Governor Dad: How Gavin Newsom’s kids are about to shape California

Laurel Rosenhall
Reporter, CALmatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom was about half-way through his inaugural address Monday when his 2-year-old son toddled onto the stage, sucking on a green pacifier and gripping his blankie. Newsom, barely missing beat, hoisted the boy onto his hip, kissed him on the cheek and gamely continued delivering his first speech as the 40th governor of California.

At first glance, it appeared to be a working parent’s worst nightmare: Your kid needs you right at a moment of peak professional responsibility. At second glance, cynics might have wondered, ever so gently, whether it was political stagecraft that maybe went sideways when a small child allowed to wander adorably into the frame refused to stop wandering. Either way, the scene, which stole the show, quickly became a perfect symbol of Newsom’s ascent as governor—at once emblematic of the generational changing of the guard in California’s leadership, of Newsom’s policy priorities and of his station in life at this particular moment.

It’s been a while since Californians had a governor who is also a Dad. And as Newsom begins his governorship—succeeding Jerry Brown, who is childless and, at 80, the oldest governor in the history of California—he’s made clear that his role leading the state will be informed by his role at home, where he and his wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom are parenting four children under the age of 10.

“I certainly will bring that perspective to bear,” Newsom said Sunday afternoon at his family-oriented pre-inaugural party in Sacramento, where his kids were among hundreds who played with robots, made slime, colored butterfly pictures, danced to pop music and ate pancakes.

“And I hope I have, in terms of early signs… of the things I want to focus on because I’m a parent.”

In the past week, Newsom has proposed spending $1.8 billion to expand childcare and kindergarten, as well as health care for young children and expectant mothers. He’s also suggested that California should become the first state in the nation to give workers 6 months of paid parental leave. Newsom acknowledged he doesn’t have a plan to pay for it all but called it “an audacious goal” (get used to that, it’s one of his favorite phrases) meant to inspire policymakers.

The proposals are bold but not entirely surprising. Newsom made his interest in young children clear on the campaign trail—airing commercials about the importance of prenatal care and early education, dressing as Batman and handing out candy at a preschool on Halloween, and appearing at campaign stops carrying 2-year-old Dutch on his hip.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, left, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, right, handed out candy at a preschool on Halloween. Photo for CALmatters by Laurel Rosenhall.

Even with the means to pay for nannies and private Montessori preschool, Newsom has said raising children is the hardest thing he’s ever done. The family also includes 5-year-old Brooklynn, 7-year-old Hunter and 9-year-old Montana.

“It’s intense. It’s awesome,” Newsom said in an interview this spring. “Nothing substitutes for the work of a parent.”

Of course, fatherhood isn’t the only inspiration for the policy proposals—Newsom expanded preschool programs as mayor of San Francisco, before he had his own kids. And many Democrats who aren’t parents support more government funding for early care and education.

Still, Newsom’s approach and his family circumstances are a huge change from what California has seen in recent years. He is the first governor in decades to be so heavily immersed simultaneously in governing and parenting. He moved his family from a hilltop home in Marin County to the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Sacramento so that he can spend more time with his kids.

Contrast that with Jerry Brown and Gray Davis, who never had children. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger, who kept his family in Los Angeles while he was governor, flying home regularly to see them but largely sequestering the children from public view. Pete Wilson’s stepsons were grown by the time he took office. Not since George Deukmejian was governor in the 1980s has a California governor lived with his family in the capital city—and by that point his youngest child was in high school.

Some legislators already sense the difference.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a San Diego Democrat, said it was hard to get Brown to understand why she pushed bills to give poor families subsidies to offset the cost of diapers, or why lawmakers wanted to spend more on preschool.

“He wasn’t cruel,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “It just was clear that he didn’t really internalize how important it was.”

The conversation with Newsom is different, she said—he’s reciting stats about the burdensome cost of diapers for poor families.

None of which is to say that Brown ignored California children. He increased public school funding by more than 50 percent, spent $19 million to expand child care and, after vetoing early versions of Gonzalez Fletcher’s diaper bill, agreed in 2017 to spend about $23 million annually on subsidies to help poor families afford them. He also signed a slew of kid-oriented laws—sent to him by a Legislature that includes many parents of young children—including measures to require diaper changing stations in more men’s restrooms, offer paid parental leave to workers at small companies and make kids’ restaurant meals healthier, with milk or water instead of soda.

But in public at least, Brown largely seemed more at ease with his dogs than with the children who would come by the Capitol for Christmas tree lightings or his house at Halloween. Last year, as he greeted trick-or-treaters, Brown grew impatient as two costumed tots rifled through his bowl of candy.

“You guys, decide. Come on, grab something,” Brown said, rapping his hand on the table. “You can’t stay here forever.”

Newsom, by contrast, made Halloween a light day on the campaign trail so he could be home with his kids for the evening. (In case you wondered, they’re the kind of parents who plan a family costume.)

Another change from the Brown and Schwarzenegger administrations is that Newsom’s chief of staff, Ann O’Leary, is also a parent of school-age children. It’s too soon to know all the ways these changes will impact work inside the Capitol. But one place to look for signs will be the patio outside the governor’s office. Schwarzenegger made it into a smoking tent for politicians to puff on cigars and hash out deals. Brown used it as a dog run.

“You will probably see little kids in the horseshoe more than you have in the past,” said Ted Lempert, a former legislator who is now president of the Children Now advocacy group.

“In today’s work world, this is the reality—people are juggling family and work. The more that’s ingrained in policymakers in Sacramento, I think that’s a positive.”

Incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom, at a pre-inaugural event for families, explores a robotics display with his children at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento. Photo for CALmatters by Laurel Rosenhall.

Beyond the policy or workplace implications, there is a political significance in Newsom’s status as Governor Dad: It likely makes him more relatable for the masses, said GOP political consultant Rob Stutzman, a former Schwarzenegger aide.

“Raising children is something he’s going to have in common with the contemporary experience of millions of other Californians,” he said.

“It gives him…a more rounded common experience with a lot of fellow citizens that Brown didn’t have.”

Sure, most Californians haven’t made millions of dollars in the hospitality industry, as Newsom has, or run for political office multiple times, or delivered a live speech on national television. But plenty have, as parents, been in the same spot Newsom was on Monday—trying to figure out how to manage a 2-year-old with a mind of his own.

After Newsom greeted his son mid-speech with the picture-perfect embrace, Dutch got the wiggles and wormed his way out of his dad’s arms. Then the stage became his playground—he walked circles around the podium, waved his blankie a few times and stomped his feet. When his older brother tried to lure him off the stage, Dutch refused to come. Finally, his mother picked him up and carried him backstage where Dutch cried out in protest.

Newsom ad-libbed a bit as it all unfolded, marrying the moment to the promises in his speech.

“We will support parents—they need support, trust me—so they can give their kids the love and care they need, especially in those critical early years when so much development occurs,” he said.

It was the kind of controlled chaos rarely seen on political stages, but completely familiar to any Californian who’s ever raised a toddler.

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