“Fourteen people came up to me and said you should be president,” says Melissa Murray, the interim dean of the Berkeley Law School. She is talking to Gavin Newsom, who just delivered the school’s commencement address. Newsom has been the mayor of San Francisco, and he’s currently lieutenant governor of California, an elected position that’s basically a glorified understudy for governor. Yet to see the mob scene of cooing law students around the 50-year-old candidate for governor — who stands six feet three with a full head of hair swept off a strong forehead and a toothpaste-commercial smile — one would assume he’s the second coming of John F. Kennedy.
“They called me before this speech and said they really liked what I did with gay marriage,” Newsom says. He is referring to his most famous political act, when, as San Francisco mayor, 11 years before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, he flouted state law and ordered the county clerk to start issuing same-sex marriage licenses. “I thought, ‘This is something I never talk about.’ Now they tell me I talked about it the last time I spoke here. So I spent all this time on a speech I already gave.”
This is Newsom’s big year, one that will seal his political fate. With California in a warm war with the Trump White House, Newsom has tirelessly campaigned under the banner of “resistance with results.” He trolls Trump more regularly on his Twitter feed (to resplendent likes) than he discusses state policy. And having won the Democratic primary for California governor in June, Newsom is heading into a very Trump-centric election against Republican challenger John Cox, a businessman whom the president has supported and would obviously love to see in California’s highest office.
California has been a consistent thorn in the president’s side, particularly when it comes to immigration and the environment. The state has filed (and joined) lawsuits against the federal government to keep it from building the promised border wall, leasing public lands to coal companies, banning transgender people from the military, allowing employers to deny birth-control coverage on religious or moral grounds and taking away rights and protections from undocumented immigrants.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department has countered with its own lawsuits, suing California for interfering with the sale of federal lands and for its supposedly unconstitutional sanctuary-state laws. The administration has also threatened to halt certain funding and grants to California. This has naturally been accompanied by a full blast of Trump rhetoric, accusing the Golden State of “sheltering dangerous criminals in a brazen and lawless attack on our constitutional system of government.”
“It’s economic suicide to attack California,” Newsom says, noting that the state accounts for more than one-eighth of the nation’s economy and 20 percent of the country’s economic growth since 2010. “Trump cannot succeed with any of his asserted priorities, particularly on economic growth, without California being a huge player in that.”
Newsom is the opposite of Trump not only on policy but on personality — Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, refers to him as “the anti-Trump.” He can come off as uncertain, even goofy, leaning toward self-deprecation over braggadocio and curiosity over certainty. He carries around a satchel of books and legal pads, scrawling almost illegible notes for his staffers to decipher. “I have to prepare six hours for a 10-minute speech because of my dyslexia,” he confides. “I can’t just read it off paper, because if I look up, I lose my place and it all turns into squiggles.”
The son of a state appellate judge, Newsom was born into California’s political elite. His father, William, was a close friend of the Getty family. When Newsom was three, his parents separated. His mother, Tessa, who was in her early twenties at the time, began working multiple jobs to support the family, so Newsom led a solitary life. “A lot of people talk in colorful three dimensions about their childhood,” he says. “For me, so much of it is blocked out. It’s not bad. It’s not good. It’s just blocked.”
Newsom originally entered the business world, starting and investing in wineries, restaurants and nightspots. His political career began with his support for Willie Brown’s San Francisco mayoral campaign in 1995. Two years later, he was appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he spent six years. In 2004, he won his first of two terms as mayor of San Francisco before becoming California’s lieutenant governor in 2011 — and now, the front-runner for governor. And he’s done all this amid scandals that might sink a lesser candidate — going to counseling for a drinking problem after getting caught in a romance with his appointments secretary, who also happened to be the wife of his campaign manager. (He was then separated from his first wife, former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, and is now married to the actress and director Jennifer Siebel Newsom.) “For the rest of my life I’ll regret that,” he says of the affair. “But it’s the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of my personal development.”
In his office, there is a whiteboard emblazoned with three major issues: immigration, marijuana and energy. He has been an outspoken opponent of federal immigration raids, an early supporter of marijuana for recreational use, and has promised to put “California on a clear path to 100 percent renewable energy.” But, he says, it takes more than comprehensive policy to win elections. “I’m a policy guy,” he says. “I ran [for mayor] on 23 policy positions. I bored everybody, and I almost lost. I’ll never forget it.”
On his computer-free desk, there’s a stack of letters he’s writing and signing. Whenever he meets someone and gets a business card, he pens a thank-you note. He says he learned this from his mother; then, a few seconds later, he wonders if maybe he learned it from someone else. In any case, it’s a polite throwback that illustrates an attribute Newsom says matters more to voters than policy: “Values,” he says. “It’s not how much you know, it’s how much you care. It’s how you make someone feel.”
The feeling he seems to believe the next California election hinges on is toughness, particularly with Trump. “Bullies only respond to strength,” he says before heading off to a meeting with climate scientists on the natural disasters threatening California. “This guy will fleece us if we just roll over and play footsies.”