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Gavin Newsom Set To Succeed California Gov. Jerry Brown With A New Set Of Priorities


The end of an era is approaching in California. Governor Jerry Brown leaves office next week. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Scott Shafer reports that Brown's successor, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, will take over with a very different style and priorities.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: In January of 2004, Gavin Newsom had been mayor of San Francisco for less than a month when he traveled to Washington, D.C.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.

SHAFER: Newsom was sitting at the Capitol, listening to President George W. Bush deliver his State of the Union speech when he was struck by this passage near the end.


GEORGE W BUSH: Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.


SHAFER: Newsom returned to San Francisco vowing to do something in response.


GAVIN NEWSOM: And it was the way the people that I met after the speech referred to, quote, unquote, "the homosexual agenda." And it just seared in my mind a need to do something. I didn't know what. And then a week or two later, it manifested.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I give you this ring.

SHAFER: He ended up making a bold - some would say reckless - decision allowing any couple to marry, including two men or two women. In February of 2004, hundreds of couples from all over the state and nation lined up to get married. The gay marriage issue put Newsom on the national radar to both admirers and critics. The California Supreme Court eventually ruled that preventing same-sex couples from marrying violated the state constitution. At city hall that day, Newsom took a victory lap with language that came back to haunt him.


NEWSOM: And, by the way, as California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. It's inevitable. This door's wide open now. It's going to happen whether you like it or not.

SHAFER: That phrase, whether you like it or not, was seen by many as arrogant and disrespectful. But by raising the issue in 2004, Newsom helped pave the way for a U.S. Supreme Court decision more than a decade later legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. Joyce Newstat was Newsom's policy director when he was mayor.

JOYCE NEWSTAT: I think he's a risk taker. And I think he's a true kind of intellectual believer in the notion that you can fail fast as long as you're moving forward.

SHAFER: Newsom's penchant for taking risks may have its roots in his childhood. He was not a particularly good student, and he was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia. Today, he says figuring out how to compensate for that learning disability was a gift.


NEWSOM: Nothing was rote. Nothing was linear. And it allowed me to think outside the box.

SHAFER: In 2010, Newsom was elected lieutenant governor. In what is usually a do-nothing job, Newsom kept his profile high, for example, by laying the groundwork for a statewide ballot measure legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

PAUL SAFFO: I think Gavin Newsom has demonstrated a really deep understanding of where the zeitgeist is going.

SHAFER: Technology forecaster Paul Saffo spends a lot of time at Stanford University thinking about California's future. He sees Newsom as fitting in well with the attitude of innovators in Silicon Valley. And he says Newsom seems to share what he calls their disrespect for authority.

SAFFO: The entrepreneurs' creed is it is always easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

SHAFER: That tendency in Newsom was not always appreciated. After his first marriage fell apart, he had an affair with a top aide's wife. Some felt he often seemed bored being mayor, spending too much time thinking about his political future, including an aborted run for governor a decade ago.

SAFFO: I'm relieved that he didn't become governor earlier.

SHAFER: Paul Saffo says Newsom's eight years watching political master Jerry Brown will give him a better sense of when to lead and when to follow.

SAFFO: He's had a couple of runs at that, and I suspect going into this governorship, he's going to understand that timing better than ever.

SHAFER: At age 51, Gavin Newsom is 30 years younger than outgoing Governor Jerry Brown and totally different in style and temperament. Former California Governor Gray Davis says that's appropriate.

GRAY DAVIS: So this transition is really a passing of the torch not just from one governor to another but from one generation to another. So it's great that they have different styles. It's almost by necessity. You have to govern for the times.

SHAFER: Jerry Brown is leaving the state flush with cash, including a rainy day fund of $14 billion. His parting piece of advice for Newsom - don't screw it up. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Shafer