Smooth operator

Gavin Newsom showed Chico he’s more than a pretty face

Some politicians have the star quality that lights up a room. Bill Clinton has it. So does Barack Obama. And so does California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, as he showed to several hundred people in Chico over the course of two days last week.

His first appearance was at an invitation-only reception held Thursday evening (Feb. 16) in the adjoining penthouse apartments of Bob Linscheid and Pam Montana and Steve and Charlene Gonsalves atop the Sixth and Main building. Linscheid is the economic-development go-to guy in Chico, and Steve Gonsalves heads up the local office of the big Northern California architectural firm Nichols, Melburg & Rossetto.

Linscheid and Newsom have gotten to know each other while serving as trustees of the California State University, so when Linscheid invited the lieutenant governor to Chico to talk to local business people and educators, Newsom accepted.

The penthouse event was strictly social, so Newsom didn’t give a speech, but he managed to talk with most of the 75 or so people there via a series of five- or six-person clusters that developed around him as he slowly worked the room. He’s a good-looking 43-year-old, about 6-foot-4, with a flashing smile and swept-back hair reminiscent of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. And he engages easily with people, moving smoothly from light bantering to serious discussion while maintaining strong eye contact throughout.

For such a young guy Newsom’s accomplished a lot—successful businessman, supervisor and then mayor of San Francisco and now lieutenant governor—and he exudes the confidence of someone who is used to being the brightest star in the room.

But he’s also a gutsy politician with passionate beliefs. He got way out in front on marriage equality right after being elected mayor in 2003, when he defied state law and allowed same-sex couples to wed. The rest of the country is now starting to catch up to him. And he also created an action plan that turned San Francisco into the first city in the country offering universal health care—another first.

As a member of the CSU Board of Trustees, he’s been a staunch opponent of funding cutbacks and fee hikes, a position that has put him at odds with his fellow Democrat, Gov. Jerry Brown. The way he put it, speaking to a group of local business owners and educators over breakfast Friday morning at Mom’s Restaurant in downtown Chico, the current administration is focused on solvency, and higher education is an easy target for cuts.

Yes, it’s important to balance the state budget, he said. But we have to look to the future, as well. That’s why our higher-education systems, the greatest in the world, are so important. They’re the “conveyor belt of talent.” And yet the state has cut $2 billion in higher-ed funding in just one year. That’s “appalling,” Newsom said, and it has to stop.

Newsom is clearly angling for higher office. His challenge is to prove he’s more than a fast talker with a pretty face. He took a step in that direction during his visit to Chico.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.