Gavin Newsom Biography

October 10, 1967 San Francisco, California


AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.
Newsom, Gavin.
AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

Just before Valentine's Day weekend in 2004, recently elected San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the county clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples who applied at San Francisco City Hall. Newsom's daring move allowed more than four thousand couples to get married that weekend in his city. He became a hero to the gay and lesbian community for his defiance, but he claimed he was simply acting in good conscience after President George W. Bush (1946–) criticized court challenges that had defended same-sex unions in other states. "I'd just taken an oath as mayor of the most diverse city, where people are living together and prospering together across every conceivable difference," People journalist J. D. Heyman quoted him as saying. "And for the President to try to deny millions of Americans the same rights that he and I have just didn't seem right."

Suffered from dyslexia

The youngest mayor of San Francisco since 1897 was born Gavin Christopher Newsom on October 10, 1967. He was a fourth-generation San Franciscan, and came from a politically well-connected family. His grandfather was a friend of a California governor in the 1960s, and his father, William, served as a California appeals court judge for many years. Newsom's father was also a boyhood pal of one of San Francisco's richest citizens, Gordon Getty (1933–). The elder Newsom and the billionaire oil heir had known one another since their high school days in the 1940s. When a Getty grandson, Jean Paul III (1956–), was abducted by kidnappers in Italy in 1973, Newsom's father and others traveled there to pay the ransom money after the teenager's ear was cut off and sent to a newspaper.

Newsom's parents had divorced by then. He and his younger sister, Hilary, were raised primarily by their mother, Tessa, although they remained close to their father and also to the Gettys. Newsom's mother worked as a bookkeeper, waitress, and secretary to make ends meet, and Newsom later admitted that his school years were difficult because of his dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes writing and spelling difficult. He went to a French-American bilingual academy, then to the Notre Dame de Victoire school in San Francisco. After graduating from Redwood High School in Marin County, he won a partial baseball scholarship to Santa Clara University, graduating in 1989 with a political science degree.

"My reward at the end of the day is that I can live with myself. I did my job and had a conscience. That's more powerful than being mayor."

Opened wine business

Newsom's family connections helped get him a job in the office of a well-connected San Francisco real estate mogul, but the position paid just $18,000 a year. In 1992 he and Getty's son, Billy, a friend since childhood, decided to open a wine business. They called their Fill-more Street store the PlumpJack Wine Shop. Their venture was financed by the elder Getty, and named after an opera Gordon Getty had written, based on a character from Shakespeare.

San Francisco's First Lady Lives in New York

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is the husband of television legal commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom. During his election campaign in 2003, she took a leave of absence from her job in the prosecutor's office in San Francisco to avoid any conflict of interest. She began appearing on CNN's Larry King Live as a legal commentator during episodes devoted to the case of Laci Peterson, a pregnant woman from California who disappeared on Christmas Eve in 2002.

Like her husband, Guilfoyle Newsom is a lifelong San Franciscan with Irish roots. Her Irish-born father was a cop and real estate investor, and her mother, who died when Guilfoyle Newsom was ten, was of Puerto Rican heritage. She attended the University of California's Davis campus, and then helped put herself through law school at the University of San Francisco by working as a model. After a stint in the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, she returned to take a similar job in her hometown. She rose to national prominence in 2001, some two years before her husband, when she was assigned to a notorious dog-mauling case in which a large dog attacked Diane Whipple, a lacrosse coach. Guilfoyle Newsom won a murder conviction against Whipple's neighbors, a pair of attorneys who owned the dog.

Guilfoyle Newsom married her husband in December of 2001, when he was still serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Their wedding reception was hosted by longtime friends Gordon and Ann Getty at their art-filled home in the Pacific Heights section of the city. In January of 2004, when her husband became mayor, Guilfoyle Newsom resigned from her prosecutor's job for good. She was hired by the cable channel Court TV as the co-host of a daily trial coverage program called Both Sides. The job forces her to spend most of her week in New York City, and to commute in order to see her equally busy husband.

The wine store proved a success, and became the basis for an entire PlumpJack empire. They opened the PlumpJack Cafe, also on Fillmore Street, in 1993, followed by a Napa Valley winery in 1995. Their companies expanded in 1996 to include the Balboa Café and the MatrixFillmore nightclub three years later. Newsom was busy running these ventures, but agreed to host a 1995 fundraiser for San Francisco's Democratic mayoral candidate, Willie L. Brown Jr. (1934–), at one of his San Francisco venues. When Brown won the election, he gave Newsom a post as the city's parking and traffic commissioner.

In 1997 Brown named Newsom to fill a vacancy on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the equivalent of its city council. A year later, Newsom ran for election to keep the seat, and won. He went on to gain some notoriety in the city for a controversial ballot proposal called "Care Not Cash." For some years, the famously liberal city had been offering welfare payments to San Francisco's homeless, prompted in part by the famously high cost of housing. Newsom's bill ended the cash payments and gave the homeless vouchers for shelter, counseling, and treatment instead. The referendum passed, but was contested in the courts and later overturned.

A heated campaign

San Francisco has term limits for mayors, and Brown was prohibited from seeking a third term in 2003. Newsom cast his hat into the ring for the mayoral race in November of 2002. The field was soon crowded with a number of other Democrats in the left-leaning city, and some of them tried to make an issue of his ties to the Getty oil fortune. But Newsom was honest in disclosing his financial records to the press, and sold his real estate development business to his father and Gordon Getty in order to avoid a conflict of interest. He also stepped away from the day-to-day management of his other ventures for the same reason. His foes painted him as a well-heeled socialite with political connections, but Newsom stressed his business experience over the last decade and promised to run City Hall the same way if elected. "I started every one of those businesses," he said in an interview with San Francisco Chronicle writers Chuck Finnie, Rachel Gordon, and Lance Williams. "Conceived of them, wrote the business plans, got all the investors, and by no means are the investors exclusive to the Getty family."

It was a tough campaign with several experienced opponents, but Newsom emerged as a leader as the November election date neared. Though he had a strong finish in the balloting that day, no candidate received more than fifty percent of the vote, and a run-off election was held a few weeks later. In that contest, he bested Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez (1965–). When he was sworn in on January 8, 2004, he was just thirty-six years old. It made him the city's youngest mayor since 1897, and one of the youngest to lead a major American city at the time.

In his first weeks in office, Newsom fulfilled his campaign pledge to voters that he would be fiscally conservative in budget matters but liberal on social matters. He appointed San Francisco's first female fire chief and female police chief, and cut his own $168,900 salary by fifteen percent to help reduce a budget deficit estimated at $330 million. On January 20 he was in Washington, D.C., for President Bush's annual State of the Union address. In it, Bush condemned what he described as "activist" judges, who were undermining the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. DOMA denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages, and also allowed states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that had taken place in other states. At the time, Vermont allowed same-sex unions, and in late 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued a ruling that paved the way for same-sex couples to wed in that state.

Made International Headlines

Back home, Newsom began doing some legal research. He looked into California's Proposition 22, which state voters had approved in 2000. This law defined marriage as a contract between a man and a woman. Newsom then checked the state's constitution, which had an "equal protection" guarantee—meaning that the state's laws should apply equally to all citizens. Believing that Proposition 22 was unconstitutional in his state, he decided to challenge it. He first called California's leading Democrat politicians in Washington, who advised the new mayor against taking such a politically controversial stance.

On his thirty-sixth day in office, Newsom instructed City Hall to begin issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples who came to apply for them. The decision was timed with what had become an annual protest by gay-rights activists at City Hall, called the "Freedom to Marry" rally. Newsom convinced two prominent activists, Del Martin, age eighty-three, and her seventy-nine-year-old partner, Phyllis Lyon, to apply for a license and become the first to marry in the city. They agreed, and it set off a rush to City Hall. Over the holiday weekend, same-sex San Franciscan couples arrived to apply for licenses, and then television news cameras from across the United States began filming the long lines of couples waiting to apply. Some

Mayor Gavin Newsom stands between two newlyweds who were able to marry after the city of San Francisco, CA, began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.
Mayor Gavin Newsom stands between two newlyweds who were able to marry after the city of San Francisco, CA, began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.
AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.
flew in from across the country, including television personality Rosie O'Donnell (1962–) and her longtime partner.

Newsom timed the event perfectly: Martin and Lyon were married on February 12, a day the courts were closed, and the next day was the start of a three-day weekend. Conservative Christian groups immediately filed motions to halt the same-sex unions, but two city judges denied their requests. The judges said it should be decided when the courts opened on the next business day. Newsom allowed City Hall to stay open round the clock through the weekend to handle the demand for marriage licenses, and many employees even volunteered their hours. By Monday, February 16, 2,340 weddings had taken place, including that of Newsom's chief of staff, as well as another involving his policy director, at which he officiated.

Challenged governor, even president

On Sunday, February 22, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (1947–) told the media that Newsom had stepped out of line. According to an article by Jeremy Quittner in the Advocate, Schwarzenegger said, "In San Francisco it is license for marriage of same sex. Maybe the next thing is another city that hands out licenses for assault weapons and someone else hands out licenses for selling drugs; I mean, you can't do that." On February 24 President Bush asserted that he would support a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages in the United States.

Newsom quickly called a press conference to challenge the President's remarks. Bush has "tried to divide this country in order to advance his political career by messing with the Constitution," Newsom told reporters, according to an article by Gordon and her San Francisco Chronicle colleague Simone Sebastian. "I can't believe people of good conscience, from any ideological perspective, can honestly say that the Constitution should be used to take rights away from people when the Constitution was conceived to advance the rights of people in this country," Newsom asserted. "It is a terrible day because of what the president of the United States has decided to do to divide the United States of America. That, I think, is shameful." The proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriages was defeated in Congress in July of 2004.

On March 11 California Supreme Court justices ordered San Francisco to stop issuing licenses for same-sex couples. Over four thousand couples had already been wed in the city. Newsom was a hero to many, but was criticized in other quarters. Hosts of radio call-in shows and television pundit-fests condemned him, and his office received negative e-mails as well. Newsom had been termed one of the Democratic Party's most exciting new names, and had once even declared his intention to make a bid for the White House someday. Some believed he had risked his political future by supporting same-sex unions. However, his City Hall predecessor, Mayor Art Agnos (1938–), signed the first domestic partnership bill in the United States into law in 1988. Back then, Agnos was also warned against taking such a stance, but a decade later such bills were commonplace in municipalities and companies throughout the United States. Newsom has said he was merely putting his city at the forefront once again. "We will look back in 15 to 30 years in disbelief that we were ever having this kind of debate," he told Quittner. "Of that I am absolutely certain."

For More Information


Finnie, Chuck, Rachel Gordon, and Lance Williams. "Newsom's Portfolio; Mayoral Hopeful Has Parlayed Getty Money, Family Ties and Political Connections into Local Prominence." San Francisco Chronicle (February 23, 2003): p. A1.

Gordon, Rachel. "Newsom Asks: What Do You Need?; In Door-to-Door Visits, S.F. Workers Extend Helping Hand to Crime-Weary Residents." San Francisco Chronicle (June 11, 2004): p. A1.

Gordon, Rachel, and Simone Sebastian. "Same-Sex Marriage Ban of 'National Importance'; Feisty Mayor: Newsom Calls Bush Reaction Shameful." San Francisco Chronicle (February 25, 2004): p. A1.

Heyman, J. D. "The Marrying Man: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom Grants Marriage Licenses to Gay Couples—And Sparks a National Movement." People (March 29, 2004): p. 93.

Medina, Marcy. "Pet Project. (San Francisco Prosecutor Kimberly Guilfoyle)." WWD (April 9, 2001): p. 16.

Murphy, Dean E. "Left Faces Left in San Francisco Runoff Vote for Mayor." New York Times (Dec 7, 2003): p. A26.

Quittner, Jeremy. "Gavin's Gay Gamble: Mayor Gavin Newsom Makes San Francisco a Mecca for Gay Marriage. What Was This Straight Guy Thinking?" Advocate (March 30, 2004): p. 28.

Said, Carolyn. "Win for Bottom Line; S.F. Mayor-Elect Brings Commercial Smarts to His Job." San Francisco Chronicle (December 11, 2003): p. B1.

Sandalow, Marc, and Rachel Gordon. "Newsom Now a National Figure; Same-Sex Marriage Decision Turns Him into Lightning Rod." San Francisco Chronicle (Feb 29, 2004): p. A1.

Taylor, Chris. "I Do ... No, You Don't! Why San Francisco's Brash Mayor Is Taking on Schwarzenegger and Bush over Gay Marriage." Time (March 1, 2004): p. 40.

Zinko, Carolyne. "A Wedding to Remember; Newsom-Guilfoyle Nuptials Talk of the Town." San Francisco Chronicle (December 16, 2001): p. E5.

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