If the California Democratic party could magically conjure up a rising star, that candidate might look a lot like Gavin Newsom. The 49-year-old lieutenant governor of the state is warm and articulate, an earnest progressive who’s approachable on national TV — take the time last June when, while appearing alongside Wiz Khalifa on Chelsea Handler’s Netflix show, the rapper dapped him in solidarity. He’s a successful entrepreneur who owns 23 businesses — a San Francisco club, wineries, restaurants — and hobnobs with rock stars, hanging backstage at The Fillmore recently with Sammy Hagar and John Mayer. And he’s a photographer’s dream, with a winning smile and sharp suit always at the ready, a beautiful wife (actress-filmmaker Jennifer Siebel) and four adorable children.
This past November, Newsom also proved he’s a serious force to reckon with when it comes to passing groundbreaking legislation. Having started California’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy in 2014, he campaigned for five months and got Proposition 64, legalizing adult use of marijuana in the state, passed, with 56 percent of voters in favor. Now, he’s the telegenic face of a movement. “I’m happy to be associated with this change. I’m sick and tired of politics and politicians as usual,” says Newsom today. “I’ll be kicked out before I rust out. You can love me or hate me and disagree with me, but you sure as hell know where I stand.”
“Gavin boldly stands up for social issues with unwavering commitment while relentlessly championing people who can’t speak for themselves,” says his longtime friend Pat Monahan, the lead singer of Train. “This issue is one of many that Gavin thinks of in a big picture way. He’s an outlier and a great leader.” And he already has declared that he’s running for governor in 2018.
Strolling through San Francisco’s Soma neighborhood, it’s clear that Newsom is a hometown hero. A middle-aged man in a baseball cap stops to shake Newsom’s hand, mentioning that they’re both Santa Clara University alums. “I’m a Bronco too! Though I didn’t go to Redwood High like you.” “Well, at least we both got those Jesuits, right?” Newsom, who played baseball in college, says with a grin.
A native of Marin County, Newsom grew up with a father who was “considered an activist judge in his day, particularly as it relates to drug policy. He was a very outspoken critic of the war on drugs.” He also was a friend of Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, both of whom exposed Newsom to live music early. “I remember many days and nights with those guys,” recalls Newsom, kicking back in a quiet room at the Founders Den, a co-working space he prefers over government offices when he’s in town. “I had the privilege of being around that sort of zeitgeist.”
Newsom started out an entrepreneur, running a group of wineries, restaurants, resorts and nightclubs, including MatrixFillmore, the club once known as The Matrix that Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin founded. But by the time he married Fox legal commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle in 2001 (Harper’s Bazaar dubbed them “the new Kennedys”), his political career had taken off. He was elected San Francisco mayor in 2003 — the city’s youngest in a century — and a year later earned national attention for ordering the San Francisco city-county clerk to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He and Guilfoyle split, but his mayoralty lasted seven years.
Despite his progressive record, Newsom wasn’t immediately pro-legalization. “I’ve never tried cannabis. I don’t have the basis to appreciate it,” he says. “I always ask for forgiveness because I really only intellectually know what I’m talking about.” He emphasizes that he’s “not pro-pot, but anti-prohibition,” and he didn’t support the previous attempt to legalize recreational marijuana in California, Proposition 19 in 2010. “I just didn’t feel it was appropriately drafted,” he says. “There were glaring loopholes.”
Still, “the spirit of it was profound and important,” and Newsom decided to start his Blue Ribbon Commission as a key first step toward a more coherent approach to legalization. That led directly to the Prop 64 campaign. “At some point we needed to bring this into the policy-making realm, and he really expedited that,” says Lynne Lyman, California’s state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which worked closely with Newsom on Prop 64. “He shifted the conversation away from late-night jokes and under your breath whispers to being a serious issue for serious consideration.”
“California is infamous for passing things and then waking up and saying, ‘What the hell did we just pass?’ ” says Newsom. “This is one of the few initiatives in my lifetime that actually went through a comprehensive analysis before it was placed in front of the voters, not after.”
It also benefited hugely from support in the music community, from Spotify board member Sean Parker — who donated more than $8.6 million to the Prop 64 campaign — to Artists for 64, a coalition including Jay Z, Katy Perry and Sting that was organized by the activist group Revolve Impact. “The music industry has been on the cutting edge of change and persuasion,” says Newsom. “We wouldn’t be here had it not been for some of the legendary members of the industry that led the national consciousness around this.”
Around the same time Newsom got the marijuana policy commission going, he spoke at a Sacramento crime victims’ conference with John Legend a fellow public supporter of sentencing reform and Newsom maintains that legalization is a linked social justice issue. “This is one of the most profoundly significant reforms as it relates to police/community relations, particularly for the African-American community,” he says. “Billions of dollars that could be going into childcare and healthcare are being wasted on police overtime, buy-bust programs and incarceration. This is a big deal. To me, marijuana reform is a big deal.”
While he’s passionately against “abusing,” Newsom says he now has grown into “appreciating the wellness aspect of cannabis. For my aunt, who passed away from cancer, using cannabis was literally the only way she could swallow. I’ve met people whose lives were radically changed for the good.” And he’s quick to point out the havoc the war on marijuana has wrought on the black and Latino communities, and the lack of similar stigma around alcohol. “I have four wineries, nine bars and restaurants. I am a purveyor of one of the most dangerous substances on planet Earth, as it relates to public health and safety,” he says. “The hypocrisy for me was sort of self-evident, and that’s why I felt a particular responsibility to be consistent [and] get out front on this.”
On election night last November, Newsom stood on the stage of San Francisco nightclub Verso to speak to the crowd at what he had hoped would be a rollicking Prop 64 victory party. But the atmosphere was far from cheery, as the crowd watched the TVs on the wall behind Newsom declaring Donald Trump’s presidential win. Newsom tried to put on a brave face, but “it was horrible. I couldn’t fake it,” he recalls. “I was just so appalled.” As California proceeds with implementation of Prop 64, Newsom admits that it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Trump will interfere. “Trump has said he supports states’ rights on multiple occasions,” he notes. “Of course, I don’t know what to anticipate. I’m taking him both seriously and literally on these things until further notice.”
He’s convinced the pro-legalization movement actually may have “one significant ace up our sleeve”: the Silicon Valley savant, and vocal Trump supporter, Peter Thiel. “He has long been an advocate of legalization, supported Prop 64 financially and has the president’s ear,” says Newsom. But he anticipates challenges in “keeping big money interests at bay,” and wants to design a “highly regulated market” that will both protect public safety and help “the small farmer the people who got us to this point.”
For now, Newsom is cautiously optimistic. The legalized marijuana industry in California could, by Newsom’s estimate, produce $9 to $12 billion in wholesale product from the Emerald Triangle (the three counties forming the largest U.S. cannabis-producing region) alone. Tax revenue will go to broad drug treatment programs, law enforcement and environmental causes within the state. Since Colorado passed legalization, he notes, seizures at the Mexican border are already way down, “and there’s growing evidence that they’re going to reverse that the quality of cannabis going back to Mexico will be a bigger issue.” Prison sentences will be lessened or commuted, easing the financial burden on the system. “Over a million people in the state of California now have the right to have their records completely cleared,” says Newsom. “That is a huge thing.”
Lightly drumming the table he’s sitting at, he considers the risks ahead. “Now, it’s all about creativity, problem solving, thinking outside the box. Put it this way: Everything that goes wrong, you’re looking at the poster child. Everything goes right, nobody will be looking toward me. They’ll be saying they were always onboard, and they would’ve done it better.” Then he thinks back to the bittersweet victory party at Verso, and to a conversation he had with Steve DeAngelo, president of marijuana investment network Arcview Group and a veteran cannabis activist. “He kind of bucked me up, saying, ‘This is a big night we’ve been waiting for our entire lives,’ ” recalls Newsom, his famous smile flashing. “And it’s true. That’s so profound. Lives have already radically changed. That’s really exciting.”
Watch Gavin Newsom talk about music's impact on marijuana legalization, as well as John Legend's role in shining a spotlight on the way in which the War on Drugs unfairly targets minorities and economically disadvantaged people.
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