SACRAMENTO, Calif. — He’s best-known for opening San Francisco’s City Hall to same-sex weddings and was once thought to be too liberal even for the bulk of California. But Gavin Newsom’s decisive Nov. 2 win as the state’s next second-in-command has rekindled prospects that he may one day be a viable candidate for governor or U.S. Senate.
The 43-year-old San Francisco mayor won handily over Republican Abel Maldonado in the race for lieutenant governor. While his new role is viewed largely as ceremonial, it marks a comeback of sorts for the well-coiffed politician.
Two years ago, Newsom was a focal point of the Proposition 8 campaign to ban gay marriage. One ad aired by the initiative’s supporters showed a videotaped clip of Newsom’s impassioned exclamation in 2004 that the door was open to gay marriage, “whether you like it or not.”
Voter approval of Proposition 8 that November raised questions about whether Newsom was electable statewide or would be too closely associated with gay marriage.
In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Newsom said his win was a testament that Californians can disagree with their candidates on some issues but still vote for them.
“It was an interesting intellectual question that now I believe to some degree has been answered. And I’m very proud of that,” he said. “It’s nice to know that you can survive that in a political sense. Even if people disagree with you – and I know so many people did and do – people still will vote for you because on other issues, they perhaps have more confidence that I’m doing what I think is right.”
Newsom will transition into a job that functions as the state’s chief executive when the governor is away and serves on economic development and environmental commissions as well as two public university governing boards.
But the post will also help keep his political prospects afloat with a possible bid to succeed Gov.-elect Jerry Brown or perhaps give him a shot at the U.S. Senate.
“I think we’re back on the ‘Gavin Newsom has a bright future’ sort of swing,” said Corey Cook, an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Francisco. “He’s been up and down several times in the last seven years, and it seems like this is a pretty convincing victory. I think a lot of the folks who had criticized him and written his political obituary are sort of maybe rethinking that position right now.”
Newsom, of course, will have to be patient.
For starters, it’s uncertain whether Brown, 72, would seek a second term. In response to suggestions that he has told some Democrats privately he would only serve one term, Brown said “I’ve never made that commitment” and noted that his grandmother lived to 96.
And even if Brown decides not to seek re-election, Newsom will likely find himself jostling with other Democratic hopefuls for the state’s top job.
Newsom might also look to the Senate if Dianne Feinstein decides to leave, but it’s a move her political consultant dismissed, saying the senator has started fundraising.
“That’s not happening. She’s running,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic consultant with decades of experience in state and national politics.
Carrick said Newsom will have to get creative as lieutenant governor and use the office to get the public to see him in a multidimensional way, beyond merely being a strong proponent of gay rights.
Newsom demurs on his political future, saying he’s just focused on repairing the state: “I’m not thinking beyond it,” he said.
Newsom said he plans to avail himself to the next governor as Democrats pledge to work on returning power to the local level. He says he’s in a unique position, having served as mayor of a county for seven years, to help the governor negotiate the budget with lawmakers and contracts with labor unions. He says he can also serve as a conduit between the state and local governments.
“I really think we have an opportunity to redefine the relationship between the two offices, and that’s not me getting ahead of myself and that’s not me playing above my job description. It’s not that. It’s just in a supportive role, as needed and filling in blanks and just wanting to be of help in a substantive way,” Newsom said. “I have no interest in spending time with ceremonial parts of the job.”
Newsom, however, has been accused of grabbing headlines as mayor while failing to focus on the details of running government. San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who has challenged Newsom over police foot patrols in high-crime neighborhoods, said the mayor has sometimes been too insular.
“At times I thought it closed him to debate and the spirit of us working together,” Mirkarimi said. “I think he’s a big-picture kind of guy and I like that. But it means he also needs the right team to implement the brass tacks, which sometimes I’ve been critical of not happening.”
Despite his concerns, Mirkarimi said he believes Newsom will be able to use the lieutenant governor’s seat as a springboard to higher office.
“Newsom will figure out when it’s time to shine and when it’s time to be a silent partner,” he said.