Editor: Now that Gretchen Newsom has announced her intention of running for mayor of San Diego, we offer this interview of Gretchen nearly two years ago.
Originally posted on Nov. 26, 2013 under the title, “New President of OB Town Council, Gretchen Newsom, Loves OB’s Uniqueness“
It is plain to see why the Ocean Beach Town Council chose Gretchen Kinney Newsom as its new president this Fall. Gretchen is poised, attractive, smart, clear-headed and brings to this off-the-beaten-track seaside village more political experience than the Board usually sees in a decade.
She has not lived in OB 3 years yet – as she and her hubby Kristoffer arrived here in February 2011 – yet she was handed the reins of a most important community organization. Although Kris, we need to say, is the reason she’s here; Kris was raised in OB and lived here most of his life.
Although we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. We had agreed to meet at an OB coffee house, and Newbreak seemed appropriate. I grabbed a mug of coffee and we took a seat near the windows, as the sun was starting to go down.
It is axiomatic that the small-town character of OB attracts people who grew up or lived in small towns. It’s the same with Gretchen, as she grew up in the town of Loma Mar – a town of 18 residents – nestled in the mountains and redwoods south of the Bay Area and east of Santa Cruz. Gretchen told me, “it has a gas station with one pump, one small store, a post office with 50 PO boxes.” Loma Mar actually went up for sale a couple years after Gretchen left back in the Nineties.
Gretchen was born to Linda Kinney and Michael Kinney and has two younger sisters – and a half sister from her dad’s earlier marriage. Linda and Michael were divorced when Gretchen – the oldest girl – was 7 years old. She is still on good terms with both parents, as her mom lives in Sacramento and her dad lives in Utah. Both sisters live in the Sacramento area.
In 1998, the summer of Gretchen’s junior year in high school, she was studying in a college immersion class on the campus of UC Santa Cruz. And she met this guy from OB – Kris – who had just graduated from Point Loma High and was in the area visiting a cousin. Gretchen says, “It was love at first sight,” and they’ve been sweethearts ever since.
They were married in 2003 while they were both attending Humboldt State; it was Gretchen’s senior year and she was getting mostly straight A’s, achieving high honors in her Political Science degree, with minors in Public Administration and Pacific Basin studies. Kris was getting into film and anthropology at the same time.
Kris and Gretchen were fortunate to go to China and study – she stayed for 6 months, he for a year, and both learned Chinese. They lived in a small town of Xian, smack in the middle of China, with a mere 8 million residents; “it’s home of the Terra Cotta Warriors,” Gretchen told me.
Her experiences on her college campus were “very influential” she said. She was elected as Student Body president for 2 terms, managed a budget of half a million for programs of the Associated Student government, and while in office began the Humboldt State Energy Independence Fund – where students taxed themselves in order to push the university to be more self-sustainable.
From Humboldt, Gretchen was admitted to the California State Executive Program, a prestigious fellowship opportunity through Sacramento State in a 12 month program. She interviewed with the State Treasury office – Phil Angelides was State Treasurer then – and she was hired on as staff. Angelides was taking on then-governor Schwarzenegger, and Gretchen got involved in policy analysis, legislative affairs and communication tasks. And in his gubernatorial campaign in 2005-06, Angelides asked Gretchen to be his deputy policy director.
“It was an eye-opener,” Gretchen told me, all this state politics, with its grind, the working around-the-clock, operating with a 24 hour news cycle, traveling up and down the state with the candidate – her boss.
After Angelides’ loss, he asked Gretchen to stay and help with starting a renewable energy program – which she did for another year. She – and Kris – accompanied Angelides to Los Angeles where he became the chair of a fund to build affordable housing with Magic Johnson. Kris loved LA, Gretchen said, because of all his work in film. They lived between Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, and had their son, Leif, there. Leif (rhythms with “safe” – it’s Swedish) is now 5 years old and goes to OB Elementary Kindergarten.
They ended up living in LA for a year and half. Then Angelides got a call from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be chair of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, and again, Gretchen was asked to be on his staff – to be a special assistant and senior administrative officer – which she indeed accepted. So, the family moved to Washington DC, living in the Southeast Quadrant. After 18 months of heavy urban life, Gretchen and Kris were anxious to move back to California. Gretchen in particular told me she missed the rural-ness of our state, the wide-open spaces, the empty beaches ….
Since hubby Kris was from Ocean Beach and his parents still lived on the 4900 block of Santa Cruz, the young family moved to OB – on February 14th, Valentine’s Day. Gretchen loved the place, as she had visited here often. A house right next to Kris’ parents opened up, and they grabbed it. They lived there ever since.
For a while, Gretchen continued doing consulting work for Angelides – making phone calls, performing other communication tasks – and managed the book tour of the Report of the Financial Crisis commission. Then, she started consulting for more local agencies, and was picked up as a principal for LeSar Development Consultants – working for Jennifer LeSar, Assemblywoman Toni Atkin’s partner. More PR work for Gretchen, but her office is now Bankers’ Hill – an easy commute to OB.
“Why OB?” I asked Gretchen. Kris grew up here, surfed a bit, yes, but why did they move back?
She didn’t have to hesitate. “The sense of community, the progressive values,” she said, “environmental respect.” She quickly added, “the general sense of caring, making connections with people that aren’t superficial.”
“It has a unique feeling,” she said, contrasting OB to the “heavy urban” scene of DC, our capital. “Access to beautiful sunsets,” she mused looking out toward the ocean. OB represents a strong awareness, she explained, not just civic purpose – but more, a ‘can-do’ attitude, an attitude that is more “guerrilla” than organized. She recounted how during her stay in DC she participated in some “guerrilla gardening” where people would meet up at vacant lots within the city, and plant flowers and shrubs.
I in turn told Gretchen about the story behind Voltaire Park at Sunset Cliffs and Voltaire Street, where the group OB Grassroots Organization developed a “guerrilla” park – until it was bulldozed over by World Oil. She jotted some notes on her ipad.
I asked her about negative things she saw in OB. Here, she said, “there’s a unique push-pull between ‘hey, it’s okay’ to ‘this needs to be cleaned up’ “. She sees a small amount of tension between these two attitudes or viewpoints. But she didn’t have much else to say.
In 2011, Gretchen – always civic minded – began going to OB Town Council meetings. Other Council members liked her, and asked her to join them on the board. “I was real nervous at the time,” she confided, but she was elected, and became the recording secretary for that first year on the Executive Board.
Doing that first year, she helped on the Holiday Parade. She was co-chair the next year, and this year, she is the chair – and has “a lot to do.”
“How many hours do you put into the Town Council a week?” I asked her.
She thought for a moment, eyes looking up. At least 20 she replied. I was amazed as she is a mother, a full time consultant and now chair of an important community organization. And speaking of the Town Council, this next couple of weeks are a very busy time for the group.
The Christmas Tree goes up, she thinks, on December 3rd. This year it’s from a family lot that needs the tree to be removed as its roots are upsetting the family house.
On December 5th, there’s the Christmas Auction – where money raised goes to the OBTC Food & Toy Drive, which delivers food and toys to seventy (that’s right – 7-0) local needy families. Then of course there’s the Holiday Parade on Saturday, December 7th.
“What are your goals as president of the town council?” I asked her. Gretchen ticked off a number of things. “Increase the membership; find more opportunities for civic engagement ….” I asked her about this. “Get more involved in voter registering efforts,” she answered, “have more debates with candidates – both parties.”
The CVS Pharmacy moving into the old Apple Tree market had to come up as an issue. What were her thoughts?
Gretchen told me that the Town Council and the OB Mainstreet Association are already in negotiations with CVS representatives. They had a session earlier in the week, and she is pushing a “community benefit package” for them. Her hope is that “CVS will commit to being a long-standing community partner”, much like Rite Aid used to be. The building could host an OB Street Fair mural, and in terms of the current mural on the building’s north wall, Gretchen believes the new business will remove the words “Apple Tree” and plan to touch it up, or even commission a new mural by a community artist.
What about fresh food being available at CVS? The OBTC is pushing for this, suggesting fruits like apples that have a longer shelf life. CVS has said it cannot have certain foods. But the corporation is promising a “clean store”, to repave the parking lot, install new lightening. She’s unclear whether CVS will have a free parking lot or have a paid one. They might keep it free with 15 or so spaces reserved for CVS customers, something she said they are leaning towards.
In other town matters, Gretchen told me that the Entryway Sign will be installed next year. But she said, in that small entryway park, the “path” to Robb Field is “stalled” due to funding issues on the City’s part. A number of community groups are writing back that this “is not okay” and that OB won’t stand for another delay.
Gretchen also wants to bring back the “Respect OB” campaign that fizzled after a great rally a year or so ago. She feels that OB needs “to be a little cleaner”. She backs the plastic bag ban, she supports the Clean Street Initiative in OB.
On the marshmallow wars, Gretchen disagreed that the OBTC’s policy to ban it would lead to more problems. “It’s not necessarily a police problem, it’s a community problem.” The Town Council will do outreach to merchants, she said, to get rid of the sales of marshmallows, their guns and no sales of promotional materials like T-shirts. “The OBMA supports the resolution (to ban marshmallows)” she said.
Breaching the touchy subject of the homeless and homelessness, Gretchen demonstrated an understanding of the scope of the problem and all of its aspects. Gretchen helps run a campaign to end homelessness in downtown San Diego, where the firm works with over 60 groups to find funds in these efforts.
As we were wrapping up the interview, I commented how the former OBTC president Dave Martin stayed on to help nurture the new folks on its Board. “Dave provided institutional history and training,” Gretchen added. “You have to mention him,” she told me.
Gretchen is also on the Executive Board of the Point Loma Democratic Club, is a member of Run Women Run – an organization that helps raise money for women candidates for office.
She also loves to cook, but has not had much time lately to do so, due to the Holiday Parade. But she explained to me that every Thanksgiving she has a turkey dinner cook-off with the in-laws, who live next door. “My gravy always wins,” she boasted.
Seems like the Town Council is now swimming in gravy with Gretchen Newsom at the helm. She’s definitely a member of the new wave of younger community people joining the boards of the town council and planning board, part of the new generation taking over leadership roles within the village, within the Land of OB. And we’re a better land for her.