Can Gavin Newsom Make Gay Rights the New Center?


You’d be hard-pressed to find another politician, gay or straight, who has been as outspoken about LGBT issues as San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsom, but that’s just the beginning of his troubles. Newsom has been crisscrossing California in recent weeks in a tour he’s dubbed, “A Conversation on California’s Future.” His campaign site is up and running. As he amps up his campaign for governor, he’s trying to convince voters he’s a centrist, not by running away from his position, bur arguing that the center, itself has changed. But can the man whose name is synonymous with gay marriage pull it off?

In any other state, Mayor Newsom wouldn’t stand a chance, but California is a state famous for sending unlikely candidates to Sacramento, be they Austrian-born bodybuilders or genial actors.

If there’s anything California’s governors have in common, it’s a reputation for a larger-than-life presence.

And presence is something Newsom has in spades.

His personal life makes the headlines as much as policy: His power couple marriage to prosecutor Kimberly Guilfoyle fizzled in 2005 and he remarried in 2008 to Jennifer Siebel, an actress of all things. He had an on-camera meltdown with an ABC-7 reporter who asked if he had a drinking problem — and then admitted a month later that he abused alcohol and would seek treatment, yet his latest business venture is a wine company in Napa.

Watch Mayor Newsom yell at a reporter.

His reputation as a playboy and metrosexual is legendary. Last week, as part of his campaign kick-off, he sat down with Ryan Seacrest and the two discussed hair care tips, with Seacrest asking how the mayor keeps his hair so shiny. Newsom responded:

“It’s $4.99 so I may get some bottles sent my way. I’m embarrassed, Ryan, because your the first to ask me this directly. And it deserves, because I don’t want to be like those other politicians, a direct response. It’s Loreal and its the clean gel. The total clean gel. They’ve got seven, eight products and the others don’t work.”

And perhaps most importantly (at least to Queerty‘s crowd) there’s the gay marriage issue, which is what he’s most associated with in the minds of voters. During the Proposition 8 battle, the Yes On 8 campaign ran an ad of Newsom telling supporters of gay marriage, “This door’s wide open now. It’s going to happen, whether you like it or not.” It was considered one of the most effective ads of the season.

He’s publicly condemned the Catholic Church’s opposition to gay adoption, but it was his decision to allow gay marriage in the city of San Francisco, just three weeks after taking office, that’s had the greatest impact on the gay and lesbian movement.

On Feb. 12, 2004, the mayor married Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, a lesbian couple that had been together for 50 years. His decision effectively launched the recent gay marriage civil rights movement. After the Attorney General ordered the marriages stopped, Martin and Lyon, as well as other married couples, sued the state, leading to last year’s decision by the California Supreme Court to allow gay marriage. The rest, as they say, is history.

All this baggage might be too daunting for a less self-assured politician, but Newsom believes he can win over the state’s conservative base as well — and so, last week, he toured Southern California, holding town-hall style meetings to introduce himself as something more than “the marriage mayor.”

Newsom is banking on appealing to voters not as a civil-rights advocate, but as practitioner of good government. As he travels across the state, he’s reminding voters that while California is ground zero for the financial crisis, San Francisco’s financial house is in order, with a surplus of cash on hand and a bond rate that keeps going up.

The mayor instituted a universal health care program for the city called Healthy San Francisco, and he’d like to expand it to the whole state.

He’s also pushing for massive reform of California’s perpetually failing public education program, telling a group of Santa Barbara citizens that “Human capital is the most precious resource California has.”

But despite his higher profile, Newsom isn’t running away from his gay rights record. Two weeks ago, he used a forum by the Commonwealth Club on the 55th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education as an opportunity to remind people that the civil rights struggle continues for gays and lesbians. “How can you argue separate is not equal and then argue that separate is equal — but only if you’re gay? It’s everything I’m not.”

Watch Newsom talk to the Commonwealth Club.

The early reviews have been good. Town-hall meetings in Palm Springs, Santa Barabara, and Los Angeles were met with standing ovations, as well as curiosity. The question remains if Newsom’s star power is a double edged sword. While observers call him a front runner for the Democratic nomination, he faces a tough challenge from Attorney General Jerry Brown, a former governor (and former Mayor), who by comparison seems staid and reassuring. And there’s a real danger (or opportunity, depending on who you ask) that a match up between Gavin Newsom and Meg Whitman on the Republican ticket (she of eBay and supporting Prop 8) in 2010 is liable to turn into an extended referendum on gay marriage.

In Newsom, California faces a litmus test of its changing politics. Is his gubernatorial bid a quixotic quest to bring progressive values to the world’s 5th largest economy or is he the new face of centrist politics? Newsom wants you to believe the latter, but will voters?