SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Within months of becoming San Francisco mayor in 2004, Gavin Newsom decided his hometown would ignore the law and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The move rocketed the then-36-year-old Democrat to national fame and instantly made him a polarizing figure in a fraught debate that gripped and divided the nation.
Now he’s poised to once again take a position of national prominence, this time as the leader of California’s resistance to President Donald Trump.
Newsom, 51, was elected California governor on Tuesday, easily defeating Republican John Cox. It’s a prize he’s eyed for a decade and gives him a platform to spar with Trump and advance the ambitious policies he champions, including universal health care and an aggressive effort to improve services for impoverished children.
“We say about California: We’re America’s coming attraction,” Newsom said while campaigning last week. “The future happens here first.”
Weeks earlier, riding in the back of his campaign bus through the Central Valley, Newsom went over his life story and pushed back on the persistent narrative that’s dogged him since his political career started — that he had a privileged upbringing and rode the coattails of his father’s wealthy and connected friends.
He doesn’t deny his father’s friends are wealthy and connected. Bill Newsom was close to Gordon Getty, who inherited a multi-billion-dollar oil fortune and invested in Newsom’s first business, and has been lifelong friends with Gov. Jerry Brown, who also was governor during Newsom’s youth.
But Newsom insists that narrative ignores his struggles as a child with dyslexia raised by a mother who held multiple jobs and moved all the time, and a father who, despite his connections, faced constant financial pressures. His parents separated when Newsom was young.
“I grew up very differently,” he said. “Everybody thinks I was born at 18 or 20.”
He was privileged to know the Gettys, he said, and to get experiences he’d never otherwise have, like foreign vacations they paid for as a teenager. But it wasn’t his whole reality.
“Going on vacation once a year was not my life 360 of the other days,” he said. “My life was working. Mom crying at night because she’s struggling and stressed out.”
With help from Getty and other investors, Newsom was in his 20s when he opened his first business, a San Francisco wine store called PlumpJack. The PlumpJack portfolio would grow to include boutique hotels, wineries, bars and restaurants mostly in Northern California, and Newsome would become a millionaire.
He has largely stepped away from the business and turned over management to his younger sister, Hilary. As governor, he said he’ll forego all decision-making but won’t sell his interests.
“These are my babies, my life, my family. I can’t do that. I can’t sell them,” Newsom said.
That decision poses potential ethical concerns for the new governor. Hospitality businesses are heavily regulated by the state and could provide opportunities for interest groups to try to curry favor by, for example, renting facilities at Newsom’s properties for events.
While campaigning, Newsom said after the election he would outline how he will guard against any ethical issues related to his business holdings.