The Right's Strange New Hero: Gavin Newsom

The Right's Strange New Hero: Gavin Newsom

Former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is known to most of the nation as a pioneering advocate for marriage equality, having supported same-sex unions back in 2004. But now his ideas are attracting attention from conservatives who think his critique of big government bureaucracy could help them rebrand the Republican Party. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SAUSALITO, Calif. -- You may remember that straight San Francisco mayor with the perfect hair and square jaw who stood athwart history yelling, “Yes!” to gay marriage.

That was a decade ago. His name, if you've forgotten, is Gavin Newsom, and he is not the young upstart anymore. “I’m a middle-aged guy, older than you,” he tells me. (He is 46.)

And while he’s a leading contender to be governor of California four years from now, he’s had to chase the spotlight far more often than it’s sought him out of late. He ran for governor in 2009, but then former Gov. Jerry Brown got in the race and blotted out the sun with his huge name recognition and bald pate. Newsom dropped out and campaigned instead for lieutenant governor, a post he won easily. He postponed his dream of running the state to take the job-in-waiting.

And boy, is he doing some waiting. Brown, now 76, is running for yet another term, and looks set to cruise to re-election this fall.

Newsom entered the lieutenant job four years ago thinking he could work with Brown and take an active role in state government. Brown essentially told him to shove off. Since then, Newsom has complained that his position is so meaningless and powerless that it should be changed or eliminated.

“You wake up every morning, you read the paper looking in the obituaries for the governor's name. That's pretty much it,” he joked last year on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night talk show.

But Newsom also used his spare time to write a book, Citizenville, which was published last year and is creating some interesting bicoastal cross-currents. His national profile is that of a liberal Democrat, but the ideas he espouses in the book have Washington conservatives sitting up and taking note.

“Newt Gingrich ... just sent me an email yesterday. It was like a book. So I just printed it out, because I couldn’t read it on an iPhone,” Newsom said. “He’s got a little group that he sort of blasts out ideas to.”

In an email, Gingrich told HuffPost that Newsom’s book “is exceptionally important in terms of rethinking governance, from the citizen back to the bureaucracy rather than the other way.”

“It is a tremendous book which I recommend all the time,” Gingrich said.

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, shown here campaigning for president in 2012, is one conservative who has taken note of Newsom's book. "It's a tremendous book which I recommend all the time," he said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Citizenville's central premise is that government can be better, more relevant, more engaged with the public by embracing technology -- and getting out of the way.

“Top-down, bureaucratic, hierarchical government [is] choking our democracy,” Newsom writes in the book. “We need to allow people to bypass government ... to look to themselves for solving problems rather than asking the government to do things for them."

“Government is the ultimate monopoly,” he writes at another point. “And monopolies, as any economist will tell you, often breed complacency and a lack of innovation.”

Instead of competing with the Facebooks and Googles of the world for tech talent -- a competition the government, with its stale bureaucracy, is sure to lose -- Newsom proposes collaboration.

"Government doesn’t have to come up with new killer features on its own," he writes. "It has to step aside and let others come up with them.”

Some of this is already happening. Newsom points to the way that Microsoft’s Bing search engine uses government health and human services data to inform its results for hospitals. Google Maps imports government-provided data into its travel information.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, just north of D.C., chief innovation officer Dan Hoffman said that the overwhelmingly Democratic county government has empowered him to put as much of its data into an "open data portal" and "see if someone builds an app for it."

"That's how people have been building pretty successful businesses," he said. For example, the county broadcasts data on its parking garages in real time, and a few companies have built apps to take that data and display it for drivers on their phones.

"We don't build the app. We don't maintain it," Hoffman said. "We should not be in the business of app development."

At the federal level, a branch of the Defense Department held a contest -- rather than go through the traditional procurement process -- to see who could develop a prototype for a new combat vehicle. Out of 150 submissions competing for a $7,500 prize, the winner was a Mexican immigrant who at the time was working in an entry-level job at a truck manufacturing plant.

Rather than -- or in addition to -- spending $10 billion a year on AIDS research, Newsom suggests offering a $1 billion prize for the researcher who comes up with a cure.

“Government can do best by simply getting out of the way,” Newsom writes.

Newsom's critique of government’s failures and weaknesses dovetails with the narrative that some on the right are crafting to critique the Democratic Party and spark a revival of the moribund GOP. A loose coalition of thinkers -- including Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs magazine, and Alex Castellanos, a veteran political consultant working on rebranding the GOP -- have been busy promoting the idea of "reform conservatism."

Levin and Castellanos, in particular, are each working independently to craft a way of talking about conservatism that can change perceptions of the right, even among those Americans who don’t pay close attention to politics. It’s a significant ingredient in the GOP’s hopes for resurgence. Their argument is that liberalism is a top-down, antiquated approach to modern governance. Devolving decision-making power and authority to local institutions is a better way, they say, to approach a technology-driven world that is increasingly complex, diverse and bottom-up.

Put more simply, they say Democrats are the party of old ideas, and conservatives -- who have struggled with being identified as the party of old, white men -- are actually the best fit for the future.

Newsom is not interested in helping conservatives in that cause, but he does wholeheartedly agree with their take on the direction in which modern government needs to go. He even has kind words for the ultra-conservative tea party movement and makes a nod in the direction of smaller government.

“I kind of like the Tea Party,” Newsom writes in Citizenville. “I don’t agree with its politics ... but I love anyone who gets involved the way they do. ... The more actively engaged citizens are, the closer we come to the original vision of the Founding Fathers.”

Newsom approvingly quotes Tim O’Reilly, a Silicon Valley veteran and a pioneer of the open source movement, as saying that government was “very small” at America’s founding, with volunteer fire departments, mutual insurance companies, subscription libraries. Government was “a set of things we do for each other,” O’Reilly told Newsom.

“We’ve gotten very far away from that notion in recent decades, a trend we’d do well to reverse,” Newsom writes.

Newsom is aware of how he sounds.

“I talk to some of my Republican friends. They love this language. Again, it’s the spirit of the individual, and that notion of self-government that inspires many conservatives,” he told TechPresident last year.

Conservatives like Gingrich and Castellanos see Newsom as a prophetic voice who is ahead of the curve, whose ideas could help the Democrats if the party is wise enough to listen to him.

“The Democratic Party that Republicans need to fear is one led by Gavin Newsom,” Castellanos said in an email. “He's the trifecta: a business guy who understands jobs and growth, thinks government ought to stay out of people's bedrooms and also gets that old, top-heavy, model-T government isn't often agile enough to tackle today's complex social problems."

But Newsom has come in for a few beatings from some on the left. Comedian Stephen Colbert thrashed him in an interview last year, mocking Newsom’s talk of "building partnership, and building capacity, building community," as little more than breathless Silicon Valley hyperbole.

“Is there a bullshit translator?” Colbert asked Newsom. “What is 'capacity'? What do you mean? Every one of these things could be carved on a stone and put in someone’s garden. You mean governmental bandwidth so that all of us can hyperlink our engagement to democracy? See? I can make this shit up, too.”

A certain amount of skepticism is healthy. The tech space is full of hype and empty talk, and Newsom’s book is far heavier on promises and rhetoric than it is on concrete examples. Nonetheless, digital innovation is reshaping all components of society, including government, and Newsom is trying to push the envelope for how tech can reform it.

What’s not clear is whether a new age of digital governance will translate into significant changes to the size and scope of government itself.

When asked if he wants government to be smaller, Newsom said he did not. “No, effective. Just effective,” he said. And Democrats, he added, “have the moral authority to drive those reforms,” while Republicans do not.

“I think we have the capacity to do it because we still believe in government. We believe in effective, efficient, activist government,” he said. “The other side has less credibility because they want to, as [Grover] Norquist said, 'drown it in the bathtub.'”

Newsom believes liberals can achieve their ends without a top-down, central-planning approach to government, and he wants to bring them around to his point of view. But he warns that if the left refuses to retool its approach, it will suffer.

“It’s at our peril we sort of believe our own hype, particularly out here in California where we’re so dominant. That is not a 21st-century, sustainable approach to governance,” he said. "It’s just not."

Matt Lira, a digital expert who is currently deputy executive director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is quoted numerous times in Newsom’s book. He thinks the California Democrat simply “understands political trends that are on the horizon earlier than others do.”

“You saw that with gay marriage, where he was a decade ahead everybody else,” Lira said. And now technology is undermining much of the divide between left and right that results in a “false choice” between personal liberty and social justice. Allowing entrepreneurs to solve problems with technology creates a scenario in which individuals can make money and be independent, government can be reduced, and societal challenges and problems can still be addressed, Lira said.

But the political dynamic in California makes a tack to the right of the mainstream sensible for Newsom. (And, in fact, he has long been viewed in the Bay Area as fiscally conservative.)

Had Newsom continued his campaign for governor, he could have run as a civil rights candidate, drafting off the popularity of his stand for gay rights. But two things happened: First, as noted above, Brown decided to run. And second, Kamala Harris, an African-American woman, was elected California attorney general.

In 2011, California adopted an open primary for statewide elections. This means that should Harris and Newsom both run for governor in 2018, and emerge as the top vote-getters in the primary, they would be the two candidates in the general election.

“It is entirely possible for he and she to run against each other in the general election,” said Bill Whalen, a veteran California Republican consultant and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “In that scenario, he needs to appeal to Republicans and moderates, and to people who live away from the coast.”

Newsom has been eclipsed in California politics by the state's attorney general, Kamala Harris, shown here between Newsom and President Barack Obama in 2011. The two are potential rivals but share a political consultant, and could avoid a potential showdown in 2018 if one or both of the state's U.S. Senate seats open up. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Newsom’s ability to win minorities and progressives away from Harris would be limited. A message with a more conservative appeal, like the one in his book, paired with innovative policy proposals for running state government, could work well statewide in a general election, attracting independents and even Republicans.

At the very least, Newsom’s steady cultivation of Silicon Valley moguls should help him raise funds for any statewide run. He talked to HuffPost at length about hanging out with tech pioneers like Napster co-founder Sean Parker. “You spend time with Sean, and just sit back, and have a coffee at weird hours, and let him go -- three or four days later, something clicks in, something else clicks in, something else you see that you never saw,” Newsom told me. “He’s a truly fascinating guy.”

Plenty of contingencies could disrupt a Harris-Newsom gubernatorial showdown. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) will be 85 in 2018 and could very well retire. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will be 75 in 2016 and will soon face a similar decision about whether to run for re-election.

And Harris and Newsom are not the only ones who are rumored to have statewide aspirations: former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and mega-donor Tom Steyer are also names that have been floated as possible candidates.

Newsom predicted that Steyer “runs for something” and raised the possibility of a Senate seat. When asked whether he’d want to run for the Senate himself, Newsom replied, “I don’t want to say no. I don’t want to say yes. It’s all timing in politics, meeting the moment.”

But he added in his raspy voice that he doesn't intend to bow out of politics on his own. “I don’t want to walk away. I want to be kicked out," he said. "They got to kick me out. They got to reject me: ‘He represents the past. He’s an old guy now. White male.’”

Newsom’s Achilles' heel is that his current job carries little actual responsibility, while Harris and Garcetti are dealing with real problems. Against the obstacles to higher office, Newsom brings many tangible assets -- money, good looks, smarts and an interesting political story -- as well as a vital intangible: ambition.

“Politics is a brutal profession,” said California-based Democratic consultant Gil Duran, who has worked for Brown, Feinstein and Harris. “To get there you have to really want it. He’s someone who, for all his strengths and shortcomings, is really dedicated to being in public service in California.”

Newsom argued, however, that his political career has not been a typical, paint-by-number affair, and pointed to his history of controversial positions: in support of gay marriage before almost anyone else in politics, against the death penalty, for marijuana legalization, against high-speed rail (which puts him at odds with the Democratic governor and on the same side as the Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is also from California). “Being very aggressive on some of these reform initiatives, putting them in a book, being out front on a lot of issues ... that’s not someone running for the next office,” Newsom said.

However, it is the mark of a restless soul. The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich described Newsom memorably in 2009 as “that quintessential California type, the overgrown and hyperactive child.”

“Immensely gifted but flawed, he is a jumble of self-regard, self-confidence and self-immolation -- potential greatness and a potential train wreck in the same metrosexual package,” Leibovich wrote.

After a chaotic and destabilizing period seven years ago -- marked by a divorce from his first wife, current Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, and a messy affair with his then-campaign manager’s wife -- Newsom has achieved the outward markers of stability. He and his wife, actress Jennifer Siebel, have had three children in four years.

But in person, Newsom is still a fidgety maelstrom of energy. During a recent interview, he had a hard time sitting still, and at times launched into such a rapid-fire recitation of ideas and technical terms that his eyes nearly rolled back in his head.

Newsom admitted that it's not in his nature to be patient or sit still. “All the elders just look at me and they’re like, ‘You’re -- stop it. What is wrong with you? Be patient. Enjoy your time with your family as lieutenant governor.’ And for me, I’d rather burn out than rust out,” he said.

Whatever his claims that he's not charting his course by political calculus, that restlessness may serve him well. The only way to stay politically relevant in his current job is to make waves, throw punches, mix it up. The book isn't the only provocative move he's made recently. Last month he criticized University of California President Janet Napolitano, the former Secretary of Homeland Security for President Barack Obama, for warning university employees that they would not be reimbursed for using “sharing economy” services like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb for official travel.

“I wouldn’t have done that two years ago,” he said. “I was trying to be more collaborative, behind the scenes. There were probably 30 things no one would ever know that we worked on, and now...” He paused, then struggled to express a thought that, perhaps, he shouldn’t say out loud. He stopped himself a few times.

“I’m -- it just -- I just, I have no-- I just came with a -- I had a different approach,” he said finally. “But now I’m just gonna -- it’s not ready, fire, aim, but it’s -- I’m going to lean in a little more aggressively.”

That really is his only path.

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