News & Views from 465 California Street

The Education of Gavin Newsom

Clint Reilly

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom backed out of the governor’s race last week, a classic fight between old school and new school politics was canceled.

Too bad. The bloodfest would have drawn a crowd.

Newsom tried hard to be a local version of Barack Obama, using new technologies to connect with young voters. His Facebook page substituted for a traditional campaign brochure and more than 1.2 million people followed his every move on Twitter. Nary a week passed that Newsom did not write a column for the online newspaper Huffington Post or post his views at the hub of online progressivism, the Daily Kos.

The telegenic Newsom starred in a series of town hall meetings staged across California. These events were designed for television news. He communicated his agenda via press conferences and photo ops that highlighted his mayoral initiatives: Here he is touting a law requiring San Franciscans to compost waste! There he is setting aside space near City Hall for a public garden!

Newsom’s campaign committed considerable energy to online fundraising from small donors as a substitute for special interest contributions and major givers. It was a noble goal, but the big money never materialized.

Taken as a whole, Newsom’s strategy was to build a clear contrast with his 71-year-old opponent, Jerry Brown.

Ironically, Brown was once a “new politician” himself as California governor in the late 70s and early 80s.

Brown is an old school Democrat who has been a California political fixture since his debut more than 40 years ago.

Son of popular former governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, he burst onto the scene in 1969 with the Los Angeles Community College Board and subsequently became California’s Secretary of State. Brown enjoyed two terms as California governor before losing a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1982.

As governor, Brown carved out a persona as an unusual pol with a taste for philosophy and theology at the Zen Center instead of bourbon and scotch at Frank Fats, the Sacramento watering hole.

Since leaving Sacramento, Brown has served as Democratic State Chairman and two terms as Mayor of Oakland before being elected California Attorney General in 2006.

This massive résumé seemed to validate Newsom’s argument that Brown was a retread. But it was Newsom, not Brown, who resigned the race last week.

I know both men. And I am not surprised that the old pol prevailed.

Newsom is a potential future star, but his exit was driven by economics: he was broke and Brown had more than $8 million in the bank. There’s a reason for that.

Brown has assiduously cultivated an army of loyal friends which has grown through the many offices he has held over the years.

These are not sunshine allies but real friends – many of whom have been with Brown since his gubernatorial days in the 1970s. His consistent support of traditional Democratic groups has built a loyal following among insiders who live and die by a politician’s word and know they can trust him. But Brown also commands an impressive group of contributors who believe he will bring “good government.”

Newsom, on the other hand, did not possess Brown’s formidable Rolodex and he seemed uninterested in dialing for dollars. The unspoken truth among Newsom’s campaign staff was that he was forced to raise funds online because he had few other options. Unlike Brown, Newsom lacked a cadre of insider friends who would help raise the huge war chest needed for a gubernatorial race.

Newsom’s lack of attention to personal relationships and his tendency to distance himself from his strongest public allies in order to promote an image of independence ultimately came back to haunt him. The cardinal rule of the old school is loyalty.

But many of our most successful leaders suffered initial political setbacks and came back to achieve great things. At 42 years old, Newsom has plenty of time to master the difficult lessons that have thrust Brown to the brink of the nomination.

Chalk one up for the old school.

Comments (2)

  • Thanks for your column today (the Education of Gavin Newsom). Though I am an independent voter and pretty distanced from our state Dems, you called it well. Jerry is so familiar to us Boomers, he might be able to squeak in on familiarity and nostalgia in this goofy state. But the tapings, and now this ACORN soundbite, I dunno, I think he might be in the wrong year to get elected.

    As for Newsom, I cannot believe that he can ever get out from extreme Leftist image from his service in SF. I am simultaneously relieved and sad that he dropped out. I didn’t think he had a chance. I could just imagine the Republican commercials trotting out that great soundbite, over and over again: “…whether ya like it or not”
    that tanked Prop. 8. You couldn’t find a better way to alienate conservative and rural Californians who think SF is a loony bin. And don’t even get me started on Kamala Harris. There’ll be a lot of Bologna thrown if she persists in her run.

    Posted by: Lance Beeson | November 10th, 2009 at 8:43 pm

  • What? Gordon Getty didn’t open up his wallet for Newsom? How’s that for friend? They are only business partners in a winery, numerous resorts, restaurants, bars, and night clubs. We are better off without Newsom.

    Posted by: Ty Webb | November 11th, 2009 at 10:20 am

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