By Kristen Boffi
Santa Clara graduate Gavin Newsom, ’89, has had trouble staying out of the spotlight since he was elected as mayor of San Francisco in 2003. From legalizing gay marriage to offering amnesty for undocumented immigrants in San Francisco to drug and sex scandals, it’s no wonder Newsom is one of the most well-known mayors in the country.
The Santa Clara reporter Kristen Boffi, who interned for Newsom this summer, sat down with the mayor for a wide-ranging interview discussing his time at Santa Clara, his faith, and why, nearly 20 years after his graduation, the university has never invited him back.
TSC: You lived in the Alameda apartments. What was that like?
GN: It was quite fun. I think it was early on when they converted them. So it was perfect to be living in a hotel, basically, which was ideal. A little off the regular track, but it was right next door to 7-Eleven, so I’m not complaining. It was perfect. And then we moved just right off campus, and it was a brand new development — these sort of interesting apartments. And so I always sort of was just a few steps away from the day-to-day life of the campus.
TSC: What were you involved in at Santa Clara?
GN: I played a little baseball. Just my first and second year.
My freshman to beginning of sophomore year, I did things that weren’t even like me. Interesting time. And then middle of my sophomore year on, it was like, “All right, got all that out of me.” And it wasn’t just like going to some party and, you know, beer bongs or something.
TSC: What did you think of your classes?
GN: Honestly, I’m not just patronizing. I thought it was great. It’s a great school. It was big enough to be interesting but small enough that you actually felt connected. You actually knew your teacher well, you weren’t taught by teachers’ assistants and there was more of an intimacy in terms of the learning environment. Santa Clara stands out, providing more of a Socratic method, so to speak, of education. And that’s the Jesuit tradition, of course. You know I had some teachers that I absolutely hated because they were way too hard. Those are the ones I remember the most. But I’m not going to promote them because they made me very insecure.
TSC: Did you get the chance to study abroad?
GN: I think that the greatest memories I had — and it’s rather perverse — were my semester abroad in Rome. I can’t impress upon people more the extraordinary opportunity of doing a semester abroad. I cannot underscore how great that was. It’s going to be a requirement when I have kids. They have to do a semester abroad.
TSC: Have you been in touch with the Alumni Association?
GN: They’ve been very nice to me, not beating me up for money. And that’s the exception. They hit everyone up for money. But I think I’ve got a dispensation just because I’m in politics. So I can sort of maintain my poverty stance.
I haven’t been down in years. They’ve got a great alumni association there, and they’ve asked me to speak as I was a supervisor, mayor, at other various functions and events. But I’ve never been formally invited — to my knowledge — and I can say that sometimes, it’s, “Oh, no, four years ago we sent you a letter.” And I’d say, “Oh, I never saw it.” But I’ve never been invited to speak in any significant setting. Part of me understands that totally. I mean, the first thing I did as mayor was gay marriage. I don’t think they were running, “Hey, let’s get him down to do graduation this year.”
TSC: What happened when you spoke at graduation at the University of San Francisco?
GN: I had protestors outside. And that was my own town. So I could imagine, you know, Santa Clara would say, “No.” They even did a — in their magazine — a thing about mayors. And there was like one little line about me as the mayor. And I was sort of, “Wow.” So I knew where I stood.
TSC: Has this affected your attitude toward the university?
GN: I have no animus. Except that I do think I have followed precisely the path that was prescribed by the education: to be an independent thinker. But often times that independence gets in the way of orthodoxy. But I think that’s the best part about the Santa Clara education. It prepares you and gives you the confidence to question authority, to question the status quo and the way things are being done. In many respects, I think it’s been nice to sort of celebrate that independence of thinking which I will hold Santa Clara responsible for. So there would be no gay marriage except for my education at Santa Clara. Eat your heart out, guys.
TSC: Would you come speak if they asked you?
GN: Yeah! I’ve given speeches at Bolt and at Harvard. I’ve given speeches at top universities across the country. I’ve been invited everywhere. And, perversely, at my own school, I’ve never been asked to.
So I always assumed it was ’cause, you know, stem cell and gay marriage, pro-choice — I mean, progressive politician.
TSC: Do you consider yourself religious?
GN: I still maintain a strong sense of faith. The Irish-Catholic rebel, I guess, in some respects, but one that still has tremendous admiration for the Church and very strong faith. It’s manifested for me in a less indoctrinated way, but the core principles still apply.
TSC: What do you think about the Church today?
GN: I would argue the Church is in crisis. And I don’t use that word lightly, but thoughtfully and respectfully.
TSC: What keeps you there?
GN: I have a strong connection to a greater purpose, and to sort of a higher being. You know, I don’t go to church that often. I’ve gone; all my life I’ve gone to Church. I mean it was perfunctory, right? You have to show up. You’ve got the midnight mass, you’ve got this, that. It was like work when I was seven, eight, nine, and I’d rather had been watching TV or hanging out with my friends. But I have an incredibly strong sense of faith that is perennial: day in and day out, every day of my life. And so I don’t feel the need to exercise that formally in a symbolic setting, a Church.
One of the most well-known priests in the city said the worst decision in his life was telling people to vote for me for mayor. And that’s very personal. He actually led a protest against me in the City on the streets to City Hall. And I wasn’t offended; he had a right to disagree. But he didn’t extend that same consideration and right to me. And then he’s questioned my own faith, which I reject as fundamentally inconsistent with everything I’ve learned. I don’t question other people’s faith. I’m not here to judge other people; it’s inconsistent with everything I’ve learned at Santa Clara.
TSC: Are there times when you wish you hadn’t put yourself in a position to be judged by institutions like the Church? Are there times when you wish you had just remained a businessman?
GN: There are times when I see six people on the same block with shopping carts, and I go, “I’ve done nothing as mayor.” I feel like an utter failure. I try to get through that by saying, “Alright, you know. Relax. Try something different.” And so I’ve realized you just can’t give up. And you realize quickly there is no “having made it.” Someone said success is not a place or a destination — it’s a direction. Always keep an open mind, listen to your critics, be open to argument, don’t become ideological. Or just try something different and see if it works. You’re not, when you’re 30 and you have a million dollars in the bank, going to be happy. I guarantee you, it won’t happen. If that’s your goal, boy you’re going to be in for it — I warn you now. Happily achieve, as opposed to achieve to be happy. It’s a really important distinction.
TSC: And where did you glean all this? Just from experience?
GN: This is Santa Clara. It taught me how to learn. And you’re talking to a guy with massive dyslexia, that only got into Santa Clara because of baseball, that got student loans and that was given a waiver to graduate because I couldn’t pass a class — three times — that I took at College of Marin: stats. And the irony is people call me “rain man of stats” now. I mean, it’s like my obsession. I’m Mr. Numbers. I’m obsessed with numbers.
TSC: Did you walk at graduation?
GN: Literally, I never graduated Santa Clara. Well, I did graduate. But they said, “You’ve failed this class twice. Go to community college. We’ll graduate you.” So I did the graduation, the whole hat and everything, and then had to go to summer school, as a college grad. And I failed the class again. And I went back to my counselor, and he said, “You are one pathetic guy.” I never told them about (my dyslexia) because I never wanted it to be a limiting belief, an excuse. I was not a very good student. Quite the contrary. I struggled mightily. I had a hard time reading, certainly. I’m a terrible writer to this day. I can’t spell worth a lick. So, you know, I was forced to learn different things. To me it wasn’t a disability, it was an ennobling gift, because it forced me to find different disciplines. And the consequence of that is I was able to excel in areas where others didn’t because I had to apply myself exponentially more and develop different skills. And that’s been a godsend. And then, with that, more confidence, and with the confidence, more self-esteem, with more self-esteem, more willingness to think drastically.
TSC: I’m sure maintaining confidence and a good sense of self-esteem can be difficult, with your life always in the headlines and constant criticism coming in from every angle. How do you handle backlash and negative press?
GN: It’s corrosive. It’s brutal. You have to compartmentalize it. You have to create a discipline where you put it in perspective. It’s still very hurtful. But you realize quickly that people really don’t care about your problems. They care about the fact that your problem created a problem in their life. But if you can solve their problem and if you can recognize it’s not about you, then you’ll survive.
TSC: And in the meantime, what do you plan to work on during your second term?
GN: Building people’s sense of self. Giving people the ability to believe that there’s something greater than themselves and there’s something they have to contribute. Everybody — regardless of where they come from, regardless of their many beliefs, their disabilities, regardless of their ethnicity, their sex orientation, geography to everybody else — everybody has that something that makes them 100 percent distinctive. And if they can find that and build on it, then they have something totally extraordinary to offer and that gives them confidence and optimism. And with confidence and optimism, everything in life is possible.
Contact Kristen Boffi at (408) 554-4546 or firstname.lastname@example.org.