Governor-elect Gavin Newsom and Governor Jerry Brown have a somber reason to reflect on the past even as a new political era dawns in California.
Newsom lost his father, and Brown lost a longtime friend, when former State Court of Appeal Justice William Newsom died last week at 84. The elder Newsom distinguished himself as an environmental activist, lawyer and judge. A fierce defender of California’s iconic mountain lions, he created the Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation to save them.
At first glance, he might seem like a minor player in California’s political history. But as the old Irish proverb goes: “Time is a great storyteller.”
In his roles as politico, judge and father, William Newsom served as something of a bridge between three California governors. Two of these governors – a father and a son named Brown – had dramatic and long-lasting impacts on the future of the state. The third, Newsom’s own son, will take the oath of office next month.
William Newsom did not live to see his son become the 40th governor of California, but he did see him win election. Gavin Newsom will assume the office once held by Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, who started his political career with assistance from William Newsom’s father, also named William.
Pat Brown led California during a period of booming optimism. Under his watch, California’s population expanded while the state invested in critical infrastructure such as the University of California and the California Aqueduct. He also kick-started the political career of a young San Franciscan named Dianne Emiel Goldman, appointing her to the Women’s Parole Board in 1960. We know her today as Senator Dianne Feinstein.
Eight years after Pat Brown left office – ousted by Republican upstart Ronald Reagan – Brown Jr. reclaimed the mantle. Jerry Brown, intrigued by his fellow St. Ignatius High School alum’s interest in environmental law, appointed William Newsom to the Placer County Superior Court in 1975.
Newsom’s quotes in his San Francisco Chronicle obituary demonstrate a refreshing candor wrapped in sharp Irish wit.
Asked why he decided to practice law, he told an interviewer he was “getting too old” and needed to “make a few dollars.” Quizzed about young Jerry Brown’s decision to become a priest, he said: “I became convinced that I didn’t want to be a Jesuit partly as a result of knowing Jerry.”
Anyone familiar with Governor-elect Newsom’s biography knows he was raised by a single mother, Tessa Newsom, whom he often honors in speeches and interviews. Yet it seems clear he inherited the political bug from his father, who called politics “the Irish malady.”
William Newsom ran for office in 1968, losing his race for a seat in the California state senate where his son would serve as president four decades later.
As a judge, he ruffled feathers in 1978 by calling for the decriminalization of narcotics. His son has also challenged societal conventions before most politicians believe the time is right. Marriage equality is a reality today largely because Mayor Gavin Newsom fought an unjust law.
Importantly, the elder Newsom provided his son with a connection to the Getty family of San Francisco. They gave young Newsom a start in business and, later, supported his campaigns. Many of his political opponents have tried, and failed, to use this relationship to stop his political rise. After all, making connections to advance your children is a well-worn trope in the American story.
As Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, “families are always rising and falling in America.”
William Newsom exits the stage as his son rises to lead the 5th largest economy in the world and the Browns ascend into history. Governor Newsom will lead California as we face an uncertain future brimming with both opportunity and danger.
And so while a long life now ends, the story just begins.