SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom was wrapping up a meeting with the president of El Salvador in April when his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, spoke up in fluent Spanish.
What, she asked Salvador Sánchez Cerén, did he have to say about the country’s poor record on women’s rights? Newsom, who doesn’t speak the language, learned what she had asked through a translator and worried his host would be offended. But Sánchez Cerén didn’t seem phased and gave a lengthy answer about progress and work that remains.
Gavin Newsom said in a recent interview he should have expected his wife’s forthrightness.
“There’s no timidity with Jen when it comes to things she cares about and causes she holds dear,” he said.
And the chief causes for Siebel Newsom, a 45-year-old actress turned documentary film maker, are gender equality and society’s treatment of women and families. As California’s “First Partner,” a term she prefers to the traditional “First Lady” because it is gender neutral and could apply to the spouse of a future woman or LGBT governor, Siebel Newsom is marrying the activism she’s done through her filmmaking with the governing agenda of her husband, a Democrat in his first term leading the nation’s most populous state.
Since her husband’s inauguration, Siebel Newsom has launched a campaign pushing California companies to pay workers equally and urged her husband to expand paid family leave. She stood alongside him and women lawmakers in May when he announced a “parents’ agenda” that includes two more weeks of leave per parent, a bigger tax credit for low-income families and tax cuts on tampons on diapers. It easily passed as part of the state budget.
“I don’t have to say things anymore — he’s been listening for a long time,” Siebel Newsom said of her husband of 11 years.
Women lawmakers see new allies in the Newsoms, parents of four children under 10, compared to former Gov. Jerry Brown, who was 81 when he left office.
“She has the governor’s ear and you know she values the same things,” Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said of Siebel Newsom’s work with the Legislative Women’s Caucus.
Shortly after the Newsoms married, Siebel Newsom, found herself dissatisfied with the roles Hollywood gave her — like the love interest of male characters and a one-episode appearance as a prostitute in the “Mad Men” TV series.
Inspired by the pregnancy that produced her first child, a girl, Siebel Newsom decided to go behind the camera to make her first documentary “Miss Representation,” which examines Hollywood’s fixation on women’s looks. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, followed by her launch of The Representation Project non-profit group that writes curricula about gender in media.
Siebel Newsom then widened her scope, focusing on how society treats men and boys with her film “The Mask You Live In” and exploring how gender values influence the U.S. economy in “The Great American Lie,” which premiered this year.
As Newsom’s “First Partner,” she plans to launch an effort this fall probing negative effects of media and technology on children. She said “the jury’s still out” when asked if it will be hard for her as the governor’s wife to take on two mega-industries that drive California’s economy, Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
“A good percentage of entertainment and tech that we’re putting out into the world is questionable in terms of the impact it’s having on our kids’ minds and hearts and wellbeing,” she said.
In “The Great American Lie,” Siebel Newsom takes on the economic policies of President Ronald Reagan, who she revered while growing up in a conservative household in wealthy Marin County, just north of San Francisco. That background, she says, helps her empathize with a range of people, including conservatives featured in her films.
Her father, the son of steel mill workers, put himself through college on a scholarship and then went into the wealth management business where Siebel Newsom said he reaped benefits from so-called “Reaganomics” that favoured less taxes and government regulation. He held traditional views of family, with him as the breadwinner and his wife maintaining the home and caring for five daughters.
When Siebel Newsom was 6, her older sister died in a golf cart accident, which she said fostered a sense of guilt and a need “to help people because I couldn’t help her.”
Siebel Newsom said her political views evolved as she got older.
“I really grew up thinking Reagan was the end-all, be-all and then when I started delving into research around his policies and saw the outcomes, I realized that I didn’t associate with those policies and didn’t think those were the smartest,” she said.
That makes for some uncomfortable conversations with her parents, who she said are still proud of her political work with Newsom.
“We have discussions that I’m not always interested in having, but I’m always listening to (my dad’s) perspective and hoping he’s listening to mine,” she said.
Siebel Newsom’s parents instilled a commitment to service, and she followed in her father’s footsteps by working with the non-profit Conservation International in Latin America and Africa in between getting her bachelor’s degree and an MBA at Stanford University.
She honed her Spanish while living in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Chile. Her Spanish now allows her to communicate with millions of Californians in a way that her husband can’t. State Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, an immigrant from El Salvador, said Siebel Newsom has worked to amplify the voices of marginalized communities.
“She’s not trying to speak on behalf of any group, she’s trying to give voice and a platform to communities that often are not invited or don’t have the opportunity or the luxury of being in the room or at the table,” Carrillo said.
Both Newsoms say they constantly discuss their political priorities.
“They’re informal conversations at dinner, having breakfast, driving the kids to school, getting coffee in the morning,” Gov. Newsom said.
Newsom said he arrived at 11 p.m. at the family’s multi-million dollar home in a Sacramento suburb after a long day in June finalizing his state budget and found about two dozen women there discussing Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” with his wife.
That talk with her book club led Siebel Newsom to bring a host of other topics to her husband’s attention, keeping him up long past midnight.
As he recalled it, “They just got into these deep conversations, and those conversations carry over to: ‘What are you going to do about it, Gavin?”
Kathleen Ronayne, The Associated Press
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As the RCMP remains tight-lipped about why two young men may have killed three people in northern British Columbia, one of the survivors in Toronto’s Danforth shooting says she’s been following the story closely.
Danielle Kane said the Toronto police department’s decision to release a detailed report on its investigation provided her with clarity about what happened the night she was paralyzed from the waist down and insight into the man who shot her.
“It helped me process the whole thing and it also allowed the public to kind of figure out, well, what are the things that kind of lead up to this sort of thing happening? What are the factors?” she said in an interview.
“I think that’s important for the public to know, instead of just wild speculation, because that’s what’s happening now.”
Kane was one of 13 people injured when Faisal Hussain opened fire in Toronto’s Greektown neighbourhood then killed himself. Julianna Kozis, 10, and Reese Fallon, 18, were killed in the shooting on July 22, 2018.
Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said in June that police took the “unprecedented step” of releasing their findings in the year-long probe out of compassion for the families and in recognition of the widespread impact the attack had on the community.
The 23-page report did not identify a specific motive, but it said Hussain had a fascination with death and violence. He also had a long history of mental health issues and repeatedly harmed himself, the report said.
On Wednesday, the RCMP announced they are confident that two bodies found in the dense brush outside of Gillam, Man., are those of Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, suspected of killing a young tourist couple and a botanist in northern British Columbia last month.
The finding marks the end of a manhunt for the Vancouver Island men, but questions remain unanswered about what exactly happened, including their motivation.
RCMP Assistant Commissioner Kevin Hackett told a news conference Wednesday that determining a motive will be “extremely difficult” if the identities are confirmed through autopsies because investigators can’t interview Schmegelsky or McLeod.
He did not commit to provide details of the ongoing investigation, saying: “There may be an opportunity for that in the future but I’m not in a position to speak about that today.”
Legal experts argue that the Mounties should share more about what they know, while balancing the privacy rights of those who died and their families.
“They may need to be cautious and careful about how they put things, but I would hope to hear more from police about motivation because ultimately we want to prevent future incidents of this kind,” said Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.
Boyd also defended the Mounties handling of the case, arguing that releasing too many details while the fugitives were still at large could have compromised the investigation.
Some details may also be shared with the affected families alone, if they are needlessly gruesome or involve personal information, he said.
Toby Mendel, executive director at the Centre for Law and Democracy based in Halifax, said questions about why the RCMP didn’t name McLeod and Schmegelsky as suspects earlier adds weight to the argument that they should release information about how the investigation was conducted.
The Mounties announced McLeod and Schmegelsky as missing persons on July 19 and as suspects on July 23. In the meantime, the pair interacted with a man in Cold Lake, Alta., on July 21, and band constables with the Tataskweyak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba on July 22. They were unaware of who the men were.
“Whenever there’s an allegation about wrongdoing or inappropriate behaviour on the part of any official, the public interest in accessing information increases significantly,” Mendel said. “That means they correspondingly need a weightier argument not to release the information.”
Investigators need to have the freedom to make decisions in the heat of the moment, including what information to release. But that doesn’t give them automatic protection from a review of the decision later, he said.
The story’s notoriety means it affected many people across the country, some of whom have become fearful or felt their safety was threatened.
“A British judge once famously said the public interest is not what the public is interested in. So the mere curiosity or sensational curiosity wouldn’t drive that. But I think in a case like this you have to look at what’s behind the curiosity,” he said.
Hackett defended how the RCMP released information on McLeod and Schmegelsky as their status changed from missing persons to suspects.
“This was a dynamic and constantly evolving investigation,” he said. “And with the help of the media we were able to get information very quickly into the hands of the public to enhance public safety. I don’t know if we could have gone much quicker than we did.”
In deciding which details to release publicly, lawyer Lorne Randa said the RCMP will consider the fact that an individual’s privacy rights don’t disappear at death, and their family members also have a right to privacy.
The Privacy Act does include a provision for police to disclose personal information where it would be in the public interest to do so. However, the definition of what’s in the public interest is discretionary, said Randa, who is based in Edmonton and chairs the Canadian Bar Association’s committee on privacy and access.
“There’s nothing that would obligate the RCMP to disclose information of that nature,” Randa said.
Peter German, a former assistant commissioner who retired from the RCMP in 2012, said he believes the Mounties will provide as much information as possible without violating privacy rights.
“The option is to hold an inquest and I don’t think that’s necessarily in the cards in this case,” he said. “There will be a thorough investigation and the RCMP should be able to inform the families of all the details and hopefully the public to a certain degree, so it does bring closure.”
— With files from Liam Casey in Toronto.
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