Is Gavin Newsom Blowing It?

Dining out during lockdowns. Fumbling the vaccine rollout. With a recall effort gaining steam, California’s once-golden governor is fighting for his political life
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For one brief shining moment, the night of November 6, 2018, Gavin Newsom seemed invincible. More than 1,000 supporters had crammed into Exchange L.A., a nightclub located in the former Los Angeles stock-market building downtown, to cheer as he won the California gubernatorial race, a cresting moment in the midterm blue wave that swept scores of Democrats into office across the country. When the then-51-year-old newly elected governor of the largest state in the union took to the stage, the roar could be heard outside on Spring Street. “It’s time to roll the credits on the politics of chaos,” he told his ecstatic followers. “The sun is rising in the west, and the arc of history is bending in our direction!”

It seemed for sure that the Resistance had found a leader worthy of the cause. Tall, handsome, Kennedy-level charismatic, Newsom was clearly a politician who could stand up to Donald Trump and who might even someday occupy the Oval Office himself. And on that chilly November evening, he had every reason to be confident about the future. Not only had he defeated Republican tax attorney John Cox in an historic rout, he was inheriting a state with a $20 billion budget surplus, a largely friendly (that is, Democratic) state legislature, an unemployment rate of just 4.8 percent, and an agenda that was among the most progressive and ambitious in the country. Climate recovery. Justice reform. Healthcare for all Californians. All seemed not just possible but tantalizingly within reach. What could possibly go wrong?

Jump cut to two years later. Exchange L.A. is shuttered—homeless encampments have sprouted on the sidewalk out front—along with tens of thousands of other businesses across California. Millions of acres across the state have been torched in wildfires. Unemployment recently soared as high as 16.4 percent (though it’s now back down to a still-lofty 9 percent). California accounts for nearly a quarter of the country’s homeless population. Racial tensions spilled onto the streets last summer, sparking weeks of protests and opportunistic looting. Then there is the coronavirus crisis, which has so far killed close to 44,000 Californians, and a botched vaccine rollout that, by some estimates, has nearly half of the state’s distributed doses still sitting in freezers. Add to all that the worst political-optics blunder since Michael Dukakis sat in a tank—when Newsom was photographed at a lobbyist’s birthday party at Napa Valley’s posh French Laundry restaurant just days after he had issued a stay-at-home order—and we’re talking about a first-term disaster of biblical proportions. As his approval rating plummeted to a dismal 46 percent, things seemed so bad even Gray Davis felt sorry for the guy.

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The governor getting a COVID test at the $120 million site in Valencia he helped to fund

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

“Nobody has been dealt a tougher hand than Gavin Newsom,” Davis, the only California governor ever to be recalled by voters, said in a recent interview with Politico. “Look, I had the energy crisis and a recession. He has a pandemic we haven’t seen for 100 years. He has the fallout from that pandemic, racial injustice, wildfires, and I think I’m leaving something out. But nobody—no living governor—has had to experience as many crises as him.”

And it looks like one more is on the way: Organizers of a push to make Newsom the second California governor to be recalled have already collected somewhere between 450,000 to 1.3 million of the required 1.5 million signatures needed to trigger a special election, which could be held as early as this fall. The recall movement is filled with QAnon conspiracists, Proud Boys, Three Percenters, anti-vaxxers, and other once-fringy MAGA-friendly groups, all itching for the chance to own one last lib as the Trump administration fades into history. But it’s also gaining steam with regular folk, too—like parents who’ve reached their wit’s end with school closures and small-business owners crushed by the lockdowns who’ve been collecting recall signatures at their shops and restaurants and posting homemade political ads for their cause on social media. If their grassroots revolution succeeds—they have until the state-mandated deadline of March 17 to collect the rest of the signatures—we may soon witness the sort of national political spectacle California excels at. The last time the state held a special election, when Davis was ousted in 2003, more than 100 candidates threw their hats into the ring, including former child actor Gary Coleman, commentator Arianna Huffington, porn star Mary Carey, and, oh, yeah, a body-builder-turned-actor named Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It couldn’t be more ironic. Of all the nation’s governors, Newsom should have been the one best-equipped to handle such a tsunami of crises. He’s a big-government proponent from a wealthy indigo-blue state, a technocrat who could bore even Al Gore with his wonky mastery of facts and policy papers. Who better to juggle the bureaucratic and logistical challenges of simultaneous health, economic, and ecological emergencies? Indeed, the pandemic could have been the opportunity of his career: If he’d handled COVID-19 and the other calamities just a bit more adroitly, it could have guaranteed Newsom’s political future and possibly catapulted him to even higher office. Instead, it may prove to be his undoing.

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It’s probably the last thing Newsom would want to admit, but he and Trump have something in common—and it’s not just that his ex-wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle, is currently dating Donald Trump Jr. Newsom and Trump are both ultra polarizing political figures. According to recent polling, eight out of ten Republicans disapprove of Newsom’s performance as governor, “which is the mirror image of Trump,” notes Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California. “Voters who dislike Trump like the fact that Newsom has stood up to him. For Republicans who support Trump, that’s what bothers them about Newsom.” “Bothers” is putting it mildly. Next to fellow San Franciscan Nancy Pelosi, Newsom is the liberal whom conservatives most love to loathe.

Unlike Trump, Newsom doesn’t come from wealth. He and his sister grew up in a modest Marin County apartment and were raised by a single mom, Tessa, who juggled three jobs to make ends meet. He suffered from severe dyslexia (to this day, he prefers audiobooks and receives many of his briefings verbally), but found solace in sports, particularly baseball and basketball, at which he excelled. During games at Redwood High School in the 1980s, cheerleaders invented a special callout just for the immaculately gelled young player: “Dippity-do, dippity-do, Gavin, Gavin, we love you!” He won a partial baseball scholarship to Santa Clara University and was a pitcher for the school’s team until he threw his arm out in his sophomore year.

It’s a compelling working-class backstory and one Newsom aides did their best to pitch to the press and the public early in his career. But it never quite caught on. From the start, Newsom’s leading-man looks, his later successes in the hospitality industry, and subsequent deep ties to San Francisco’s business and social establishment have cut both ways. They’ve given him star quality and name recognition but also left him open to criticism that he is an out-of-touch, Tesla-driving one-percenter with a mansion in Fair Oaks.

“The counternarrative was hard to push,” admits Garry South, a consultant who has worked with both Newsom and Davis. “That was the damaging thing about the French Laundry thing: it crystallized this notion of Newsom as breathing rarefied air in Pacific Heights—as San Francisco royalty.”

In truth, Newsom’s family, while hardly wealthy, was at least adjacent to California royalty. His father, William Alfred Newsom, was an appeals court judge and a good friend of Gordon Getty, son of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. When Newsom’s parents divorced in 1972, Getty unofficially adopted five-year-old Gavin. In 1992, when Newsom launched his first business venture, PlumpJack Winery, Getty was his investor. The boutique label specializing in premium cabernet sauvignons ended up being a huge success, and Newsom soon branched out into cafes, hotels, clothing lines, and other enterprises, amassing a small fortune of his own. By 2002, at just 32, he was reportedly worth over $6.9 million.

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Newsom with ex-wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle | Newsom celebrating his win as mayor of San Francisco in 2003

AP/Jeff Chiu | AP/Eric Risberg

The first spark of political ambition goes back to those early PlumpJack days. After the San Francisco Health Department ordered Newsom to install a $27,000 sink in his wine store, he battled city hall and not only won but was appointed a city supervisor. He later volunteered for Willie Brown’s 1995 campaign for mayor of San Francisco, offering up his restaurant for a series of fundraisers. After Brown won, he gave Newsom a seat on the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission, then promoted him to the Board of Supervisors, where he quickly made a name for himself by banning tobacco ads in public spaces.

When Newsom ran for mayor of San Francisco in 2003, Schwarzenegger had just won the special election replacing Davis, giving state Republicans their first taste of real power in ages. But Newsom’s biggest opponent in the mayoral race wasn’t from the GOP—it was the Green Party’s Matt Gonzalez, a liberal firebrand who had backed Ralph Nader in the 2008 presidential election. Things got ugly, and accusations were flung, among them that Newsom had once donated $500 to a Republican. But Newsom prevailed in a tight run-off and served for seven years, doing a lot of good—his decision to issue marriage
licenses in San Francisco to same-sex couples was a watershed civil rights moment—but also making forehead-slapping mistakes. On the more innocent end was a 2004 photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar in which he and Guilfoyle, his wife of three years (at the time, she was working in the San Francisco DA’s office alongside Kamala Harris), posed in the Getty mansion under the cringey headline “The New Kennedys.” More damaging, after Newsom’s divorce from Guilfoyle in 2006, were the rumors of boozing and womanizing. One of his good friends, campaign manager Alex Tourk, resigned in 2007 after learning that the mayor had carried on an affair with Tourk’s wife while she worked in his office.

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Riding the blue wave during the California primaries, Newsom with (from far left) California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, then-Senator Kamala Harris, and Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

Those early missteps dogged him for years, but failed to slow down Newsom’s climb, or his ambition. After marrying actress Jennifer Siebel in 2008, with whom he now has four children—Montana, 11, Hunter, 9, Brooklyn, 7, and Dutch, 4—Newsom made his first run for governor in 2009. Although endorsed by Bill Clinton, Newsom was stopped in his tracks during the primaries by California icon Jerry Brown, who easily coasted back to the Governor’s Mansion. Undeterred, Newsom was elected lieutenant governor in 2011, holding office for eight years and pushing to ban capital punishment in California (he lost) and to legalize marijuana (he won). With Brown termed out, Newsom announced his candidacy for the 2018 election more than three years before the primary. With no serious Democratic opposition, he beat Cox in a landslide.

Newsom’s platform during the 2018 campaign was solidly progressive. He pledged to build 3.5 million new homes, extend gun control measures, establish universal preschool, and end the use of private prisons. Within weeks of taking office, he initiated a moratorium on the death penalty. But it didn’t take long for the carping to begin—from the left as well as the right.

“You have to put all the political capital that you’ve earned in an election to fight for big changes that are going to help everyday people—and he hasn’t done that,” argues L.A.-based entrepreneur and investor Joe Sanberg. The cofounder of the socially conscious financial firm Aspiration sounds like he’s considering a run for statewide office, even if he won’t admit it. “We ought to have a governor who’s going to put it all on the line for universal health care, who is going to make sure that everyone who works here earns a living wage of $23 an hour, and who’s a consistent champion of climate action, and not one who advocates for it on Twitter and then, when we’re not looking, approves 128 fracking permits. We need a modern FDR, but a California version. That’s the kind of crisis we’re facing in the state.”

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CRISIS MANAGER? The Dodger Stadium COVID test site in November | Newsom and Trump surveying wildfire damage
in Paradise, CA

Robyn Beck/Getty Images | Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Of course, the biggest crisis California is facing right now isn’t one of Newsom’s making. Nobody could have anticipated the pandemic and the economic and social fallout that would rain down on the state. Few could have predicted the federal government’s abysmal early response. To help him cope with the growing crisis, the governor leans on a small entourage of friends, including political consultant Nathan Ballard, sports agent Doug Hendrickson, tech exec Peter Stern, and Newsom’s brother-in-law, Geoff Callan. However, a source says, in recent months Newsom has been more isolated than usual. In December, his longtime chief of staff, Ann O’Leary, stepped down and was replaced by Jim DeBoo, a Sacramento insider. “On an island,” is how the source describes the governor’s current mood. Others around him insist that his aloof, sometimes imperious manner masks a deeply empathetic, curious, and funny man who still remains the best chance for California to find its way to a better future.

“I’ve never seen somebody connect with issues and people, and think in perpetuity about what was said, and come back to it over and over again,” says political consultant Marc Adelman, who has known Newsom for more than a decade. “More leaders should be like him.”

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The queue outside the Kedren Community Health Center typically starts at around 6 a.m. and, by early afternoon, snakes around several blocks with hundreds of people hoping to luck into an available vaccine shot. Until a recent Los Angeles Times article blew the lid on vaccine “standby lines,” the existence of these fast-track inoculation sites was a closely guarded secret shared among well-connected and, usually, well-to-do friends. The profiles of those in line on a recent Thursday suggests as much; it’s a largely white, seemingly affluent crowd, which doesn’t quite square with the surrounding lower-income Latino neighborhood just south of downtown. One woman is wearing a SpaceX hoodie. Another is whisked away in a BMW X7. There are rumors that Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis were spotted waiting their turn. “It’s such a weird way to do this,” sighs Reed Smith, who works at a cosmetics company and drove to Kedren from Culver City to get the vaccine. A tattooed young woman who rode in from Silver Lake and suffers from cystic fibrosis summed up the scene more bluntly before she and her boyfriend got their shots: “Obviously, this is a total shitshow.”

As of early February, California was ranked 40th among the 50 states in vaccination rates per 100,000 residents, behind Georgia, Minnesota, and Mississipi, with just 1.6 percent of the population fully inoculated. The excuses for the failure run the gamut from a general shortage of vaccines to a buggy online reservation system. A lack of coordination between the state and the counties has also been widely cited. Newsom didn’t help matters with his announcement in January that anyone over the age of 65 was eligible to be vaccinated; his edict made an already chaotic situation even more so, as some counties didn’t have enough vaccines to meet the demand and were told to set their own eligibility requirements. “Right now,” notes Baldassare, stating the obvious, “for those who are unhappy with the governor, the top two issues are COVID and the economy.”

Much of Newsom’s fate will depend on whether he can fix those issues before patience with him runs out. “He has an opportunity now with the vaccine rollout to show the government acting really well,” says political scientist Raphael Sonenshein, who adds that Newsom’s messaging during the pandemic hasn’t served him well. “He has a tendency to give more information than the voters need, but not the information voters want,” he says. “But if things start to turn around, time will be on his side. People can see the end in sight, and he has the Biden administration to help.”

No one interviewed at the Kedren clinic is ready to lay all the blame at Newsom’s feet—most of them note how large and diverse California is, and almost all mention the disastrous Trump administration response. “It’s definitely challenging to hear the CDC say one thing and the state say another thing,” says Dr. Jerry Abraham, an epidemiologist who is helping oversee the vaccination program at Kedren. “I will say this: when the governor’s office got wind of what we’re doing here, they did everything they could to get us support. That’s critical.”

How widely those feelings are shared across the state is unclear, but it’s not looking so great for Newsom. Two recent polls, both taken in late January, show his approval ratings sliding precipitously from their 64 percent high back in May 2020. A Public Policy Institute of California survey found that 52 percent of likely voters now approve of his handling of the job. But a UC Berkeley Institute poll put Newsom’s support at just 46 percent. More worrisome for the governor, that same Berkeley poll found that 36 percent of registered voters said they would vote to kick Newsom out of office if a recall vote actually came to pass. Of course, those numbers could shift by the fall, when a recall election might take place—especially if most voters are vaccinated by then. At press time, though, just 31 percent of voters think Newsom has done a good job of battling the pandemic.

Over the past few months, a Napa man was arrested for plotting to plant pipe bombs at Newsom’s office, and hundreds of violent threats have been lobbed against the governor. Some included sexual threats against his wife.

But the vaccine rollout is not the only motivator of the recall effort. Even if Newsom could magically inoculate the entire state overnight, there’d still be plenty of angry voters out for blood, some of them literally. Over the last several months, hundreds of violent threats have been lobbed against the governor, many of them phoned into Newsom’s PlumpJack businesses, according to the Sacramento Bee, including sexual threats against his wife. “The tone and the verbiage of some of these death threats are shocking,” a PlumpJack spokesman said. In one alarming incident, a Napa County man was arrested by the FBI in January for plotting to plant five pipe bombs at Newsom’s office. The suspect, Ian Benjamin Rogers, had a sticker on his car tying him to the Three Percenters. A “white privilege card” was also found among his belongings.

Obviously, not all recall advocates are violent racists or QAnon nutjobs. “I don’t understand how someone in a position like his couldn’t have seen this coming,” says Angela Marsden, owner of Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grill in Sherman Oaks, who became a rallying symbol of the movement after her YouTube video detailing the suffering of small business owners under lockdowns went viral this fall. Like hundreds of other small business owners, Marsden has converted the parking lot of her restaurant into a recall-signature-gathering center. In December, she joined a growing list of businesses that have filed lawsuits against Newsom over his COVID-related restrictions. Her complaint—filed on her behalf by Mark Geragos, the Hollywood lawyer who defended Michael Jackson and Winona Ryder—accuses Newsom and now-former State Attorney General Xavier Becerra of depriving her and other entrepreneurs of their fundamental right to make a living. Thanks to regular appearances on Fox News and other conservative outlets, a GoFundMe campaign started for Marsden has raised over $220,000, and she’s being courted by Republicans seeking her endorsement. “Us peasants down here can only take so much, and that’s how everyone feels—that we’ve been discarded and completely abandoned, and that it’s all some sort of joke to them,” she says.

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Small businesses damaged by pandemic lockdowns have been a potent source of anti-Newsom fervor. Recent data suggests that half of the state’s small businesses are in danger of shutting down.

Stanton Sharpe/Getty Images

How likely is a recall? While even Newsom’s allies admit momentum is growing, the movement to replace him faces big hurdles. For one thing, it’s still a disorganized grassroots effort made up of three separate committees collecting signatures with little coordination. And recalls are expensive—so far, the money flowing in has been more trickle than flood. ReCode recently reported that several deep-pocketed Silicon Valley executives are starting to write five- and six-figure checks, and real estate developer Geoffrey Palmer is reported to have made a six-figure contribution. But unlike Davis’s recall, there’s been no Darrell Issa pumping $1.7 million into the fight.

“That big-time donor hasn’t come forward yet,” says Orrin Heatlie, a retired sheriff in Yolo County who heads one of the three recall committees. Heatlie’s efforts started in August 2019, long before anyone had heard of COVID. Every week, he drives more than 1,000 miles to pick up new signatures and drop them off. “We’ve been crowdsourcing our funding, and it’s been sustainable. But definitely not the amount we need to secure professional signature gatherers. It’s hard to get people to write a $500,000 check.”

Back in 2003, Davis was late to recognize the threat of the recall effort. He’d also just barely survived a bruising reelection that he’d won by a razor-thin margin. Newsom, on the other hand, trounced Cox by a 62-38 percent margin. He’s also a far more skilled politician than Davis ever was—knuckleheaded trips to French Laundry notwithstanding—governing an even more left-leaning state than it was two decades ago. (Joe Biden took California with 64 percent of the vote last November, compared with 54 percent for John Kerry in 2004.) Still, he is hardly invulnerable. Virtually every expert and political insider interviewed for this story estimates the chances of a recall at something like 50-50 (although—chin, up, Gavin—London bookmakers are putting the odds at only one in five). And while none of Newsom’s presumptive opponents—like Cox, who is running again despite his drubbing in 2018, as well as former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer and venture capitalist billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya—pose serious threats, there are nightmare scenarios that have Newsom’s inner circle worried. “There’s no Republican on the scene right now,” says one Newsom adviser. “But that doesn’t mean a movie star or a candidate with extraordinary star power couldn’t rise out of nowhere. That’s what I’m nervous about.”

Governor Dwayne Johnson? It could happen.

For the time being, though, Newsom has other problems to worry about. Recent data shows that almost half of all small businesses in the state are in danger of shutting down, with minority-owned establishments especially vulnerable. Worse, economists are warning that the bulk of lost restaurant, hospitality, and leisure jobs may not be coming back anytime soon—or anytime at all. The homelessness crisis grows worse every day. COVID is still killing hundreds of Californians every week. Vaccines are languishing in cold storage. The climate keeps warming.

Ironically, all that bad news may end up being the thing that saves Newsom’s political hide. After all, who in their right mind would want to be governor of California right now? Despite the occasional perks, it’s arguably the worst job in the world.


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