Politics

Sexual Indiscretions Are on the Ballot in California’s Primary for Governor

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 02:  California Lt. Gov. and democratic candidate for California governor Gavin Newsom looks on during a campaign stop at California Assemblyman Rob Bonta's Chili Cook Off on June 2, 2018 in Oakland, California.  With less than a week to go until the California primary, Gavin Newsom is campaigning throughout the state. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Gavin Newsom is running for California governor, but he can’t escape his past. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Tuesday, California voters will finally go to the polls to decide a gubernatorial primary in which 27 candidates are battling to replace retiring Gov. Jerry Brown. The primary is a “top two” primary, meaning that the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will advance to the general election. Currently, two of the three top-polling candidates—the two leading Democrats in the race—are men who have admitted to extramarital affairs while in office.

As the rest of the country cheers what looks like a wave of women running for, and winning, political office, California’s very male gubernatorial field stands out, particularly for its front-runners’ past behavior. The leading candidate, lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, had an affair with his appointments secretary while separating from his wife in 2005. Ruby Rippey Gibney, the secretary, was married to Newsom’s campaign manager at the time. Newsom moved on to then-19-year-old “model and restaurant hostess” Brittanie Mountz; she was a registered Republican and he was more than twice her age. Newsom recently told the New York Times that “Dating is not a term I would use” to describe his relationship with Mountz, “but friendship, yes.” He was re-elected in a landslide in 2007.

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Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, is currently running in third, behind Newsom and Republican businessman John Cox. In 2007, during his tenure as mayor, Villaraigosa had an affair with TV news anchor Mirthala Salinas and his wife filed for divorce. A New Yorker profile published around the same time reported that he’d also cheated on her with the wife of a friend while Villaraigosa’s wife was fighting cancer.

At the time of Newsom’s affair and relationship with Mountz, political analysts wondered whether it would hamper his ambitions within the Democratic Party. So far, it hasn’t. Rippey Gibney said recently she wouldn’t lump her affair with Newsom in with kinds of behaviors the #MeToo movement is calling into question: “Yes, I was a subordinate but I was also a free-thinking, 33-year-old, adult married woman & mother,” she wrote on Facebook in February. “Also happened to have an unfortunate inclination toward drinking-to-excess and self-destruction.”

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But some of Newsom’s opponents have wielded his indiscretions against him. In March, Amanda Renteria, called for Newsom to resign from his post as lieutenant governor in light of both relationships. Renteria insisted that even a consensual sexual relationship between a mayor and his employee isn’t completely benign. “Workplace impacts of this type of behavior has real implications on the lives of everyone in the office,” she tweeted. “The more power you have, the more responsibility you have to ensure a positive culture where everyone is empowered.”

Villaraigosa, who has a much better chance than Renteria of advancing in Tuesday’s primary, has chosen shade over outright attack in his mentions of Newsom’s relationship history. When asked if he thought his own affair hurt his chances in the gubernatorial race, Villaraigosa told the New York Times that he doesn’t think people “see the connection” between his romantic exploits and his political work—“because in my case, it wasn’t somebody working for me and it wasn’t a 19-year-old.” But Villaraigosa’s affair still had a detrimental impact on his partner’s work, in large part because of his stature. He stayed in office, while Salinas’ career at Telemundo came to a premature end.

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Villaraigosa’s career may meet its end on Tuesday, but Newsom appears almost certain to advance. Progressives in San Francisco forgave him his moral transgressions in 2009 when they re-elected him as mayor, and he’s been a popular figure ever since. Historically, the country has been forgiving of politicians who cheat on their spouses with underlings, inappropriately young women, or both—as Bill Clinton reminded us on Monday, two-thirds of Americans wanted him to stay in office at the time of his impeachment trial. Skeptics of the #MeToo movement have worried that the movement could ruin a man’s career over an office dalliance. A Newsom win would suggest that California voters’ views on the issue haven’t changed much at all.

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