Newsom gets another chance with Lt. Gov nomination
June 10, 2010
LOS ANGELES (AP) – Gavin Newsom could have taken his last step on California’s political ladder had he lost the lieutenant governor’s Democratic primary race, an outcome that would likely have ended a relatively short but high-profile career in which he is best known for pushing the debate over gay marriage.
But his win Tuesday over Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose family’s long history in Southern California politics made her a formidable challenger, not only keeps his career alive but makes him the party’s front-runner for a future governor’s race – if in November he can beat incumbent Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who was hand-picked by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“He’s better off today than he was yesterday, that’s for sure” said Barbara O’Connor, a professor of communications and the director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University Sacramento. “Whether it’s a complete rehabilitation … who knows.”
Newsom, San Francisco’s mayor, experienced a meteoric rise at the beginning of his career, gaining international recognition when just months into his first term in 2004 he made headlines by directing city agencies to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The monthlong experiment in civic disobedience – ultimately halted by the courts – made Newsom a hometown hero, and he went on to overwhelmingly win a second term. Newsom has been lauded for his leadership on universal health care and solar energy.
But for his many high points, Newsom has also had his lows.
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Last fall, he dropped an ambitious bid for the governor’s office when figures showed him trailing Jerry Brown, now the Democratic nominee, in both fundraising and polls.
Critics had questioned whether the photogenic Bay Area leader could appeal to voters statewide, and the poor showing bolstered their argument that Newsom was no more than a liberal lightweight defined by a single social issue.
He had entered the governor’s race on the heels of an unseemly affair with the wife of his mayoral campaign manager. After acknowledging the romance in 2007, Newsom sought treatment for what he said was a drinking problem.
His late entry into the lieutenant governor’s race in March drew another round of scrutiny because even he had dismissed the position as unnecessary. Opponents called him opportunistic and uncommitted.
Newsom also has often noted that he has a career to fall back on should politics not work out. Newsom calls it an asset because he doesn’t need to advance his own career, but his flip-flops have led others to question his loyalty to the office.
But the 42-year-old says his win Tuesday shows a desire for change among voters and an appreciation for his risk-taking attitude.
“People are looking for new leadership and people with fresh ideas,” he said Wednesday.
Newsom acknowledges the hurdles he jumped just to get enough votes to win the lieutenant governor’s race to face an incumbent whose party is led by well-financed gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman.
He shies away from questions about whether a win would make him his party’s eventual standard-bearer.
“My focus, my passion, my energy is on the lieutenant governor’s race,” Newsom said. “If we can successfully do that, then it will help answer what comes next. But first things first.”
Newsom says he will try to ride the wave of antiestablishment sentiment going into the general election.
“I haven’t been burdened by the ways of Sacramento,” he said. “At the same time, I’m not new to politics and the challenges of navigating the political landscape.”
Indeed, Newsom comes from a well-connected family, with strong ties to the families of Brown and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Born in San Francisco, Newsom grew up in wealthy Marin County. Before taking office, he opened a wine store, a string of highly successful restaurants and the PlumpJack Winery in Napa County.
He touts his entrepreneurial background when trying to appeal to voters across the aisle.
Maldonado, a former state senator, also has a reputation as a risk-taker.
“You’ve got a candidate in Abel Maldonado who has some name recognition and a moderate voting record. He has crossover appeal, and as a Latino, doesn’t look like your grandfather’s Republican,” said Thad Kousser, a visiting professor in political science at Stanford University.
Observers say the lieutenant governor’s race is no slam dunk, but may decide Newsom’s future.
“He has the chance, if he can cut through the noise, to really reintroduce himself to voters,” Kousser said.
But, O’Connor notes, “he still needs to convince people he’s not the flaky San Francisco mayor who’s changing directions on a daily basis.”