Nov. 4 2015 12:11 AM

Ocean Beach Town Council president catches local Democratic Party leaders napping

Gretchen Newsom (left), worked for former Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides.
Photo courtesy of

The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.

—Rollo May

Gretchen Newsom caught local Democratic Party leaders napping, and for that they should be thankful.

A “spark” is how the Ocean Beach Town Council president and union organizer would explain her surprise announcement two weekends ago at the tail end of a Democratic convention in Escondido. She intends to challenge incumbent Republican Kevin Faulconer in the June mayoral primary.

Newsom swears she vetted her intentions with no one. Party Chairwoman Francine Busby seemed perplexed when Newsom walked out of the audience and onto a candidate-filled stage that day and sat next to her.

Gretchen, what are you doing? Newsom recalled Busby saying after giving her “not a double, but a triple take.” Newsom said she replied, “Well, you don’t have a candidate for mayor, Francine.”

Newsom said it was “a mix of the good and bad” that day at the convention that propelled her on stage and into the mayoral-wannabe spotlight. The good emerged, she said, from inspiring speeches, particularly one from state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez about “what kind of Democrats are we going to be? The kind that stand up, that fight for our values, the kind that push the ball forward?”

But the bad came from “that last moment of seeing three dozen candidates up on the stage and nobody was willing to take on that fight and have that conversation to push back on the current mayor. So yeah, I’m in the audience having this internal debate, thinking something’s got to change this up. Why not me?”

In a phone interview Sunday after returning from her young son’s skateboarding lesson, Newsom told Spin Cycle she understands the “uphill battle” she faces to unseat Faulconer. “And it definitely does take its toll on my family and the time that I have,” she added, “but somebody needed to do this, and I’ve got the background and the experience. I want to change the dialogue and talk about different issues. I’ve agitated the spin cycle.”

The question remains, is the media ready for that conversation? Already, Newsom has found herself beating back against sexist overtones from some quarters. On KPBS Roundtable Friday, host Mark Sauer noted the candidate’s name similarity with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, adding with a smirk, “almost as pretty as he is.”

On Facebook, Newsom responded swiftly: “Yes, I am shaking up politics in San Diego. I’ll continue by telling Mark Sauer, and any other reporter who needs to be reminded, that they shouldn’t refer to me as a ‘pretty’ candidate. It distracts from the issues and it’s sexist.”

During the interview, Newsom demonstrated a biting sense of humor by acknowledging she “oscillated between” posting that or “instead a KPBS-sponsored ‘Pretty Poll’ asking people to vote on who’s prettiest.”

When it was suggested a whole Midday episode could be devoted to that subject, Newsom added with a laugh, “especially if you throw in an iconic, cute San Diego animal like Chopper the Biker Dog. This could get serious. This could get real.”

Gretchen Newsom
Photo courtesy

The Republican campaign machine has already kicked into gear, touting Newsom as the anointed challenger, courtesy of Big Mean Labor, to the image of Good Kind Generous Kevin, defender of the status quo and credit-taker-during-an-improved-economy extraordinaire.

Newsom has a different take, calling Faulconer’s approach to governance “a do-nothing thing. You have a problem? Everybody gets a task force!” Added Newsom: “OK, what’s the game plan? How are you moving this forward? You have major infrastructure needs that are not being met and not being funded. How do you move that forward? There are so many things, and the needle is not being moved. It’s really frustrating.”

She called Faulconer’s decision to skip the recent San Diego Association of Governments vote on a controversial $200 billion transportation spending plan through 2050 “laughable” in his failure to “advocate for a better San Diego, a better community that’s more equitable.”

Indeed, Newsom seems ready to pack a punch when necessary with the smarts to back it up. One of three sisters raised in the rural San Mateo County town of Loma Mar (“I think its population has finally reached 50,” she noted), the 34-year-old found herself growing up quickly after her parents divorced when she was still in elementary school.

Her father, who drove an hour through the forested hills to his job at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Palo Alto where atoms were smashed, clashed with his daughter politically. “My father did not see eye to eye with me on politics,” she said, adding that the divorce “may be why I’m pretty self-driven. I had to take on a lot of responsibilities to help my family get through.”

She was co-valedictorian of her high school, graduated magna cum laude from Humboldt State University with a degree in political science and studied in China for a semester.

She caught the attention of state Treasurer Phil Angelides, who brought her on as a policy adviser in 2004 and then put her to work on his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2005. After a stint in the real-estate world, Newsom was tapped again by Angelides in 2009 as “the first and last staff member” of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which investigated the causes of the nation’s fiscal meltdown.

Newsom cut her teeth on the housing affordability issue facing San Diego while working for LeSar Development Consultants, a company run by Jennifer LeSar, wife of state Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins. She started working there in 2011, the same year she moved to San Diego and instantly became a fixture in Ocean Beach politics, including a rapid ascent to the presidency of the OB Town Council.

Last year, she took over as political director for the 3,000- member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569, which has given her an understanding of the struggles working families endure in an ever-more costly city.

Some pundits might suggest downplaying the union label, but Newsom will have none of that. “I’m flying that high, absolutely,” she said. “It’s frustrating how Republicans have mislabeled labor—really trashed them— because it couldn’t be farther from the fence as to what unions are trying to do for the middle class.”

Yep, this won’t be pretty for Faulconer’s coronation plans. But as Newsom put it, “It’s not a beauty contest, folks.”


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