). “In a sense, the race to succeed Schwarzenegger is so fascinating because the competing souls of the state are all wrapped up in the candidates,” is how the Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist Bill Carrick put it. “You have the old and the new, the bizarre and the boring. Crisis does tend to bring it all to the fore.”
Newsom, who earned a small fortune as a wine entrepreneur, became the eminence of the gay-marriage movement in 2004 when he authorized same-sex unions in San Francisco. He is vivacious and something of a political thrill-seeker — a trait that extended to his personal life a few years ago when he had a potentially career-killing affair with the wife of a campaign manager and close friend (now former campaign manager and extremely former close friend). Newsom sees the job of governor as a potentially exhilarating high-wire act. “We’re in a moment of crisis that requires order-of-magnitude change, dramatic change,” he told me. “Candidly, if things were going very well, I don’t think I’d be the best person for the job.”
The nightmare-as-opportunity theme enables the candidates to show optimism and present themselves as saviors. “Our democracy works best, unfortunately, in a crisis situation,” said one of them, the Republican Steve Poizner, the state’s insurance commissioner and a serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. “These windows of opportunity for big structural reform don’t come around that often.”
Another Republican candidate, Meg Whitman, the former eBay C.E.O., presents herself as a parental antidote to chaos. That’s why eBay’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, hired her, she claims. “Pierre said he was looking for adult supervision at eBay,” Whitman said not long ago at a campaign appearance in San Jose. She criticizes Schwarzenegger for trying to “boil the ocean,” for being too ambitious. Whitman might be the early Republican favorite. A recent cover article in The Weekly Standard mentioned her as a future presidential candidate. Her campaign distributes a Fortune cover story for which she was photographed holding the reins of Brandy, a regal-looking horse, although an editor at Fortune later admitted that Brandy was in fact a rental horse and did not belong to Whitman. And the success and name recognition of eBay, the online-auction colossus, has generated a good deal of attention for Whitman. “Well, that makes sense,” Jay Leno said recently. “I mean, the state’s broke. If we’re going to start selling stuff, who better to be governor than the head of eBay?”
An unlikely grown-up in the field, Jerry Brown recently dubbed himself the Apostle of Common Sense. “Governor is an important role, but a modest role,” Brown told me this spring. “You can’t wear different kinds of socks.” He was referring to the film director Francis Ford Coppola, who, according to Brown, wears mismatched socks just to be different. “Whatever Coppola said might work for movie directors, it doesn’t work for politics,” Brown said. Once famous for dating pop singers and actresses, Brown is now married to his longtime girlfriend, Anne Gust Brown. (The Los Angeles Times recently called them the Ozzie and Harriet of the campaign.)
The woman who officiated the Browns’ wedding in 2005 was Senator Dianne Feinstein. She probably won’t run for governor, but she is being coy enough that her presence hovers over the Democratic field. Until a couple of weeks ago, the same was true of Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles and, as one of the nation’s best-known Hispanic elected officials, the presumptive wielder of the Hispanic voting bloc’s growing power. With or without Villaraigosa or Feinstein, the 2010 race should fulfill one of California’s most basic and enduring promises: It will be entertaining. So many people (12 percent of the American population), so many problems, so many stories — tales of horror, of redemption, of twists and turns.
IN EARLY JUNE, I drove to Sacramento from San Francisco to see Arnold Schwarzenegger. Going to California to write about politics and not seeing Arnold is like going to Disneyland and not seeing Mickey. Never mind that Schwarzenegger was the lamest of Donald Ducks or now just another familiar piece of political furniture. It was still an astounding thing — for me, at least; maybe I’m shallow — to stand in the presence of the real-life governor of Culi-fornia, bemoaning pawtisan bickering in his Austrian accent, looking totally excellent in a fitted gray suit, gold tie and impeccably coiffed (and increasingly orange) hair.
“Our wallet is empty,” Schwarzenegger said in a speech a few days before my visit. “Our bank is closed. Our credit is dried up.” He called for cuts that would, among other things, eliminate health insurance for close to a million poor kids, stop welfare checks for more than half a million families and close 80 percent of the state’s parks. Then he pivoted into empathy mode. “I see the faces behind those dollars,” Schwarzenegger said. “I see the children whose teachers will be laid off. I see the Alzheimer’s patients losing some of their in-home support services.”
As I waited for Schwarzenegger in the lobby of the governor’s office, I studied the official portraits of former governors, including those of Ronald Reagan, Earl Warren and Jerry Brown (boldly colored and cartoonish and considered so bizarre at the time it was painted that the Legislature initially refused to hang it). Suddenly I heard Schwarzenegger’s unmistakable voice booming joyously as he led an entourage from his office.
“We are going to da beh, we are going to da beh,” Schwarzenegger kept saying.
Schwarzenegger’s spokesman, Aaron McLear, translated: “He is going out to the bear.” That was the 450-pound bronze sculpture of a bear that Schwarzenegger fell in love with at an art gallery in Aspen last year. “I just immediately had a vision of it in front of my office door, and having kids sitting around it, and people taking pictures,” he told me.
So that’s where he was going, to meet a group of schoolchildren from Pacific Palisades. Kids surrounded the monumental specimens (Schwarzenegger, the bear). A member of the governor’s security detail admonished one juvenile delinquent for making bunny ears over Arnold’s head during the photos. “Hasta la vista, baby,” a few of the kids called after Schwarzenegger as he turned to leave.
Schwarzenegger and I then repaired to a tent that he had put up in a courtyard next to his office, which allows him to smoke cigars legally at work (no smoking is allowed inside the Capitol). The tent is about 15 square feet, carpeted with artificial turf and outfitted with stylish furniture, an iPod, a video-conferencing terminal, trays of almonds, a chess table, a refrigerator and a large photo of the governor. Schwarzenegger reclined deeply in his chair, lighted an eight-inch cigar and declared himself “perfectly fine,” despite the fiscal debacle and personal heartsickness all around him. “Someone else might walk out of here every day depressed, but I don’t walk out of here depressed,” Schwarzenegger said. Whatever happens, “I will sit down in my Jacuzzi tonight,” he said. “I’m going to lay back with a stogie.”
Size is important to Schwarzenegger, as befits a champion bodybuilder. The first thing he asked me was how long this article would be. “About 9,000 words,” I said, exaggerating slightly, wanting to impress him.
“It’s a big story,” he said, nodding, pleased. Schwarzenegger then relighted his cigar, using a lighter about the size of my hand. It was the biggest lighter I had ever seen, I told him, and he grinned, seeming glad that I had noticed. He flicked up another big orange flame, for special effect.
Schwarzenegger spoke with relish about governing his gargantuan jurisdiction. “Why do people go everyday up to Mount Everest?” he said. “I mean, think about it. You go there, and you look at this thing and you think, Isn’t it just better to go up in the helicopter and land? Some people will say that.” He loathes that impulse to take the easy way to the summit, only to “take a picture and then go home.”
Of course, Schwarzenegger himself now has legions of critics dismissing him as a political tourist who governs from a lavish tent, reduced to posing for photos while the state mocks him with the fiscal and governing equivalent of bunny ears. “Schwarzenegger has been desperately trying to give people what they want, except that he has proven time and again that he has no idea what they want,” Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, told me. “The result is that he’s a rudderless ship that has lost all credibility with his Republican base and that the Democrats don’t trust because he turns on them.”
Before I’d met Schwarzenegger, a few Californians told me that he was shorter in person than you would expect. But he didn’t seem that short to me — his listed height of 6-foot-1 seemed entirely plausible. It’s possible that trying to govern California for six years creates the illusion of shrinkage.
THE NIGHT BEFORE my trip to Sacramento, I found an unlikely Schwarzenegger defender in Jerry Brown. I went out for sushi in Oakland with Brown and his wife, Anne, not far from the home they share with their black labrador, Dharma. The three-time presidential candidate, former Oakland mayor and student of Zen meditation now has white sideburns and eyebrows and a smooth head (which Anne lovingly trims with clippers every few weeks). A few months ago he posted “25 random things about me” on his Facebook page, in which he revealed, among other things, his fondness for arugula, broccoli and Flax Plus multibran cereal. “In 1958, I took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience,” he also shared. “Later, Pope John XXIII dispensed me from these obligations.”
Brown credited Schwarzenegger with “making the job of governor bigger.” Brown linked Schwarzenegger to Ronald Reagan, another former actor, as someone who “added size.” I asked Brown if he added size to the governor’s office during his two terms in Sacramento from 1975 to 1983.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I added something.” He paused to sip from a cup of sake. “I would say that I added some . . . dimension to the job.”
“Dementia?” Anne said, laughing.
“No, dimension,” Jerry clarified.
Even when the state seems to be caught in one of its death spirals, Californians still tend to view their predicament in airy, romantic terms. “It’s as much a state of mind as it is a state,” Meg Whitman told me this spring after one of her campaign events. “If the California dream is not alive, then there’s an issue of how we think about ourselves as Americans.”
It has been falling to Brown, once known as Governor Moonbeam, to bring the discussion back to earth. While other candidates evoke the “myth” and the “dream” and the “epic disaster” that is California, Brown is more likely to speak of “the mundane quality of the enterprise,” that enterprise being state government.
Brown delights in deflating overblown rhetoric. Everything is deemed a “crisis” today, he said with a smirk. “Instead of having ‘stars,’ at some point we had ‘superstars.’ Instead of having ‘stores,’ we had ‘superstores.’ So there is an escalation in the rhetoric because of the difficulty penetrating to the consumer.”
To many casual observers, the return of Jerry Brown is the most amazing subplot of the 2010 campaign. Newsom was on Capitol Hill recently, and people kept asking him about Brown — variations on Is he serious? “Yes, totally serious” was Newsom’s answer. He clearly sees Brown as his chief Democratic competition, especially with Villaraigosa declining to enter the race.
Brown is raising money, ostensibly for his re-election campaign for attorney general, but he is hinting strongly that it will be for a governor’s bid. When I asked him what he thought of Newsom, he declined to answer, saying he would refrain from commenting on potential opponents. Brown has been reading George Orwell’s essay on political language. He is circulating it to some staff members to promote simplicity of language: subject, verb, object. “See Spot run,” Brown said. “See Jerry run?” I countered. Brown shrugged.
Brown has been ahead in early polls, largely because of name recognition (though he comes in second behind Feinstein when her name is included). He is so deeply enmeshed in California politics that it is impossible to circulate among even his potential opponents without stumbling onto some connection. His father, the former Gov. Pat Brown, was a close friend of Newsom’s grandfather, and Jerry Brown appointed Newsom’s father to two judgeships; Brown’s wife, Anne, was chief administrative officer at the Gap and came to know Meg Whitman when she served on that company’s board. It’s worth noting, also, for symmetry’s sake, that Brown acquired his Moonbeam nickname in the 1970s after he proposed that California launch a satellite into space for emergency communications — and two decades later, Steve Poizner, a Republican candidate now, started a company that put G.P.S. devices into cellphones.
Because he is already well known, Brown can bide his time. His campaign basically consists of Jerry and Anne, some guy (Ned) Anne used to work with at the Gap and Dharma (“our attack dog,” in Anne’s words). “Richard Nixon once said to me, ‘Don’t peak too soon,’ ” Brown said. “And I think that was good advice.” In the same conversation, he added, Nixon told him he would go far “because you’re interesting.”
Brown hardly sounds nostalgic about the governor’s job. “You’re basically a flak-catcher, or a pincushion,” he told me. No one pays any attention to State of the State speeches. You have this big inauguration party, and all your friends come — “and then they leave because no one lives in Sacramento.” The governor becomes invisible. “It’s like that game — what do you call it? Where’s . . . where’s . . . Nemo.”
“Where’s Nemo?” Anne said. “You mean Where’s Waldo?”
“Yeah, Waldo,” Jerry said. “It’s like that.”
ONE OF THE recurring buzzwords in California today is “ungovernable.” Nowhere does it apply better than to the mud slogs that are the state’s annual budget deliberations.
In the view of many, the origins of the mud slog began with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the landmark referendum that capped property taxes. “Over 50 percent of our revenue is dependent on personal income tax, and that’s a very important part of explaining the boom-and-bust cycle,” according to another Republican candidate for governor, Tom Campbell, an immaculately credentialed policy marvel who graduated from Harvard Law School magna cum laude and who later studied under the conservative economist Milton Friedman before going on to represent Silicon Valley for five terms in the United States Congress.
This dependence on income tax was the first thing Dianne Feinstein mentioned when I asked her to assess California’s problems. “In most states, it’s one-third property tax, one-third sales tax and one-third income tax,” Feinstein said. “It’s 55 percent income tax in California. And 45 percent of that comes from the top brackets.”
When the economy is booming, the stock market soaring and jobs abundant, relying on income taxes is not a problem. That was the case in the years after Schwarzenegger first became governor in 2003, and he was hailed as a “postpartisan” leader who cut taxes and appealed to Democrats by aggressively tackling issues like global warming. But in today’s cratering economy — in which California faces a decline in personal income for the first time since 1938 and unemployment sits at 11.5 percent — the state’s coffers have shriveled up quickly, along with the governor’s popularity.
Passing a budget or increasing revenues in California is dicey in the best of times. The state constitution requires that two-thirds of the Legislature agree on a budget or higher taxes — the kind of overwhelming political consensus, in other words, usually reserved for amendments to the federal Constitution. (California is one of just a handful states that require a two-thirds vote to pass a budget.)
Complicating matters further, the major parties in California are both effectively controlled by their most partisan elements, a byproduct of gerrymandered voting districts that force lawmakers to appeal to their ideological bases. After many earlier failed efforts, a ballot initiative championed by Schwarzenegger finally passed last year that will redraw the districts. But that won’t take effect until after the 2010 census, so for now the two parties are largely controlled by what Bruce Cain at Berkeley calls “the Taliban.” The result? Gridlock in Sacramento, a standoff between the parties of “no more taxes” (Republicans) and “no more cuts” (Democrats).
Even in the most desperate circumstances, when you might expect the two sides to make common cause, their attempts at working together are comical, or sad. In the middle of June, Schwarzenegger sent a melon-size sculpture of bull testicles to the leader of the Democratic-controlled senate, Darrell Steinberg, to encourage lawmakers to find the requisite fortitude to close the budget deficit. Not amused, Steinberg returned the “gift” to the governor.
“We should all be on the same team, but we are on different teams,” Schwarzenegger lamented to me. “The system is set up to fail.”
California’s leaders also complain about voters’ ability to assert their will directly through the state’s freewheeling system of ballot initiatives. In effect, anybody with money can circumvent the Legislature by putting something to a statewide plebiscite, something that has happened 71 times in the last decade, according to Mark Baldassare, the head of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research firm. “The use of the ballot box to make fiscal policy is used much more often in California than in other large states,” Baldassare told me.
So great is the frustration among the state’s political class that a movement has been building to call a constitutional convention — to tear up the existing 130-year-old document and start over. “This is an effort born of the fact that the state has become ungovernable,” said Jim Wunderman, the president of the Bay Area Council, who is leading the effort. It is too soon to know how a convention would work, Wunderman told me. Schwarzenegger says he supports the movement. “It’s like an intersection where people keep crashing into each other,” Schwarzenegger said, referring to the rules of the political road in California. “We’re saying: ‘Hey, let’s stop. Let’s put up some new signs and stop this madness.’ ”
The sentiment seems to be widely shared. The state is “failing” (Whitman), “deteriorating” (Poizner) and “a total mess” (Newsom). “Why in the world would you want to be governor?” Whitman asks at her campaign events. Even President Obama, at a dinner in Washington a couple of weeks ago, joked that Schwarzenegger would be starring in a new reality series, “I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!”
Whenever I mentioned Schwarzenegger to the masochists who covet his job, they responded variously with sympathy, qualified praise and backhanded compliments. “I think he’s done the very best that he could in a very difficult situation,” Tom Campbell told me. In a somewhat patronizing way, Whitman said, “You know, there’s a lot I like about Governor Schwarzenegger.” (Her tone was reminiscent of that “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” episode of “Seinfeld.”)
There is some consensus among people in both parties that Schwarzenegger has been genuine in his commitment to changing the system, particularly as it relates to fiscal policy. “He has done a very good job of getting the reform movement started,” Poizner told me. Likewise, many Democrats say the governor has been more than sincere in his attempts to work with them (even hiring one of their own as his chief of staff). For the most part, though, Schwarzenegger is held up as the emblem of how impossible the job has become. He seemed to come in with every advantage — no debts to special interests, a nonideological orientation and a big, charismatic personality. “To see that he’s incapable of pulling this thing off suggests that you have a systemic problem, a governance problem,” Newsom told me.
AS A CANDIDATE and as a mayor, Newsom is sensitive about being defined by gay marriage. “It’s an introductory piece,” he told me, referring to how the issue made his name. Much of his rhetoric is geared to amplifying his broader portfolio. He speaks constantly about the environment and technology initiatives, which he presents as cornerstones of his leadership approach. In mid-June, for instance, Newsom’s office announced that San Franciscans could now get all kinds of information about recycling on their iPhones. “Instead of dumping old electronics or furniture on the sidewalk, the EcoFinder iPhone app tells you where these materials should go, based on your location,” the statement read. Newsom and his aides expend a great deal of energy touting how incredibly deft they are with the latest new-media playthings — YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the like.
While generally considered a liberal by people outside of San Francisco, Newsom has not shied from confronting the left with tough love. Shortly after he was elected in 2003, Newsom implemented his controversial “Care Not Cash” program, which essentially ended direct payments to homeless people and put the money into service agencies instead. He talks often about the need for “order of magnitude” change in state government and has been the most full-throated of the candidates in his support for a constitutional convention.
But the issue of gay marriage always finds Newsom, and often at high volumes. Protesters yell passages at him from the book of Leviticus — namely the two verses that seem to prohibit gay sex. “So I went out and researched my Leviticus,” said Newsom, who was brought up Roman Catholic and now calls himself an “Irish-Catholic rebel.” With a big and satisfied grin, he read aloud some other directives from his CliffsNotes on Leviticus. “It says that I may possess many slaves, male and female, as long as they are purchased from nearby nations,” Newsom said with a laugh. He went on: “It forbids me from having contact with a woman while she is in a period of menstrual uncleanliness.”
Newsom’s identification with same-sex marriage is a mixed bag, politically speaking. It should help him among Democrats, 68 percent of whom opposed Proposition 8. It engendered good will among liberals and gay rights advocates nationally, a great source of donations. But the issue also made him a ready lightning rod. One of Newsom’s low points occurred at a rally celebrating a California Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage in May 2008. “This door’s wide open now,” a grinning Newsom said, seeming to deride the opposition as the crowd cheered. “It’s gonna happen, whether you like it or not.” It became an oft-replayed sound bite for supporters of Proposition 8.
“I’ll never say that again — I learned my lesson,” Newsom promised at a town-hall meeting in Fresno in April. Fresno is the kind of mid-California heartland city where Newsom might not be expected to present well. “They all said, ‘Good luck when you go to Fresno,’ ” Newsom said at the town meeting. “The issue of marriage equality . . . you can’t win. The state rejects it.”
A fifth-generation Californian, Newsom says that he has an intuitive sense of the state and has lived “the California dream.” “It’s nature-nurture, right?” he said. “I’ve been nurtured by Californians.” Bill Newsom, Gavin’s father, was a well-connected judge who had ties to the Getty family of oil fame as well as to the Brown political dynasty. Bill Newsom was also close to Willie Brown, the longtime speaker of the California Assembly. After Willie Brown became mayor of San Francisco in 1996, he appointed Newsom — who had expanded his wine store, PlumpJack, into a lucrative chain of businesses in the city — to the San Francisco Parking and Traffic Commission, and later to the city Board of Supervisors. When Newsom ran for mayor in 2003, he emphasized his business background. His opponent portrayed him as a child of privilege, which became — and to a point remains — a caricature. “Prince Gavin,” he was christened by Calbuzz, a popular California political Web site.
But Newsom’s relationship to money is more nuanced than that. He grew up with little, in large part because his father had a well-intentioned but self-destructive penchant for giving it away. Bill and Tessa Newsom divorced after only five years of marriage, leaving Tessa to rear Gavin (then 4) and his sister, Hilary. For extra cash, Tessa took in boarders and foster children. “My mother — it’s not one of those waxing-poetic kind of things — she literally worked two or three jobs most of her life,” Newsom said. “So I personally experienced that, even though I had these great friends and associations who had unlimited amounts of money. That juxtaposition was an interesting one.”
Tessa Newsom died of breast cancer at 55 in 2002, just as her son’s political career was taking off. The day before she died, she urged him not to run for mayor.
“THANK GOD FOR West Virginia and Mississippi,” Meg Whitman declared at the Hyatt in Long Beach, where she was speaking to a group of local Chamber of Commerce types. (All of her campaign events appear to be held in the exact same ballroom, whether they are in a Radisson, a Hyatt or a Doubletree.) She was talking about two states that rank below California in some categories of public education.
Whitman is probably the early leader in the “Why This Place Is Such a Mess” campaign. The state is “bleeding jobs,” she says. It is “effectively bankrupt.” It is rated “the 50th in the nation to do business with.” Test scores in public schools are plummeting. At the end of her presentation, her hosts gave Whitman a sea-lion sculpture that had to weigh 40 pounds or so. She could barely lift it. When I asked Whitman if she planned to sell it on eBay, she said no and vowed to find a place for it in her living room, at least until the governor’s office became available.
Before eBay, Whitman worked in marketing — for Ivory shampoo at Procter & Gamble and Mr. Potato Head at Hasbro. She gained an appreciation for the power of branding, which she says she can apply seamlessly to politics. She admires, for instance, how Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was a model of this. “We do focus groups today, and if you say ‘Barack Obama,’ people still say ‘Change you can believe in,’ ” she told me. Whitman’s campaign message is “A New California.” (“Thank God for West Virginia and Mississippi” didn’t test well, apparently.)
Both Whitman and Steve Poizner are Silicon Valley billionaires who promise to bring private-sector discipline to state government. Poizner has been critical of Whitman and dismissive of her stewardship of eBay. “We don’t need to be rebranded, like some people are pitching,” Poizner told me. “The state needs to be rebuilt.” He emphasized his own background as an engineer and entrepreneur and compared it with that of Whitman, who worked at established firms and took over an existing one in the case of eBay.
Poizner faces many obstacles. For starters, he is the state’s insurance commissioner, which is hardly an electoral launching pad. He also looks like a state insurance commissioner (bookish, with a beakish nose) and is little-known, and his name sounds like “poison.”
But Poizner says he will spend “what is necessary” on the 2010 race, and he offers a compelling story of having lived the Silicon Valley dream of starting businesses and getting really rich after moving to California from his native Texas. After cashing in his software and telecommunications businesses, Poizner spent the 2002 school year teaching government to 12th graders at a high school in East San Jose. That’s where he asked me to meet him, obviously to evoke his year of giving back, but the students were on break, and the school was abandoned, so we sat down at a sun-drenched table in an empty courtyard. The insurance commissioner then itemized his anything-but-sunny assessment of California:
“Three thousand people are leaving this state every day.”
“This has become a no man’s land for new tech jobs. . . . Google, Cisco, Intel — they’ve all pretty much said, ‘California, no way.’ ”
“Eighty percent of people here think the state’s on the wrong track.”
“There’s a huge consensus that the state is broken.”
“On behalf of Californians, I apologize to the rest of the country.”
Before we parted, Poizner told me to enjoy my stay in paradise.
WHITMAN AND POIZNER are the latest in a line of dizzyingly rich candidates in California. The recent history of the type does not portend well for them. The Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon lost to Gray Davis in 2002, while the Democrat Al Checchi (a former co-chairman of Northwest Airlines) was clobbered by Davis in the 1998 primary. Michael Huffington, the former Republican congressman and now ex-husband of the Web-site impresario Arianna Huffington, spent $28 million and lost to Dianne Feinstein in the 1994 Senate race.
While these precedents cheer Tom Campbell, the financial disadvantages faced by the former congressman from Silicon Valley have meant he gets overlooked to a degree. Despite early polling that shows him to be competitive with or ahead of his opponents, the perception lingers that he will be seriously outgunned. Still, the mild-mannered Campbell has won plaudits in the press for his deep résumé, expertise in a crucially relevant area (budgets and finance) and willingness to be specific in his budget-cutting plan.
Campbell said that a large field of candidates will help him, especially if Poizner and Whitman look past him and bludgeon each other. But the wild card for Campbell — and the Republican primary field — is the prospect of a social conservative entering the race, which Campbell and others suggest is a great possibility. Republican primaries in California typically include social conservatives. If one does emerge, he or she would presumably siphon off support from Poizner and Whitman, both of whom have worked to court social conservatives, or at least not offend them too much with their pro-choice positions on abortion. Of the three Republicans, Campbell is by far the most socially liberal — he calls himself libertarian — and the only one who opposed Proposition 8. His positioning on social and fiscal issues probably aligns him most closely with many of the potential voters and donors from Silicon Valley whom Whitman and Poizner are competing for.
If the unknown social conservative looms over the Republicans, the Democratic sleeper is Dianne Feinstein, maybe the state’s most popular politician. While people close to her say they doubt she will run — and she herself told me it is unlikely — Feinstein is a former mayor from San Francisco and has spoken of longing for another executive job, and she has not ruled anything out. Newsom has said that if Feinstein runs, he will not. He told me he recently visited with Feinstein in her Washington office for 45 minutes, and the subject went conspicuously unmentioned.
Assuming that Feinstein does not run, and that no one else joins the race, Brown and Newsom, past and present colorful Bay Area mayors, could provide a riveting generational and stylistic showdown. Newsom will make this an “old versus new” debate, highlighting his techno-hipness, playing up his youth (he is 30 years younger than Brown) and rolling his eyes at “the old sages” who speak endlessly of limitations. He is fixated on Robert F. Kennedy and, lately, Obama — he boasted of having read every published speech the president has delivered.
He recently CliffsNoted the book “Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking With Purpose and Vision.” When I looked through Newsom’s notes, I came across this in the margin: “It’s not about young versus old. It’s about past versus future.”
Running as the old sage (or Apostle of Common Sense), Brown still enjoys a great deal of support from many traditional Democratic constituencies — like African-Americans and white liberals — who backed him as governor. Had he run, Antonio Villaraigosa would have relied on heavy backing from Hispanic voters, something of a holy grail in American politics these days. Their numbers in California are huge — estimated to be between one-fifth and one-third of the Democratic electorate — and would have instantly provided Villaraigosa with a formidable base.
Brown has ties to Hispanic leaders that date back to his work in the 1970s with César Chávez and the United Farm Workers. Villaraigosa’s exit from the scene probably benefits Brown the most, but it also opens the race to others, particularly those who are not white liberal males from the north. Recently I called Loretta Sanchez, the outspoken and increasingly visible Democratic congresswoman from Orange County, who had been mentioned as a possible candidate if Villaraigosa did not run. She described a “hypothetical” candidate who happened to sound a lot like Loretta Sanchez.
“I’m pretty sure you would agree,” she told me, “that a person who is from the south, who is viewed as more moderate than Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, who is a woman, and who might have an ethnicity, let’s say, of Hispanic, probably would, on paper, be a very good candidate.”
After volunteering that her “phone has been ringing off the hook” with calls from donors since Villaraigosa announced his decision, Sanchez told me that there is about a 20 percent chance she will run, and then qualified even that by noting that “things can change.”
If nothing else, Villaraigosa’s flirtation with the governor’s race underscores the power of the position’s appeal. Few politicians are as embattled as Villaraigosa is these days: he is confronting a $530 million budget deficit, a cranky electorate, plunging poll numbers and an increasingly hostile press. (“Failure,” screamed the cover line of the June issue of Los Angeles magazine over a photo of the mayor.) And yet he almost ran anyway.
I attended Villaraigosa’s State of the City address in April, back when it looked as if he would run. It resembled a presidential event, with three flags arrayed on stage and a very visible security team outside: police cars, black S.U.V.’s and lots of large men with earpieces standing in what Hunter S. Thompson called the Deadly Pounce Position. Before the speech, I mistakenly entered Villaraigosa’s makeup room, thinking it was the men’s room, and found the mayor perched on a swivel chair and covered entirely in a white smock, possibly asleep. Of all the California leaders I spent time with, Villaraigosa, who is 56, seemed to be having the least fun. When I met with him after his speech, he was sipping green tea and keeping strenuously on message — the message being that he was focused on being mayor. And he then referred to “my State of the State” address, not his State of the City address. Freudian slip? “Well, you were talking about the state,” Villaraigosa said defensively, and he spent the next several minutes being more careful.
THE FIRST TIME I met Newsom, it was in April, at the bar of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Newsom, who publicly swore off alcohol in 2007 after the affair with his campaign manager’s wife was revealed, sipped water garnished with cucumber slices. When I asked if he was running for governor, Newsom broke into an exaggerated, Ted Baxter-like blowhard baritone to signal a stock answer. (“First of all, I’m flattered that you’d ask. . . . ”) The baritone is his verbal equivalent of a wink. As an aside, I mentioned that the Mayflower had some notorious connections to Washington sex scandals — Monica Lewinsky stayed here, Eliot Spitzer was busted for what he did here. “Yes, I hate this place for that reason,” Newsom said and quickly changed the subject.
Newsom’s dalliance with Ruby Rippey-Tourk, the ex-wife of his ex-friend Alex Tourk, is a lingering burden for him, if not an albatross. He is fully aware that if people beyond San Francisco know anything about him at all, it is most likely his association with gay marriage and his egregious violation of the “guy code” (becoming involved with a friend’s partner, in this case wife). His full-blown admission at the time of the affair, which occurred while he and his first wife were divorcing, was striking. “I want to make it clear that everything you’ve heard and read is true,” Newsom said at a press conference in 2007 after details of the affair were revealed in The San Francisco Chronicle.
But when Newsom and I finally discussed the matter in his office this spring, he appeared to want to say more. “There’s a story that’s never been told,” Newsom said. “Things were much more benign than they actually appeared in print.” At which point Newsom seemed ready to tell me more, but then he stopped and shook his head. “It wasn’t true that everything you heard was true,” he said before his communications director, Nathan Ballard, walked in to Newsom’s office with impeccable timing. (Both denied that the panic button had been pressed.)
“No-Drama Obama?” Newsom was quoted as saying in Newsweek earlier this year. “Yeah, that’s not me.”
There is indeed about Newsom something of that quintessential California type, the overgrown and hyperactive child. Immensely gifted but flawed, he is a jumble of self-regard, self-confidence and self-immolation — potential greatness and a potential train wreck in the same metrosexual package.
Newsom told me he realizes that the Rippey-Tourk affair could have ended his political career if he were in a place less permissive than San Francisco. He once described his city as “47 square miles surrounded by reality,” a formulation he himself tends to reinforce whenever he leaves.
In the middle of May, I followed him to a water-treatment plant near Tracy, Calif., about 65 miles east of San Francisco, where he presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for the facility. He looked every bit the exotic bird in the midst of browning foothills, construction equipment and about 50 onlookers, many wearing hard hats, as he maneuvered his gangly self onto a backhoe.
The scene had the makings of a Dukakis-in-a-tank debacle: Newsom in a soft blue suit over an open-collar white dress shirt, exposing a smooth, reddish chest, his loafers vibrating on the machine. As a general rule, well-manicured mayors of San Francisco don’t photograph well on John Deere equipment. “I got my helmet right here,” Newsom called down from atop the backhoe, patting his heavily gelled hair. Someone offered him a plastic hard hat, which he declined (proving maybe he had learned something from Dukakis’s experience). He pressed a few buttons that resulted in a slight jostling of dirt. Photos were snapped, and the hard-hat guys clapped. “I’ve got to Twitter this,” Ballard gushed, standing to the side.
Newsom then stepped down from the backhoe and received another reality slap — this in the form of questions about a previously-agreed-upon deal that appeared to have fallen apart the night before between the city of San Francisco and its biggest union, the Service Employees International Union. Newsom said that morning that 1,000 city workers could lose their jobs. He speculated to me that some “far-left types, who oppose my very existence as a human and as a businessman,” were just trying to stir up trouble for his gubernatorial campaign. “It’s like that line from the French poet,” Newsom told me as he strolled away from the backhoe. These were people who like to urinate “on grasshoppers, just to make them sing.”
As I pondered this, a reporter from The San Francisco Chronicle ambushed Newsom: how could he drive (or be driven) to Tracy on the sacred morning when San Franciscans had been observing their annual Bike to Work Day? After protesting that he had been righteous on 10 of the last 12 Bike to Work days, Newsom noted that he had in fact been on a bicycle earlier in the morning — albeit a stationary bicycle. “It’s a technical point,” Newsom acknowledged in his Ted Baxter voice.
Laughter broke the stern talk for a few minutes, a sign of the times in a political circus where presentiments of doomsday mingle with the absurd. As Newsom returned to his S.U.V., Ballard made sure to tell me how many Twitterers would already be able to see photos of the mayor on the backhoe. He derided Jerry Brown’s campaign Web site and ridiculed Villaraigosa’s “totally pathetic” Twitter following.
Newsom then hopped into his black S.U.V. for the drive back to San Francisco, two canisters of hand sanitizer awaiting him in the back seat.
GOVERNOR SCHWARZENEGGER LIKES mountain metaphors. Running California is like climbing Mount Everest — or negotiating an Olympic slalom course on the way down. “It’s the tightest slalom course you can find, with bumps and moguls all on top of it,” Schwarzenegger told me. He was sitting in his tent, tapping his alligator-skin shoes on the artificial turf. He went on: “You have every obstacle you can think of. You jump in the middle of the air. Then do the turnaround with the gate. That’s what it is.” It’s very easy to catch your skis and wipe out, he added. I asked him if he wiped out. “People wipe out all the time,” he said, not answering directly.
He switched to weight lifting. “You have to psych yourself up, even though you have to lift at a weight you’ve never lifted before,” he said. “Everything’s going against you. There’s noise out there in the audience. There are people whistling, someone talking Russian behind you, all this stuff.”
Schwarzenegger has no patience for the people who want his job running around the state asking aloud why they would ever want such a job. “That, I have to say, is nonsense,” he said, tightening his massive hands into claws for emphasis. He scrunched his face into an exaggerated smirk (the exasperated “It’s not a tumor” face). “I think that you only take a job like this because you are meant to be a leader, and you are meant to be the kind of a person who likes struggle,” he said, reclining in his cigar tent, tilting his head back to blow smoke straight into the air. We should all struggle like this.
Schwarzenegger, who a few days earlier had declared June to be Real California Milk Month and hosted a demonstration for a new hybrid Hummer, betrayed slight annoyance at his difficulties with the budget but no discernible stress in his job. He said he would not change places with anyone in the world — which of course is the only thing a politician can ever say publicly. But perhaps Schwarzenegger’s most enduring asset, even if it does not always lead to salvation, is the same thing as California’s chief export: optimism. Schwarzenegger describes California’s politics as “twisted” but the state itself as “addictive.”
After our meeting, Schwarzenegger led me out of the tent and walked away to more cheers and screams before disappearing around a corner, no doubt headed to put out wildfires with his bare hands or something. I took a brief tour of his office — hallways blanketed with his photos and magazine covers, an enormous conference room stocked with bottles of booze, plates of fruit and souvenir cigars and the original sword from “Conan the Barbarian.”
It’s good to have the sword, even encased in glass as a museum piece.
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Bill Wilson is a veteran freelance photographer whose work is published by San Francisco and Bay Area media. Bill embraced photography at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR). Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past five years. Email Bill Wilson at email@example.com.