By Angela Hart
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. _ In 2007, when he was mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom said he quit drinking and would seek professional help for “problems with alcohol.”
Though he didn’t say explicitly at the time that he went to rehab, it was widely interpreted that he did. Uncorrected media accounts over the past decade report that he entered a rehab program, and spokespeople at the time sought to explain to the public Newsom’s drinking.
In a recent interview with The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, Newsom, now 50, said he has resumed drinking occasionally after a period of abstinence and never went to rehab.
“No, there’s no rehab. I just stopped,” he said. “There was no treatment, no nothing related to any of that stuff. I stopped because I thought it was a good thing to stop.”
When he was 39 and mayor, Newsom talked about his drinking problems days after he admitted to an affair with the wife of his campaign manager and best friend, Alex Tourk. The woman, who is now remarried and goes by Ruby Rippey-Gibney, was a subordinate of Newsom’s and worked in City Hall as his appointments secretary. She also had substance abuse problems, she said at the time.
A close personal friend and counselor to Newsom said that he had spiraled out of control and was “self-sabotaging” himself.
More than a decade later, Newsom, who is now the front-runner in the race to be California governor, says he has grown and learned from the very public scandal that threatened to end his political career.
The partner in three wineries said he drinks wine on occasion and has for the past eight or nine years. In the interview, he dismissed questions about whether he has “problems with alcohol” as he said he did in 2007, saying, “No, no.”
The affair and Newsom’s drinking bled into his public life and grew into political scandal that tarnished the polished yet rebellious image he had cultivated as the young, handsome mayor who wasn’t afraid to buck the Democratic Party establishment.
Early in his tenure, he gained celebrity status in the liberal Bay Area after ordering City Hall to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, against the law at the time.
Since then, Newsom’s affair and the political turmoil surrounding it have become part of his redemption story.
“Sometimes people make mistakes in their lives and you then work hard never to make them again, because you learn from them. I’ve never made them again and I’ve learned from it, and it led ultimately to falling in love with Jen,” Newsom said, referring to his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
In February 2007, Newsom apologized at a news conference, saying the affair “is something that I have to live with and something that I am deeply sorry for. I am also sorry that I’ve let the people of San Francisco down.”
Four days later, he announced he would seek treatment for alcohol abuse.
“My problems with alcohol are not an excuse for my personal lapses in judgment,” Newsom said in a statement widely quoted in news reports. “Upon reflection with friends and family this weekend, I have come to the conclusion that I will be a better person without alcohol in my life.”
The New York Times reported in February 2007 that he planned to “begin outpatient treatment at a local rehabilitation program.” The San Francisco Examiner reported in February 2008 that he went to an “outpatient rehabilitation program.” A 2015 profile in The New Yorker titled “Gavin Newsom’s Long, Long Campaign for Governor” said he “went into rehab.”
In a previous incident at San Francisco General Hospital, witnesses said Newsom showed up to “where a police officer had been taken after being mortally wounded” and “appeared to have been drinking,” the Chronicle wrote.
Newsom, who was re-elected to his second mayoral term during the aftermath of the scandal, declined to say whether he ever sought to correct the record when news outlets reported he’d gone to rehab.
He told the Bee that he sought counseling back then from Mimi Silbert, president of the Delancey Street Foundation, a nonprofit rehabilitation center in San Francisco that specializes in substance abuse treatment and helps ex-convicts and homeless people.
“Mimi called me and … she said, ‘You and I are going to spend every night in the next few weeks together,'” Newsom said. “She said, ‘I want you to stop drinking. I want a reset in your life. I want to spend time, what the hell’s going on?'”
Newsom called Silbert “one of the most extraordinary, important human beings in my life,” who was “profoundly influential in helping me get through that.” He said he’d recently been divorced. His mom passed away, and he suggested he was feeling the pressure of being mayor.
Silbert told the Bee in an interview that Newsom attended Delancey Street Foundation roughly once a week for three years for personal and group therapy. Though it is not a traditional rehabilitation program, Silbert said she requires that participants abstain from using all drugs and alcohol.
Through therapy, she said, she learned that Newsom’s drinking was a way to cope with underlying issues.
“Being a good person and being a good friend means a lot to Gavin. And he broke those codes,” Silbert said. “Sometimes it happens when you’re really hurt and really down and then you’re not yourself for a while. You’re angry at yourself and you self-sabotage. People do this from time to time, and he did. So it really wasn’t just the drinking.
“He not only stopped drinking, he forgave himself and he asked other people for forgiveness for what he had done,” Silbert said. “In that process, he so bettered himself, he so opened up, he so cared about people.”
Silbert said Newsom learned from others in the program _ mostly ex-convicts, gang members and homeless people.
He didn’t drink for roughly half of the time he attended Delancey Street, Silbert said. When it came time to discuss whether he could responsibly imbibe again, she said, she weighed heavily Newsom’s past behavior and the root problems that led to the affair and his drinking problems.
He asked permission to drink again, she said.
“We talked for probably a year and a half on that issue … then said let’s see what happens at this party,” she said. “Slowly I felt it was fine.
“In all honesty, I don’t think _ not that anybody can ultimately know these things _ I don’t think he’s a straight-up alcoholic. I know everybody will be furious with me for saying that, but I think he was in a very bad position and feeling bad and he did a number of things, of which drinking was one.”
Newsom has deep financial and political connections to Northern California’s wine country.
He and billionaire investor Gordon Getty founded Napa Valley’s PlumpJack Winery in the mid-1990s, and Newsom remains in close business ties with the Gettys, also major Democratic Party donors. In public life, Newsom has maintained his role in the company and is now also a partner in other PlumpJack wineries, Odette and Cade, both also in Napa.
Newsom said his past “mistakes” have informed his public policy agenda as the state’s lieutenant governor and a candidate for governor.
He attributed his support for sweeping changes to California’s criminal justice system, in part, to his past behavior that he called “dumb” and “stupid.”
Newsom mentioned his support for Proposition 47, which passed in 2014, reclassifying some nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors. He also referenced his support for Proposition 36, the 2012 ballot measure that loosened the state’s three strikes law, and his support of marijuana decriminalization.
Newsom was a major proponent of Proposition 64, the 2016 measure that legalized recreational sales and use in California. He characterized it as primarily a social justice issue, arguing drug charges lead disproportionately to the incarceration of poor people and minorities.
“I believe in second chances. I believe that people have the capacity to learn from their mistakes and grow and, in many respects, become better people,” Newsom said.
“I like to think I’m a better person, and I like to think that a lot of people have made mistakes, we just don’t read about them,” he said.
“Sometimes when you go through the scrutiny, you go through the public humiliation, and you persist and you’re humbled by it and you get out the other side, you build back trust over years and years and years,” he added. “I think that’s a really healthy thing, and I don’t think we should give up on people that go through that process.”