Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, walked out of a catcall booth at the California Democratic Party convention this past February, appearing alarmed.
"It was intense," Newsom said. "Horrifying."
The art installation, aimed at mimicking women being taunted on the streets by men, sought to draw attention to sexual harassment and the objectification of women. Siebel Newsom said she understands the behavior, having spent much of her adult life working to empower women.
"It's women being treated as objects for the male gaze," she said in February. "We're a culture that has dehumanized and devalued women and girls. What's great is this is an opportunity for men to understand what's been normalized in our culture so they can use their voices and stand up and speak out against it."
Her advocacy, and commanding grasp of major issues affecting women, especially in the age of the #MeToo movement, could also be a major factor in helping Newsom overcome his political vulnerability stemming from a 2005 affair. When he was in his first term as mayor of San Francisco, Newsom slept with a subordinate who was also the wife of his campaign adviser and friend, Alex Tourk.
For women, especially, who believe Newsom behaved inappropriately, Siebel Newsom has been his strongest advocate in signaling that a mistake in his past does not reflect who he is today.
She has long served as her husband's fiercest proponent. Shortly after they started dating in 2006, she defended him from political attacks following the affair he had before the two met. At the state Democratic Party convention this past February, as the two walked hand-in-hand greeting delegates, she discussed Newsom's upbringing having been raised by a single mom, around his sister and aunts, saying "it comes natural for him to respect and revere women." The two also regularly host social media forums on such issues as elevating women to leadership positions, breaking down gender stereotypes and making child care more affordable.
In Newsom's gubernatorial bid, she has played a sizable role, elevating women's issues in his campaign. She's been deployed as a campaign surrogate, holding her own events promoting Newsom and their mutual support for gun safety, women's access to safe birth control and their leadership roles in business.
The actress and documentary filmmaker also regularly appears alongside him at campaign and fundraising events. In interviews this week, both she and Newsom said her work will help to shape a broader policy agenda if he's able to maintain his frontrunner status through to November and defeat a Republican or Democratic opponent yet to be decided.
"I want her, and I think she wants to be front and center, if we're successful, in this administration in terms of helping build on a lot of the incredible work she's done on issues of gender equality, pay equity, how we're raising our boys, and now a growing commitment to income inequality," Newsom told The Sacramento Bee Tuesday as he and his wife campaigned via tour bus across California ahead of the June 5 primary. "I think those are areas where it's just a natural fit for me."
Siebel Newsom also said it would be "natural" for her to play a role on women's issues and other areas related to income inequality. She's in the middle of making a new documentary called "The Great American Lie," about inequality in America.
"He and I are just super-focused on how we are going to fix these systemic issues, knowing that it takes time and partnership and all of that," she said in a separate interview with The Bee on Tuesday. "We're just very aligned ... and we educate each other. He's like my best researcher, and he's learned so much from my films, and I've learned so much from his work."
Siebel Newsom says it's her passion and purpose in life to elevate women. Her 2011 film "Miss Representation" examines the media's role in shaping stereotypical gender ideas of women and girls and how that plays into under-representation of women in positions of power. A later film titled "The Mask You Live In" focuses on aspects of American culture that reinforce traditional ideas of masculinity and how that influences behavior in boys and men.
Siebel Newsom, 43, launched her filmmaking career after getting her start in Hollywood at age 28. As an actress, her agent told her to lie about her age and remove her Stanford MBA degree from her resume, she says regularly at public speaking engagements. She talked about that experience in an interview in the series Makers, a feminist media initiative that features interviews with leading women, as she explained how she got her start in documentary filmmaking.
"I was struck by the messaging that was being communicated, not only to me but to other women," Siebel Newsom said. "I couldn't imagine raising a healthy girl in a culture that objectifies, demeans and degrades women on a regular basis. I knew I had to speak up about it and I knew I had to question it."
Newsom, 50, has addressed his past scandal in the gubernatorial campaign, describing it as a mistake between two consenting adults and saying he's learned from it. His campaign notes that he was publicly separated at the time. He and Siebel Newsom have been married for a decade and have four children together.
"Sometimes people make mistakes in their lives, and you then work hard to never make them again, because you learn from them, and I've never made them again and I've learned from it," Newsom said in an earlier interview with The Bee. "And it led ultimately to falling in love with Jen."
Though the incident has followed him throughout his political career, it appears voters aren't convinced it's a major issue. He was re-elected in 2007, the same year the scandal broke, and since has been elected twice as lieutenant governor. He has also remained the leading candidate in public opinion polls, ahead of three other major Democratic candidates — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Treasurer John Chiang and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin.
"No matter whether you support or oppose him, the fact is that these incidents occurred in his first term as mayor of San Francisco, when he was in his early 30s. Since, he's had his paper stamped three times by the voters," said Garry South, a Democratic strategist. "Here it is 2018, more than 12 years after this happened, and he's by all accounts a happily married man who now has four kids.
"Is it relevant to voters? I don't think it is," he said of the affair.