Cam­paign­ing to be ‘first part­ner’

Film­maker wife of gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date works to com­bat gen­der stereo­types

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Casey Tolan ctolan@ba­yare­anews­

OAK­LAND » When Jen­nifer Siebel New­som was a young ac­tress get­ting started in Hol­ly­wood, she found her­self type­cast in role af­ter role as a tro­phy wife.

Now she’s the real-life spouse of gov­er­nor can­di­date Gavin New­som. But this in­de­pen­dent film­maker, who’s ded­i­cated her ca­reer to break­ing down gen­der stereo­types, is hop­ing to play a very dif­fer­ent role as Cal­i­for­nia’s first lady — and that could start with the ti­tle.

“What if I was called — if Gavin was for­tu­nate to be elected gov­er­nor — ‘ first part­ner?’ ” Siebel New­som sug­gested in a re­cent in­ter­view. That ti­tle would help “women to be seen as more than a stereo­typ­i­cal lady,” she ar­gued, and also work for spouses of fu­ture gov­er­nors who aren’t straight men.

Gen­der roles are “strait­jack­ets,” she said. “You lose some­thing in the process of per­form­ing mas­culin­ity or per­form­ing fem­i­nin­ity— which is be­ing a ‘ lady.’ ”

It’s a theme the for­mer ac­tress has fo-

cused on in doc­u­men­taries such as “Miss Rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” which weaves to­gether sex­u­al­ized clips of women in pop­u­lar cul­ture and in­ter­views with women and girls about how those de­pic­tions af­fect Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

Now Siebel New­som is turn­ing her lens on Oak­land, fin­ish­ing up a new doc­u­men­tary about eco­nomic and so­cial in­equal­ity — “The Great Amer­i­can Lie” — that fol­lows sev­eral lo­cals as they strug­gle to make ends meet.

On the fi­nal day of shoot­ing last week, Siebel New­som and her four- per­son crew showed up at the land­mark First Uni­tar­ian Church near down­town Oak­land to film in­ter­views with ac­tivists such as Tracey Bell-Borden, who was forced into debt to pay $100,000 in bail af­ter her daugh­ter was ar­rested for a low-level crime.

“You can al­ways tell who’s au­then­tic — and she’s very down-to- earth,” Bell-Borden said of Siebel New­som. Dur­ing their in­ter­views over the last few months, “We were break­ing down in tears to­gether,” she said.

Af­ter­noon sun­light streamed through the stained glass win­dows in­side the church as Siebel New­som’s boom mi­cro­phone hov­ered ob­tru­sively over a group dis­cus­sion about crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form. She seemed at home, greet­ing ac­tivists and lo­cals with big hugs. Later, she staged the movie’s fi­nal shot: Bell-Borden walk­ing into the sun­set down 14th Street.

The doc­u­men­tary, which is sched­uled to be re­leased in Jan­uary, the samem­o­nth the next gov­er­nor takes of­fice, shows how Siebel New­som’s work dove­tails with her hus­band’s. The lieu­tenant gov­er­nor has sin­gled out Cal­i­for­nia’s deep-seated in­equal­ity as the top is­sue in his cam­paign and made a com­mit­ment to elim­i­nat­ing cash bail. Bell-Borden’s story would fit per­fectly in a New­som cam­paign ad.

Siebel New­som hopes the movie — which also fol­lows Trump vot­ers in Louisiana and Ohio — spurs sup­port for her hus­band’s agenda.

“Film and me­dia can not just awaken con­scious­ness but re­ally shift at­ti­tudes and be­hav­ior,” she said. “To get the leg­is­la­tion and the pol­icy shifts that Gavin will need, we as a state have got to have those mind shifts.”

The chal­lenges fac­ing the work­ing- class res­i­dents in Siebel New­som’s doc­u­men­tary are a far cry from her own up­bring­ing. She grew up in Marin County in a wealthy, con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can fam­ily, the sec­ond old­est of five sis­ters, one of whom died in a child­hood ac­ci­dent. Her fa­ther was an in­vest­ment man­ager and a board mem­ber for the en­vi­ron­men­tal non­profit Con- ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional, and Siebel New­som vol­un­teered for the group in Botswana and Ecuador be­tween un­der­grad­u­ate and MBA de­grees at Stan­ford.

Af­ter do­ing some act­ing in col­lege, she moved to Hol­ly­wood at age 28, land­ing mostly bit parts in movies and tele­vi­sion shows such as “Mad Men” and “Num­b3rs” — and at one point dat­ing Ge­orge Clooney. But she chafed when agents told her that if she wanted to be suc­cess­ful, she’d have to erase her MBA from her ré­sumé and lie about her age.

She also was ha­rassed by film mogul Har­vey We­in­stein, who made “ag­gres­sive ad­vances” to­ward her dur­ing a ho­tel room meet­ing about a po­ten­tial role, she re­vealed in a Huff­in­g­ton Post ar­ti­cle last year.

Those ex­pe­ri­ences of sex­ism in Hol­ly­wood helped in­spire “Miss Rep­re­sen­ta­tion” in 2011, which she fol­lowed four years later with “The Mask You Live In,” ex­plor­ing how stereo­types of mas­culin­ity af­fect boys. The films grew into The Rep­re­sen­ta­tion Project, a non­profit she started to com­bat gen­der stereo­types.

Her films have helped raise aware­ness about how deeply sex­ism is soaked into Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture, said Carol Jenk­ins, the found­ing pres­i­dent of the Women’s Me­dia Cen­ter, who is in­ter­viewed in “Miss Rep­re­sen­ta­tion.”

“I still get peo­ple call­ing me and writ­ing me who’ve seen that film and are moved by it,” Jenk­ins said. “I don’t think that act­ing was her goal in life — she’s mo­ti­vated by this larger goal of ex­plor­ing the is­sues of gen­der for women and for men.”

New­som also makes an ap­pear­ance in the film. Siebel New­som barely knew any­thing about the then-San Fran­cisco mayor when shemet him on a blind date in 2006. But the two hit it off, and she was es­pe­cially im­pressed when he took her on a walk­ing tour of the City by the Bay, chat­ting with passersby and shar­ing sto­ries about each neigh­bor­hood.

“I was blown away at how pas­sion­ate he was about his work and the city — and that is re­ally at­trac­tive to me,” she said.

The cou­ple mar­ried in July 2008 and have four kids, rang­ing in age from 2 to 8. They live in the hills of Kent­field in Marin County.

Ex­pect Siebel New­som, 44, to be a vis­i­ble pres­ence in Sacra­mento if her hus­band wins. She’s played a star­ring role in New­som’s cam­paign so far, in­tro­duc­ing him at ral­lies across the state and wip­ing away tears dur­ing an event with the fa­ther of a gun vi­o­lence vic­tim. Dur­ing the “March for Our Lives” gun con­trol demon­stra­tions this year, Siebel New­som spoke at a San Fran­cisco rally — de­cry­ing “toxic mas­culin­ity” and point­ing out that nearly all mass shoot­ers are men — as New­som ad­dressed ac­tivists in Or­ange County.

Her fem­i­nist record also could help her de­fend her hus­band from po­lit­i­cal at­tacks over his past in­fi­del- ity, which sur­faced as an is­sue dur­ing the pri­mary cam­paign. Be­fore the two met, when New­som was sep­a­rated from his first wife, cur­rent Fox News host Kim­berly Guil­foyle (who is now dat­ing Don­ald Trump Jr.), he had an af­fair with his ap­point­ments sec­re­tary, who was mar­ried to his cam­paign man­ager and close friend.

But Siebel New­som has got­ten in trou­ble on the topic be­fore. The scan­dal went public while she was dat­ing New­som, and she threw lighter fluid on the me­dia firestorm by telling the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle that “the woman is the cul­prit,” and com­ment­ing on lo­cal blog SFist that “ev­ery­one near to her has sto­ries and says she is bad news.” She later apol­o­gized.

Friends of the cou­ple say she’s had a pro­found im­pact on New­som, who as mayor had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing aloof.

“Jen is so open and hon­est, al­most naive in the sense of how trust­ing she is,” said Mimi Sil­bert, the head of San Fran­cisco’s De­lancey Street Project, who’s known New­som for decades and helped coun­sel him in the years af­ter his af­fair. “Gavin was strug­gling with hav­ing his emo­tions re­ally show— and she helped him take those walls down.”

If New­som wins in Novem­ber, Siebel New­som said she’d want to use her po­si­tion as first part­ner to pro­mote men­tal health is­sues, ad­dress sex­ual ha­rass­ment in Sacra­mento and or­ga­nize sum­mits bring­ing to­gether young peo­ple from around Cal­i­for­nia.

And she’d try to avoid cliched stereo­types of the role a first lady should per­form.

“Who wants to be a tro­phy wife?” she asked. “I’ve al­ready played that in Hol­ly­wood.”


Jen­nifer Siebel New­som has lunch with her hus­band, Lt. Gov. Gavin New­som, and mem­bers of his cam­paign staff in San Fran­cisco on Wed­nes­day.


Jen­nifer Siebel New­som holds her son Hunter as he takes a bite of pas­try at the Rus­tic Bak­ery in Lark­spur af­ter she and her hus­band, Lt. Gov. Gavin New­som, voted in the June 5pri­mary elec­tion.


Cal­i­for­nia Lt. Gov. Gavin New­som rides in the 2015San Fran­cisco Pride pa­rade with his wife, Jen­nifer Siebel New­som, and their chil­dren.

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