It wasn’t surprising that Dominican University’s Angelico Hall was packed Wednesday night, as Lt. Governor and former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom greeted the crowd with a joke.
The easy-going and relatable Democrat spoke about his new book ‘Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government” as part of the university’s free Leadership Lecture Series, in partnership with the small-town Corte Madera bookstore Book Passage on March 6.
Nearly half the crowd waited in line after the lecture — each greeted Newsom and casually chatted while he signed their copy of “Citizenville.” Others smiled and snapped photos.
Newsom, who calls Marin home, focused on small businesses, technology and its relation to the economy, civil rights and entrepreneurship.
A pivotal effort in strengthening local economies is supporting mom-and-pop shops, Newsom said.
“I started a wine store out of college,” said Newsom, who now owns 15 small businesses and employs 1,000 people.
“To get there I established a failure award,” he said. “I encourage my employees to take action and responsibility.”
The failure award came into fruition after an eccentric nighttime clerk attempted to resolve a festering mosquito problem in Newsom’s non-air conditioned hotel.
“He decided to buy catfish for the pools and lakes around the hotel. He thought they would eat the larva and get rid of the mosquitoes,” Newsom said, smirking. “But then I got a panicked call from an employee.”
Catfish heads, torsos and tails were scattered throughout the hotel by morning, Newsom said, while laughing.
“The raccoons were thrilled and delusional, eating this special meal,” Newsom said. “They threw body parts everywhere.
“It was a fabulous screw up!”
Newsom annually rewards an employee who, with the best intentions, fails the most.
To make a difference “you have to move from failure to failure with enthusiasm.”
The crowd laughed and listened as Newsom pinpointed his next talking point — giving the public a voice.
While in Manor, Texas Newsom met a citizen named Dustin, who invented “civic currency.”
“He wanted to engage voices,” Newsom said, of the idea that generated volunteerism, local revenue and change.
The man created “civic” dollars, which were earned by the town’s residents.
“The more involved, the more dollars you’d earn,” Newsom said. “This all translated into businesses using [civic bucks] as discounts in their stores.”
Engaging the community and reinventing a relationship with government, is the only way Americans can secure their future, Newsom said.
To do that, citizens can also use new digital tools to dissolve political gridlock and transform American democracy, he said.
“Government is like a vending machine,” Newsom said. “You put your tax dollars in and it’s used for things like police and fire.
“If you don’t like it, you shake it,’ he said. “That results in groups like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.
“But we’re living in a world of the next generation, of digital natives and customized services.”
To re-stabilize the economy, he said, citizens and leaders need to create a “two-way conversation.”
He referred to New York City’s attempt to mimic a successful budgeting strategy used in Brazil, where citizens are offered a portion of the general budget to be used in the best way they see fit.
“Half of Brazil’s budget is offered to the public in a participatory way,” he said. “The idea was thought to be crazy but it’s become a national phenomenon.
“More voices, more choices,” Newsom said. “[A politician’s] purpose is to be a cultivator, a coordinator and a platform.”
He also talked about the world of technology and how dramatically it has changed over the last 10 years.
With a population of eight to 18-year-olds spending an average of 53 hours a week online, Newsom referred to the political divide as “asleep” and “online” rather than Republican or Democrat.
“We’re not going to change the players, we’re going to change the game,” he said.
He closed the night by touching on Prop. 8, which bans same-sex couples the right to marry.
Newsom made headlines in 2004, only 36 days into his term as mayor, when he granted same-sex couples the right to receive marriage licenses.
“In 1967, blacks and whites couldn’t marry in 16 states,” Newsom said. “[An interracial couple] was arrested in 1967 because they got married.
“The judge said, ‘God put different races in different countries for a reason,’ Newsom said. “He never wanted them to mix’.
Though it was overturned, 70 percent of Americans opposed interracial marriage in 1967.
Today, 50 percent of the population opposes gay marriage, but in seven states it’s legal in all but name.
And nine years after Newsom allowed same-sex couples to marry on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, the issue is facing the Supreme Court.
“It’s the right time to do the right thing,” he said.
The crowd applauded as Newsom pledged to work toward stabilizing California’s economy and instilling its legacy as the “state of dreamers and entrepreneurs.”
Each year, the Leadership Lecture Series features some of the country’s leading figures. All lectures are open to the public.
Contact Nicole Baptista at email@example.com.