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California’s Next Governor Interview: Democratic Candidate Gavin Newsom Dives Into Childhood Challenges, Defends His Business Career And Campaign Promises

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

In his more than two decades climbing the political ladder, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has long been a magnet for criticism: for getting a boost from wealthy, connected families as he started his own business; for being a moderate San Francisco mayor before pivoting to the left; and for a long list of gubernatorial campaign proposals with hefty price tags but no recipe to pay for them.

Newsom makes no apology for any of that.

“I find it just fascinating, the punditry that’s just got it completely wrong,” he told Capital Public Radio during a recent interview at his downtown San Francisco campaign headquarters. “I’ve always been a pro-business, progressive Democrat. And that's not changed in 20-plus years.”

The lieutenant governor is vowing “bold” action to address the poverty and housing-affordability crises that he acknowledges have emerged as his fellow Democrats have led the state.

“I am offering novel approaches, a different strategy than the status quo,” he said. “We're going to dive deep into these vexing issues, and we're committed to seeing real results in real time.”

He holds clear leads in the California governor’s race in both polls and fundraising, although his race against Republican businessman John Cox appears to have narrowed since the June primary.

(Here’s our interview and profile of John Cox)

The question is whether Newsom’s calls for expanded government programs — from universal preschool and health care to increasing welfare grants and a state tax credit for low-income, working families — fit what Californians are looking for as they struggle to pay rents or mortgages, fill up gas tanks and afford rising health care costs.

“Not naive about that,” Newsom said. “But that's how you solve problems.”

‘It’s The Best Thing That’s Ever Happened To Me’

Newsom’s critics — including Cox — accuse him of being born on third base yet thinking he hit a triple. In fact, Newsom responds, he was born in 1967 to a mother who became pregnant as a teenager and separated from his father when he was two years old. His parents divorced when he was five. And his “pretty severe” dyslexia caused him to struggle in school.

His mother, Tessa Menzies, “dropped out of Chico State, didn't come from any wealth whatsoever, and ended up having to raise two kids — my sister and myself — on her own.”

Newsom says his mom held down at least two jobs, working part-time as a waitress and bookkeeper, as well as working with a nonprofit organization that helped families adopt kids with intellectual and physical disabilities.

“She was all about grit, hard work, determination,” he said. “Not complaining, not explaining her lot in life.”

Nor did she explain to her son that he had dyslexia, a learning disability that can make it hard to read, write, spell and pronounce words.

“I bounced around many, many schools,” Newsom said, noting that, when he was a kid in the 1970s, schools didn’t assess students for dyslexia. “There really wasn't a deeper understanding as there is today around what it is.”

He ended up moving to Marin County to find the right school. He remembers speech therapy sessions and staying after school to practice. “I never really associated it with anything negative, because I assumed everyone else was staying after school,” he said, even though he recalled being teased by other kids.

It wasn’t until middle school that Newsom realized his struggles weren’t typical. He says he saw a report one day when he came home early.

“I remember reading through it, not understanding it and asking my mom — who never told me that I had this learning disability. She didn’t want me to use it as a crutch,” he said.

“But it's the best thing that's ever happened to me,” he added. “It allows you to overcompensate in other ways. It allows you to be deeply empathetic to people that are struggling, people that are perceived not to be as smart.”

Newsom says he struggles reading to this day — which can sometimes make his job as an elected official more challenging. “I have to underline everything I read. If I just read text, I may completely start daydreaming and have to start over, and that's why I underline things.”

When he speaks publicly, he nearly always speaks informally, rather than reading prepared remarks. And when he does give speeches, he nearly always reads from a teleprompter instead of the printed page to avoid losing his place.

Newsom spent occasional weekends and summers with his father, William Newsom, who moved from San Francisco to Placer County. The elder Newsom worked for billionaire businessman Gordon Getty and ran the San Francisco district attorney campaign for Pat Brown, who later became California governor — and whose son, Jerry Brown, later appointed him to the Placer County Superior Court during his first stint as governor.

The younger Newsom described his father as striving for social, racial and economic justice. “He was cause-oriented, big environmentalist involved in every major environmental cause in the state, and certainly drove my political bias, which was around the dinner table with him.”

It was William Newsom’s connections to the Getty and Brown families that would give Gavin Newsom head starts in both business and politics.

‘You’re Damn Right I’m Proud Of Them’

In 1992, Newsom opened his first business: a wine shop. Getty was one of the initial investors, although there were others. The PlumpJack name of Newsom’s winery business comes from an opera that Getty wrote.

In the years that followed, Newsom parlayed his initial success at the wine shop into a restaurant and many more businesses. The PlumpJack group now encompasses more than 20 businesses and hundreds of employees, including wineries, restaurants and hotels.

Legendary San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown single-handedly launched Newsom’s political career by appointing him to a city commission in 1996, and to a vacated county supervisor seat the following year. That positioned him to run for mayor — and win — in 2003. He led the city until being sworn in as lieutenant governor in 2011.

Newsom bristles at the criticism that he was handed his life’s successes. “It's just, it's such nonsense,” he said. “I lived a completely different childhood.”

He acknowledges he was “blessed” by the investments in his businesses from wealthy and well-connected San Francisco families. But he recalls using his living room as one of his wine store warehouses, and talked about doing deliveries, wine purchases and and bookkeeping himself, along with one part-time employee.

“You're damn right I'm proud of them,” he said of his businesses. “I worked my tail off. No one else conceived of them. They're not family businesses. I didn't inherit them. They weren't handed over to me. It was through hard work that we made a go of it.”

Asked if he had an advantage that other start-from-scratch business owners and politicians did not, Newsom told CapRadio: “Yeah, perhaps, I’m sure that relationships matter.”

‘I Haven’t Changed At All’

Although possibly best known as the mayor who married same-sex couples years before courts declared them legal, Newsom earned a reputation at City Hall as a business-friendly moderate — albeit in a city famously known for its liberal politics.

As lieutenant governor, however, and with a run for governor long on his mind, Newsom led statewide ballot measures that tightened gun control and legalized recreational marijuana.

And during the gubernatorial primary campaign, he declared himself a strong supporter of single-payer health care — though he later said he is open to universal coverage that does not include single-payer.

His critics accuse him of political convenience. But Newsom points to his longtime support for stopping gun violence, and the universal health care bill he signed as mayor, as evidence that his views have remained consistent.

“Assess the facts,” he said. “I haven’t changed at all.”

Well, not quite. He acknowledges changing his view of California’s ambitious but expensive high-speed rail project. He supported the original 2008 statewide ballot measure, then criticized the project when its cost ballooned to nearly $100 billion, and more recently climbed back aboard after Gov. Jerry Brown appointed new management.

“I'm frankly more disturbed by people whose positions didn't change on high-speed rail — because the project changed,” Newsom said. “When the facts change, I think people's minds should change. I think there's nothing more stubborn than ideologues.”

Now, as he nears election to an office he’s sought for years, Newsom is running on a platform that is unabashedly progressive — yet unorthodox, he insists.

“I'm not a redistribution Democrat, but I am a predistribution Democrat,” he said. “And that is radically changing our approaches and interventions as it relates to erasing poverty, by beginning at the beginning.”

Take, for example, his lengthy list of promises from his campaign website’s child poverty page, including:

  • universal preschool
  • college savings accounts for every kindergartner
  • expanding access to prenatal development, developmental screenings and family nurse visits
  • expanding the state's Earned Income Tax Credit low-income, working families
  • “dramatically” increasing grants for CalWORKS, the state’s welfare-to-work program; and
  • universal health care.

Newsom said he is committing to those promises “over the course of a number of years.”

“None of these things could be done overnight,” he said, arguing that his accomplishments in San Francisco were gradual, as well. “I laid out what I will commit myself to, what I will find as a priority and help finance as a priority and promote. And I hope we can achieve them.”

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