SF Mayor Gavin Newsom Risks Career on Gay Marriage

I. Gavin Newsom is the sort of politician who leaves an impression. There's his prodigious résumé—at 41, he has started a multimillion-dollar wine business, served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and won election, twice, to serve as that city's mayor. There's his colorful personal life—after divorcing a knockout TV anchorwoman, he had an affair with his campaign manager's wife, an affair Newsom admitted to before then marrying a 34-year-old actress. Then there's his striking appearance—white teeth, long limbs and that hair, big and brown and slicked back on the sides. In spite of being straight, white, rich and male, he's managed to make himself the center of San Francisco politics for the past five years. Not the sort of man you forget. But ask average Californians what they remember about Newsom at the moment, and they're likely to offer six words: "whether you like it or not." That's what Newsom said about gay marriage—it was coming to California, and America, whether you like it or not. He said it in a speech, shortly after the California Supreme Court extended marriage rights to gays and lesbians. But his words were captured for posterity in an ad for Proposition 8, the ballot initiative seeking to reverse that decision. The ad begins with footage of a gloating Newsom grinning widely and gesturing broadly as he exclaims "the door's wide open, it's going to happen, whether you like it or not." It then lists a litany of coming evils: "people sued over personal beliefs, churches losing their tax-exempt status, gay marriage taught in public schools." It ends back with the smirking mayor: "whether you like it or not." Airing across the state, the ad was viewed as among the most effective in support of the ban. In November, Prop 8 passed, new gay marriages were prohibited in California, and the mayor of San Francisco was immortalized as the face of the radical gay agenda in the state.

How did Newsom let this happen to himself? The question has puzzled many in the Democratic Party. In 2003, when he was elected the youngest mayor of San Francisco in a century, party leaders embraced him as a rising star, headed for a bright national career. But then he seemed to go crazy. In 2004, before the state's high court had ruled, he allowed city hall to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, an act of civil disobedience that would make him a national celebrity. In 2008, he vocally and passionately opposed Prop 8, even after the "like it or not" ad made him a sideshow act in the debate. In an era when Democrats have concluded that they lose elections talking about God, guns or gays, Newsom has made gay civil rights his signature issue, a matter of principle for which he would sacrifice his career. Once viewed as a young man in a hurry, Newsom has become a joke to Democratic insiders, a man whose bright national future ended before it began.

But Newsom hasn't gotten any less ambitious. In the next six months, he is widely expected to announce a run for governor of California, replacing the term-limited Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2011. His advisers say his high visibility on gay marriage will be an asset in a Democratic primary where a large majority of voters opposed Proposition 8. Should he win his party's nomination, Newsom claims his stance on the issue will appeal even to voters who disagree with him. "They'll know that what most politicians claim, I actually do," Newsom tells NEWSWEEK. "I act on my principles, whether they're popular or not." He is a young-enough man to look at demographic data showing young voters are more likely to support gay marriage than their parents and grandparents, to envision a moment when his position on the issue is neither an asset nor a liability. He can imagine a moment when gay marriage is not an issue at all.

He's not the only one. In the past decade, most Democrats with national ambitions have taken a tortuously contorted position on gay rights—for civil unions, for full and equal rights, but opposed to "changing the definition of marriage." The position has reflected the conventional wisdom that while voters might support tolerance of gays, something about the word "marriage" makes them queasy. Quietly, however, a generation of younger Democrats from liberal urban areas has rejected this thinking. Newsom, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and New York Gov. David Paterson (and Eliot Spitzer before him) have decided to skip the verbal acrobatics and support gay marriage outright. In her quest to be appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's New York Senate seat, Caroline Kennedy has offered few specific positions on issues. One notable exception: the 51-year-old Democrat supports gay marriage, full stop.

When it comes to reading the mood of the country, urban liberals have a far from perfect record. As the defeat of Proposition 8 in blue California demonstrated, there are still plenty of moderate voters who do not share in the belief that gay marriage is inevitable in this country. As he ventures outside San Francisco in the next year, Newsom will learn just how much of an appetite exists for progressive activism in California, a bellwether for the country as a whole, on social issues like marriage and on concerns like health care, where Newsom envisions an activist role for the state. In the year after Barack Obama's historic victory, California may be the first and best place to see just how much change American voters are really ready to take.

Newsom's time as mayor has prepared him for a dramatic fight. Earlier this month he escorted a NEWSWEEK reporter down Market Street, near city hall. Most everyone recognized him—and had something to say. Some were fawning. "I just have to ask you for a picture," said one woman, " 'cause you're the sexiest mayor I've ever seen." Newsom smiled for the camera and demurred: "It's all relative when you're talking about mayors." Others were less fawning. "F––– you, Gavin," a man shouted across a busy intersection. "Get out of my life." Everyone thought they could talk to the mayor as if they knew him, some too well. "Keep getting the p–––y, Gavin," shouted one admiring citizen.

Only a certain kind of politician can thrive in this flamboyant environment. Newsom didn't always look the type. Growing up, he struggled with dyslexia and says he was shy in social situations. The son of a prominent Irish-Catholic appellate judge in the city, he was selected to serve on the Board of Supervisors in 1997 largely through process of elimination—politically connected straight white men in San Francisco can be hard to find.

In 2003, he ran for mayor as a mainstream Democrat, which, in San Francisco, means running from the right. His main opponent, Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez, warned that as mayor, Newsom would usher in an era of new conservatism in the most liberal city in the West. A last-minute push by the most prominent centrist Democrat in the nation, Bill Clinton, helped Newsom win the race with a coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans. When he took office, the safe bet in the city was that Newsom would follow the model of his mentor, former mayor and U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, governing from the middle and making few waves.

But within a month of taking the oath of office, Newsom would demonstrate a remarkable inclination for theatrics. After the landmark November 2003 Massachusetts decision legalizing gay marriage in that state, gay Californians urged their state's politicians to take similar steps. Newsom responded—and then some—ordering the county clerk to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in violation of California law. Four thousand gay couples would receive marriage licenses in the city before the courts ordered the ceremonies to a halt.

Newsom's bold gesture put him out of step with his own party. Throughout the previous two decades, the Democratic Party had become the de facto home for gays—less for what it was than what it wasn't, a Republican Party dominated by the Christian right. Gays developed close ties to the party leadership, and wrote big checks to Democratic candidates, even as the party did precious little to advance the cause of gay rights. In the Bush era, many Democrats would strongly hint to gay supporters that they were secretly rooting for gay marriage. But the talking point for mainstream Democrats remained the same: marriage is between a man and a woman, next question please.

The flight from party orthodoxy landed Newsom in the wilderness. The 2004 California presidential primary was less than a month after Newsom's renegade marriages began. "I was toxic," Newsom recalls. "You couldn't get any of those candidates to come anywhere near me."

Newsom understood their political calculations, but he had his own set. Embracing gay marriage so publicly, he must have known then, would ensure that he would never have to prove himself to San Francisco's left again. Still, the logic of many of his friends in the party left him confused. "Before I came to office, every friend, every mentor, every elected official I knew offered the same piece of advice," Newsom says. "They said, whatever you do, don't compromise yourself on things that you truly believe … And then when I followed that advice, they were shocked."

Shocking behavior from Newsom would soon become the norm in San Francisco. In a two-year period, he divorced his wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle, admitted to an affair, admitted to being an alcoholic—and still he managed to win re-election with 72 percent of the vote. "No-Drama Obama?" he asks, jokingly. "Yeah, that's not me."

But neither is he a political naif. Earlier this month the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gathered to elect a new president. The outcome was not fore- ordained (few things are in a body that represents the electoral cocktail of San Francisco—progressivism mixed with statism mixed with old-school party machinery and a healthy helping of identity politics). In an anteroom off the board chamber, Newsom offered a prediction. "It'll be David Chiu; they'll make a deal." It was a counterintuitive guess—Chiu, a newly elected supervisor, did not receive a single vote in the first three ballots. The voting went on; there were impassioned speeches, and one supervisor took himself out of contention only to put himself back in. Finally, after eight ballots, the consensus candidate was announced: Supervisor David Chiu.

Newsom's advisers are counting on these instincts to make the difference in a long, expensive governor's race. A year and a half from the primary, the Democratic field already looks crowded with Attorney General (and former governor) Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi all likely candidates. Newsom is far from a shoo-in. "This should be a good year for the party," says one Democratic consultant with a long history in California politics who would not criticize Newsom before he'd even entered the race. "There's a perception that he's a little too dramatic, a little too divisive for us to gamble on this time."

Should he pull off the primary, he might face a compelling Republican opponent in former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Many California Republicans, who can recall how effective a foil Newsom proved in the Prop 8 fight, relish the prospect of facing him in the governor's race. Still, Newsom advisers think a race against the last of the moderate Republicans could highlight the best parts of Newsom's progressive, millennial message.

Newsom's greatest challenge in a statewide race will be his image: proving that California is really ready for San Francisco values, and that it's ready now. On his signature issue, he believes that it is not he but his cautious colleagues who seem out of step. "Democrats have to be careful, when they get up at Jefferson-Jackson dinners and talk about themselves as the party of full and equal rights," he says. "The focus on marriage makes it clear there's an integrity gap there." His campaign for governor will not focus on social issues, emphasizing instead his work in San Francisco on health care and welfare reform. In his interview with NEWSWEEK, he picked up a thick packet, his agenda as mayor for the coming year. "Gay marriage isn't anywhere in here," he said. Then, he paused, reflecting, and pointed to his heart, "but it's fundamental; it's in here." Whether you like it or not.