SAN FRANCISCO - Gavin Newsom still looks glossy, like someone who'd play JFK in a Lifetime original movie.
But the 42-year-old mayor of San Francisco sees his once glowing political future in less glamorous terms.
“I mean, oh, God,” he said, sipping green tea in his elegant office. “In a couple of years, you’ll see me as the clerk of a wine store.”
It’s easy to picture the lithe and charming Newsom — with the well-cut suits, the electric Tesla, the beautiful blonde wife and baby — advising a Pacific Heights couple on a cabernet with aromas of eucalyptus and mint. Before he got into politics, after all, he started a boutique wine shop in Napa Valley that blossomed into a multimillion-dollar business.
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So how did this onetime poster boy for the new face of the Democratic Party get to the point where he couldn’t raise the money to compete with the old-school Jerry Brown in the governor’s race, and why is he leaving politics just when he feels as though he’s getting better at it?
“This is it. God bless. It was fun while it lasted,” he said of his career, with a rueful smile. “Guys like me don’t necessarily progress very far, which is fine.”
If Newsom feels a little sorry for himself these days, it’s perfectly understandable.
In a courthouse a few blocks from City Hall, Ted Olson and David Boies are defending same-sex marriage in a landmark case substantially financed so far by David Geffen and Steve Bing. While the mayor contemplates life as a wine clerk, the two lawyers are becoming bipartisan folk heroes to gays and lesbians and were lionized in a Newsweek cover story and a Diana Walker photo spread in Time.
Boies told The New Yorker that the “powerful images” of gay couples flocking to San Francisco to tie the knot had helped move him to get involved in the case to overturn Proposition 8.
Like many pioneers who go first — from the “Ellen” sitcom to the Hillary drama — the mayor who staked his career on giving equal rights to gays may have to settle for paving the way. The lawyers get praised, but he got pilloried?
“Grand understatement,” he said dryly, noting that he still remembers news coverage from before the 2004 same-sex marriage eruption about shooting stars of the Democratic Party.
“There were five of us,” he said, with a teasing nostalgia. “A guy named Obama. I’m like ‘Why is he in here? This is ridiculous. I mean, he’s a state senator. I’m kind of insulted.’ Life was really good, and then it came crashing down. ‘You’re not going to be speaking at the convention. We overbooked.’ And then it becomes the house of cards with the Democrats excusing themselves from visits to this city and being in the same room with me.
“I went in with the beginner’s mind. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I never imagined 4,036 couples getting married over a month. And this is by no means an excuse for the governor’s race. But you just couldn’t escape from the perception ‘he’s just a single-issue person.’ I remember standing there at the window, and I swear to you, I resigned myself to not even being re-elected mayor. This is a much more conservative town than people give it credit for.”
And now Jerry Brown might be governor redux?
“It’s frustrating,” Newsom admitted. “It’s not a critique, but he wasn’t particularly helpful at the time. I think he came around very recently, and I think there was some pragmatism to that as well, candidly.”
I asked whether President Barack Obama, who said at a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration that the civil rights movement was partly about “changing people’s hearts and minds and breaking out of old customs and old habits,” had disappointed him given that the president is a triumph of civil rights himself.
“Oh, I can’t get in trouble here,” Newsom said with a playful wince. “I want him to succeed. But I am very upset by what he’s not done in terms of rights of gays and lesbians. I understand it tactically in a campaign, but at this point I don’t know. There is some belief that he actually doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage. But it’s fundamentally inexcusable for a member of the Democratic Party to stand on the principle that separate is now equal, but only on the basis of sexual orientation. We’ve always fought for the rights of minorities and against the whims of majorities.”
He said the promise of Obama sparking an “organic movement” has faded and “there’s a growing discontent and lack of enthusiasm that I worry about. He should just stand on principle, put this behind him and move on.”
The mayor, who met with Olson and Boies the day after we talked, said he wanted to go to court and see them in action. After all, they’re the local heroes.
Maureen Dowd, a columnist for The New York Times, can be reached at: The New York Times, 620 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10018.