The Interview: California Governor Gavin Newsom Speaks Out

By Janet Reilly

The governor spoke about his struggles with school, his vision for the future and his hope for the new generation. (Jason Madara)

We checked in with Gavin Newsom at the end of his first year at the helm of one of the most powerful states — and Trump targets — in the Union. The governor is taking off the gloves.

For the last six years on the Friday before Thanksgiving, hundreds of people have gathered in the Julia Morgan Ballroom in the Merchants Exchange Building in downtown San Francisco to share a traditional Thanksgiving meal and to support Bay Scholars. Bay Scholars is a scholarship fund that makes it possible for low-income students across the Bay Area to attend private college-prep high schools. The nonprofit was founded 10 years ago by my husband, Clint, as a way to pay it forward. As one of 10 children, private education wasn’t an option for his family. When Clint decided to attend the seminary right out of the eighth grade, tuition was an issue. Someone — still anonymous to this day —paid his way. And Clint’s never forgotten it.

As part of this year’s luncheon program, I interviewed our guest of honor, Governor Gavin Newsom, who was introduced by Bay Scholar Maria Escalera. As always, Newsom was frank, articulate, charismatic and policy focused. For the high school students in the room, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to hear directly from our governor about his struggles with school, his vision for the future, and his hope for their generation; for the rest of us, it was a reminder of how lucky we are to have San Francisco’s former mayor leading our state in these turbulent times. I wanted to share that interview with you — enjoy!

Governor, you have been on the job for almost a year now. What do you enjoy most about it? We’re the most diverse state in the world’s most diverse democracy. Twenty-seven percent of this state is foreign-born. … We brought in 115,000 refugees just in the last 12 years. It’s a remarkable place. No one is doing what we’re doing at scale. So when Maria talks about our values and she talks in terms of Dreamers, we also are attached to something else that’s unique in this nation. There’s no other dream besides the American dream and the California dream. There’s no Alabama dream that I’m aware of — I say lovingly. I don’t mean to offend.

Alabama’s not here to defend itself. That might not be fair! (laughing) But you get the point.

Of course. I’ll tell you what else I’m very proud of is that it’s because of those values that California is such a vibrant place, not despite those values. … I don’t know if you see this, or a lot of folks pay much attention to it, but California just enjoyed its 116th consecutive month of net job growth. That’s unprecedented in California history. It is the lowest unemployment in our history: 3.8 percent average GDP growth over the course of the last five years, significantly outperforming not only the rest of the nation, but those states that seem to get a lot of attention as competitive states — like Tennessee, like Texas, and others. We have an economy that’s twice as large as Texas. It’s larger than Texas and Florida combined. It’s the fifth-largest economy on planet Earth, and we are, respectfully, running record surpluses, not record deficits like the rest of the United States. That is a point of pride. And I say all that because you don’t see that on the nightly news. People aren’t focused on those things. There’s a vibrancy, there’s a richness, there’s an intensity of purpose, and it’s demonstrable in the people of this state. And so when you look at that sum total, I couldn’t be more proud and privileged to be in this position as governor, particularly at this pivotal time.

What about some of the biggest challenges? The headwinds coming from Washington, D.C.? We just filed our 64th lawsuit, and it’s just been three years [since President Trump took office]. Not one of them we chose. We didn’t wake up and say, “Hey, we’re ready to sue the federal government.” It’s because of the direct assault on our values, on the Dreamers, on our health care, on our clean air, our clean water, on our rights that have been established [during] the Reagan administration [to limit] tailpipe emissions. A full-on war has been declared by this administration.

Newsom in conversation with Janet Reilly at November’s Bay Scholars Luncheon in the Julia Morgan Ballroom. (Drew Altizer Photography)

For all the attention we’re paying to $391 million being held up in aid to Ukraine, how about a president who says after those big fires, “I’m not going to give California anymore money because they’re not raking the forest.” Which is rather ironic because not one of those fires was a forest fire. And forgive me, 57 percent of the forests are federal forests; just 3 percent are state forests. We have a president who, two months ago, announced he’s going to withhold all transportation money in this state. After Ridgecrest, after the earthquake, we had an emergency declaration. He said no. That’s the American President. He’s talking about the American people who happen to live in the state of California: 40 million strong, 26 counties that went for Trump. [I] represent every single one of those counties. I have a deep passion and sense of obligation for folks who live in Butte County that were impacted by the Camp Fire. Trust me, they did not vote for me, but they deserve my full-time focus and attention. They deserve us to have their backs.

Given that this luncheon is all about education, I want to talk a little bit about yours. Uh oh!

Don’t worry, I don’t have your transcripts! No, you don’t want my transcripts.

You have been very open about being diagnosed with dyslexia as a child and some of the challenges that created for you, not just academically but in terms of self-esteem. How did you overcome this? It’s interesting. My father passed away about a year ago, and he had all these old boxes, and what happens? You have a little time to go back and find all the old boxes, and I found all … my old files from when I was going [to speech therapy after school] because of this diagnosis that at the time no one recognized but was clearly dyslexia. And how I couldn’t spell, and how irritated I got, and how problematic, and how below-average I was in every single category. It shaped me, it defined me, but also it defined my relationship with my mother, a single mom [who] never gave up on me.

That’s great. It was a mother with grit and determination not to let her son fall behind, and, in combination with sports, literally got me out of my shell and got me into Santa Clara University. I would never have gotten in. Trust me. Especially today. It’s harder than ever to get in to Santa Clara. … But it’s the greatest gift, a learning disability.

How so? Because you’re forced to think differently, act differently. You’re not rote, you’re not linear in the thinking. You’re focused on problem solving, creativity. That’s what led to me starting a small business right out of Santa Clara University, and now [PlumpJack Group] boasts a thousand employees and 23 businesses all across the state. It allows me to be defined by a willingness to take risks because, by definition, you’ve got to increase the number of tries. Because you’re good at failing, you want to fail-forward fast. I brought that iterative side of me — that entrepreneurial side— from a business mindset into my work as a county supervisor, as mayor, as lieutenant governor and now governor. It allows me to do things, perhaps, that others may not be so willing to do. It’s hardwired because of that incredible gift and experience of a learning disability.

What values and principles did you learn at Santa Clara University that helped to shape you as an adult, and maybe factor into the way you govern the state of California? I remember Father Coz at Santa Clara, he was our econ teacher. … He was a bit of a legend at Santa Clara, and very indelible because of his relationship with his students. He always took us out. I don’t know how he got away with half the stuff he got away with — a lot of time with his students back at one of the bars.

The good old days. Anyway, he taught us — the Bible teaches us — “We’re many parts but one body, and when one part suffers, we all suffer.” This notion of the commonwealth, Dr. [Martin Luther] King picked up on that frame, right? We’re all bound together by a web of mutuality.

Right? Right. This notion of actualizing, not just holding hands, wishing and praying the world would be something, but the recognition that we have agency.

Many of our Bay Scholars students are minority low-income, high-achieving students. Do you have any ideas on how can we increase access to college to more kids like them? It’s not just access… it’s completion. You know, we have four and a half million people who are quote-unquote near-completers. People who have some credits but don’t have degrees, people who have dropped out, like some of the Bay Scholars, for many different reasons. Life throws you a curveball, you’ve got to take care of your parents, can no longer afford it, can’t get the right classes, you bottleneck, you get demoralized, you step away. I think, fundamentally, one of the biggest, smartest investments we can make in terms of return on investment is helping those near-completers get those degrees, because we know the premium of degrees.Number two, we just simply have to focus more on equity. But you can’t focus on equity and an achievement gap after the achievement gap manifests. An achievement gap manifests at kindergarten. … You’ve got to begin at the beginning. It’s prenatal care, it’s preschool, it’s Early Head Start.You’ve got to prepare kids to enter into kindergarten. We do not have an achievement gap — we have a readiness gap. We have an opportunity gap, and that can be closed in those critical early years. So if we’re going to get serious about access and completion, that’s where it begins. We have done a modest amount in that space in the last few decades in California, and we are significantly ramping up our efforts now.

The governor poses with promising high school students and the nonprofit’s director, Caitlin Kavanagh. (Drew Altizer Photography)

And just to throw a statistic out there that you probably know: On average, white and Asian students earn a college-level credential at a rate about 20 percentage points higher than Hispanic and black students. And the gap starts with a 35-million-word gap by the time you’re 3 years old. A high-income family versus low-income family: You’ve heard 45 million words in a high-income family, only 13 million words in a low-income family. Boom. … We talk about a 100-day agenda for politicians, but what about the first hundred days of a young child’s life? The idea that you don’t even have time to spend with your children because you’re so anxious, even if you have paid family leave, that you maybe fired or you may be demoted. Or the whole idea of parenting — with all due respect, men are nowhere to be found substantively. That dialogue and that gender balance is a deep issue too.

I don’t want to get off on a tangent, but I was just down in Santa Clarita visiting two young teenagers who were shot in that school shooting. I mean, you already forgot about it because it barely was a blip for one day and then it was off the nightly news. Just another school shooting in the United States of America.

We all started talking about the weapons, but no one even inquired that it was a boy who did it. You think about so many of the challenges we have in society. What one thing we all have in common is how we’re raising our boys to be men. And that goes, by the way, to the opening comments about values. We live in a country, and it’s pretty obvious when you watch the news, that rewards the value proposition of power, dominance and aggression over empathy, care and collaboration.

That’s a gender issue much more than anything else. I think, foundationally, we have got to get under the hood if we’re going to get serious about addressing the issue of gun violence, issues of domestic violence, issues of suicide (which is dominantly men now), opioid overdoses (dominantly men), dropouts (men). You go down the list. I know this is a tough conversation — in someways it’s a generational conversation — but I think it’s a profoundly important conversation, because it goes to the root of the systemic issues that fundamentally won’t change unless we address them.

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