SAN FRANCISCO — In the fall of 2009, this city’s leader vanished.
Mayor Gavin Newsom had been hoping to ride his controversial and prescient support of gay marriage in 2004 — nine years before the Supreme Court made such unions law — all the way to the statehouse in Sacramento.
But as his polling numbers slipped and coffers ran low, Newsom suddenly realized his bid for governor against state stalwart Jerry Brown was doomed.
For days, local media and even his own staffers could not find him. Newsom finally surfaced in Hawaii, licking his wounds with his wife and child. If the disappearance seemed petulant, it also spoke to his fierce desire for the job.
“He’d been soaring higher and higher politically as a very young man, but that aborted race for governor brought him crashing back down to earth,” said Nathan Ballard, who was Newsom’s spokesman at the time and remains a close advisor.
“Now, after champing at the bit for the role a decade ago, he’s tempered by age and wisdom and he’s not going to waste this opportunity," he said.
Nearly 100 days into his tenure as the state’s 40th governor, Newsom, 51, has already brought his signature sermonizing style to the state's highest office.
"The choices we make will shape our future for decades," he told lawmakers during his State of the State speech on Feb. 12. "This goes deeper than budget numbers or program details. This is about the bonds between us as human beings."
Newsom hasn't been shy about backing up such words with actions. His most recent: Traveling to El Salvador in early April to investigate the roots of the current immigration crisis.
In a mere few months, Newsom has taken enough bold stances to frustrate Republicans and cheer fellow Democrats. There's also an unmistakable signal to national party leaders — thanks to Newsom's photogenic looks, monied connections and youthful demeanor — that a 2024 presidential run could well be in the offing.
“Governors of California have always been potential candidates for president, so part of what he’ll try to do now is build a legacy to run on,” said Jack Citrin, a longtime observer of state politics and professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. “Newsom wants to do dramatic things, and it certainly seems like he’s starting off in that direction.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a former San Francisco mayor herself, applauds Newsom's fast start, telling USA TODAY that he has identified "some of California’s biggest priorities including wildfire prevention and recovery and homelessness. We’ve already met once in Washington since he took office and we have a strong relationship."
One of those big priorities was his decision last month to use his power as governor to suspend executions of death row inmates, a move that had critics baying that the governor was ignoring the people’s will as expressed in recent votes against getting rid of the death penalty.
But there’s more. Newsom sued the city of Huntington Beach for failing to move forward with affordable housing measures, warning dozens of other local governments during his State of the State speech that the state would not tolerate attempts to skirt responsibility in helping solve a mounting housing crisis. City leaders countersued saying the overreaching move was unconstitutional.
Newsom also dove headfirst into the state’s expensive and often-derided high-speed rail project, immediately scaling back the vision to a singular run not on the coast but rather in the state’s arid Central Valley. That battle is far from over, as some Democrats lament the curtailed nature of the green-tech transportation vision while Republicans argue the entire project should be scrapped as impractical.