How Gavin Newsom Got to Be a Front-Runner

(Bloomberg View) -- "I do not believe it's appropriate for me, as mayor of San Francisco, to discriminate against people,” Gavin Newsom said in February of 2004. "And if that means my political career ends, so be it."

The young mayor’s city career wasn’t really in jeopardy; by the end of 2004, he had the approval of four of five residents. His statewide ambition wasn’t foreclosed either, though more Californians opposed same-sex marriage in 2004 than supported it.

Newsom, now 50, is currently the lieutenant governor of California. According to early polls for the 2018 election, he is a front-runner to replace retiring Governor Jerry Brown as the leader of the quasi-nation-state where almost one in nine Americans resides and which has staked itself as the capital of democratic, and Democratic, resistance to the muddled pathologies of Trumpism.

Even among California Democrats, San Francisco is resented for its wealth and elitism. Newsom, whose family friendship with a Getty heir eased his way to business success, has access to the kind of donors required to mount a campaign in the nation’s most populous, and expensive, state. Some Democrats wonder whether he also has the grit and determination required. 

In a year when “progressive” will be an especially valuable label, however, Newsom has done what many politicians desire but few do: He played a pivotal role at a moment in history, becoming the first mayor to authorize his city hall to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

At the time Newsom stepped in front of history, it seemed he might also have stepped in front of a bus. Many Democratic politicians who privately supported gay marriage, or were ambivalent, were loath to take a public stand. But Newsom’s action created national news, and forced the issue. Some Democrats were livid.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a product of San Francisco politics herself, complained that it was all happening too fast and “people aren't ready for it." She fretted that Newsom had just set off a conservative tripwire in a presidential election year. (Republicans in fact made ample use of the issue that year.) Barney Frank, the outspoken and openly gay member of Congress from Massachusetts, publicly opposed Newsom’s “spectacle weddings.”

In the end, things turned out O.K. “The irony is, it probably made his career,” said David Mixner, a veteran gay-rights activist based in New York. “It gave him name recognition across the country and a funding base that will always be there for him.”

For Newsom, the gay-marriage battle was a defining moment, the likes of which few politicians experience. He seized a contentious issue, pushed it forward while others resisted or held back, and then waited for public opinion to reward his foresight. Barack Obama made it to the White House without ever having experienced something like it. 

In California’s primary, which advances the top two candidates to the general election regardless of party, Newsom is running for governor against other Democrats with strong progressive credentials, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and State Treasurer John Chiang.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, the issue has largely lost its capacity to polarize. Perhaps voters have forgotten Newsom's little piece of history, or will be focused on other challenges facing the state. But they can be reminded. Politicians spend millions to build political brands. It takes much less effort, in advertising dollars and personal persuasion, to remind voters of what they once knew than to persuade them of something for the first time.

Feinstein, the state’s senior senator, also had a defining moment at San Francisco’s City Hall, when she calmly led a shaken city after the 1978 shooting deaths of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. “That was a major moment in time in California history that, for many people, defined her,” said Feinstein adviser Bill Carrick.

Feinstein’s positions on gun regulation, including her support for a ban on many semiautomatic rifles, are easily traced to that moment of violence, which has also featured in her campaign advertising.

Since 2004, Newsom has had successes and setbacks, including a 2007 scandal resulting from an affair with the wife of a friend who was also a Newsom aide. But come what may, his defining moment on gay rights can’t be taken away. For a politician going into what is likely to be a very competitive race for a very big job, it’s nice to have a security blanket.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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