If Californians Are So Woke, Why Are They Poised to Elect A Poster Boy For White Privilege, Gavin Newsom, As Governor?

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by Michael Shellenberger

We Californians take pride in being “woke” — deeply aware of and concerned about matters of racial, social, and especially environmental justice.

Why, then, are we on the verge of electing as governor a man who is the poster child for racial, class, and environmental privilege?

Consider that Gavin Newsom:

  • Claims to be a self-made businessman when in reality he owes his status as a multi-millionaire almost entirely to Gordon Getty — the billionaire heir to the oil and real estate fortune;
  • Has been a loud champion of immigrant rights while benefiting directly from the exploitation of poor and vulnerable Latin American immigrants at nearly every one of his businesses, including a winery, restaurants, and a hotel;
  • Regularly attacks President Donald Trump and Republicans as racist — and claims to be a huge champion of the state’s diversity — but chose to move out of San Francisco and live in the whitest and most racially unequal country in California;
  • Claims to want strong action on climate change even as he leads the charge to shut down the state’s largest single source of clean energy, Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.

Now Gavin (the name he is campaigning on) is claiming that he will radically expand housing and solve our homelessness crisis. But should we trust someone who has made the exact same promise — and always failed to deliver — for all of his over 20 years in office?

Might Gavin’s serial failures to address the housing shortage have anything to do with the fact that he, his family, the Gettys, and other large landowners benefit personally from it?

And if Californians are such woke, pro-immigrant environmentalists, why are we about to elect as governor a man whose financial fortune derives directly from oil money and the exploitation of immigrants and other low-wage workers?  

Birth of a Tragedy

Gavin Newsom owes his political career entirely to family connections — he even admits as much.

In 1997, Gavin was appointed, not elected, to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, thanks to his father’s financial influence over the California Democratic Party.

"It was based on Burton's friendship with me," Gavin’s father, William Newsom, III, told a newspaper reporter in 2003. Newsom the elder was referring to the former Chair of the California Democratic Party, John Burton. "Besides,” the elder Newsom explained, “they needed a straight white male on the board.”

Gavin confessed that he didn’t earn his position. “I know Willie [Brown, the former mayor] wouldn’t have done it unless Burton encouraged him,” he said. “I hopefully would be with Wine Spectator today, not you.”

But in the guise of admitting a small truth Gavin reinforced a big lie: that he is a self-made man. In fact, while Newsom owes his political career to his father he owes his financial fortune to the main heir to the Getty oil and real estate fortune, Gordon Getty.

Gavin grew up with the Gettys because his father managed their $2 billion-plus estate. As a boy, Gavin had a room at the Getty mansion and joined the Gettys on luxury wildlife expeditions.

Later, the Gettys bankrolled Gavin’s Great Gatsby-themed 30th birthday party, paid $250,000 for his wedding reception, and loaned Gavin $1 million to buy a house — which he turned into a $844,000 profit.

“[Gavin] portrays himself as a self-made businessman,” noted the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003. “No one ever knocked on my door saying ‘Gavin, this is all yours,’” he told the Chronicle.

And yet consider:

  • Getty money was behind 10 of Newsom’s 11 businesses including the Plumpjack group of restaurant, wine, and real estate businesses, with Newsom’s stake worth $6.9 million in 2003.
  • At 22, Gavin’s father cut him in on a lucrative deal to develop luxury homes on the undeveloped Hana coast of Maui. He turned $125,000 into $1 million, almost overnight. "I fronted Gavin the money,” Newsom III explained, “and he paid me back.”
  • Most of Newsom’s average annual income of $439,000 between 1996 to 2001 came not from his government jobs but rather Getty-backed concerns — including $169,000 in “investment advice.”
  • In 2004, Newsom revealed that his interest in the winery and Squaw Valley was worth $2 million, and that 96 percent of the financing came from Getty.

In a sense, Gavin is right that “No one ever knocked” on his door. But that’s because they didn’t have to. Newsom, his father, and the Gettys have always been in the room together.

The Newsom-Brown Dynasty

Gavin Newsom’s political career is a continuation of his father’s work for the Getty oil and real estate fortune, which began in the 1970s. Newsom III’s relationship with Gordon Getty began in high school, when they both attended the elite San Francisco prep school, St. Ignatius, which was also attended by Gov. Jerry Brown.

After becoming governor in 1975, Jerry made Newsom III a judge. “The reason I was appointed was a friendship between the Brown and Newsom families,” Newsom explained. “I’m sure my father’s connection with Pat Brown had a lot to do with it.” Newsom II was fundraiser for Jerry’s father, Pat Brown, who became governor in 1959.

It wasn’t the first time Newsom III benefitted from his father’s connections. After graduating from Yale Law school, Newsom II arranged for his son to get a job as an assistant commissioner of the San Francisco Superior Court. Newsom III called it “an outright sinecure” — a job that pays well for little work — which he was given because “my father, though not himself a lawyer, knew all of the superior court judges.”   

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Throughout Newsom III’s time as judge he also served as the Getty family’s investment advisor and consigliere, handling delicate matters like drug addictions, suicides, and — according to Newsom — delivering the ransom to the Italian kidnappers of a Getty grandchild, an event  depicted, albeit quite differently, in the recent movie, “All the Money in the World.”

Newsom III freely used his political connections to help the Getty family to protect and enlarge their wealth. He  arranged for the California legislature to pass legislation that allowed the Getty children to gain access to their trust.

Newsom’s biggest impact was restricting new homebuilding, which contributed to today’s housing shortage — and huge increases in real estate values.

Acting as both judge and attorney to the Gettys, Newsom pioneered the use of “conservation easements,” a tax shelter that allows wealthy landowners like the Gettys to reduce property tax payments if they agree not to build homes. Cattle ranching is still allowed.

As a result, 85 percent of Marin County — where Gavin chose to live — is off-limits to new housing.

In 2009, an investigation by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Marin’s housing policies were behind the country’s extreme racial segregation.

From Marin and Hawaii you can get a view of the Newsom-Brown-Getty neo-feudal vision for economic development in California: a tiny elite of land-rich people served by abundant, low-wage, and low-skill workers.

The elder Newsom described the Hawaiian venture as a win-win for the locals and the natural environment. "The residents of the area are poor and mostly on welfare,” he explained. Now the lucky locals get to clean the toilets, cook, and make the beds of people like the Newsoms and Gettys.

Does Gavin Really Want to Solve the Housing Crisis?

After serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Gavin Newsom ran for and was elected as mayor with the mission of addressing the homelessness crisis.

But homelessness only worsened during his eight years as major and seven and a-half as lieutenant governor. Today, we are the worst homelessness epidemic since the Great Depression.

Gavin promises to build 3.5 million homes built in four years. How? “First, identify new funding to incentivize housing,” he says in a campaign ad. “By thoughtfully increasing our investments we can increase exponentially housing.”

It’s a claim that sounds deep but, on closer inspection, is meaningless. Gavin calls to “identify” new funding, not actually create any. He claims this newly discovered money will have a magical, “exponential” impact.

 Orange blocks represent conservation easements where cattle ranching is allowed but not homebuilding.

Orange blocks represent conservation easements where cattle ranching is allowed but not homebuilding.

Gavin advocates issuing yet more bonds to pay for affordable housing — bonds taxpayers will have to service.

At $137,000 per unit, it would cost $69 billion to subsidize the construction of 500,000 additional housing units California needs to build, just to meet demand.

To put that amount of money in context, California’s total annual budget is $183 billion.

Gavin tacitly admitted we can’t subsidize our way out of the housing crisis. “It’s not just resources,” Gavin said last Thursday, “it’s resourcefulness” — whatever that means.

The problem isn’t insufficient subsidy, it’s insufficient supply, but Gavin refuses to endorse either changing zoning regulations to allow taller buildings or reforming the state’s environmental law to end the frivolous lawsuits that create housing scarcity and drive up costs.

In the end, that’s unsurprising given the origins of his family’s wealth history and the role of his father and Gov. Brown in constructing the landlord-labor union financial and political alliance that keeps housing scarce and expensive.

California’s Dirty Little Secret

In last year’s blockbuster horror flick, “Get Out,” the white girlfriend to the main black character is trying to reassure him about meeting her parents.

Chris: You said I was the first black guy you ever dated?

Rose: Yeah, so what?

Chris: Yeah, so this is uncharted territory for them. You know I don't want to be chased off the lawn with a shotgun.

Rose: You're not going to. First of all, my dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have... They are not racist. I would have told you.

It’s the first inkling that there’s more to the story than the picture of wokeness and racial harmony we first see in Chris and Rose’s relationship.

Later, after they arrive at Rose’s parents house, Chris sees that they have two servants, both of whom happen to be black. Rose’s dad, Dean, strolling in the backyard with Chris, addresses the issue directly.

Dean: I know what you're thinking.

Chris: What?

Dean Armitage: Come on, I get it. White family, black servants. It's a total cliché.

Chris: I wasn't going to take it there.

Dean: Well you didn't have to, believe me. Now, we hired Georgina and Walter to help care for my parents. When they died I just couldn't bear to let them go. But boy, I hate how it looks.

Chris: Yeah, I know what you mean.

Dean: By the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could. Best president in my lifetime. Hands down.

In a few sentences of dialogue the filmmaker, Jordan Peele, perfectly captures the ways in which progressive woke ideology is used to justify and maintain historical structures of racial and class oppression in progressive places — including but not limited to California.

Why do woke California Democrats loudly denounce the racism of Republicans as we vote for the poster boy of progressive white privilege who is campaigning for more of the same?

The answer is because we need to. Being woke is our strategy to avoid the cognitive dissonance created by realizing that, in California, progressives are responsible for creating the most exploitative, unequal, and impoverished state in America.

Michael Shellenberger