SACRAMENTO — Don’t look now, but Gavin Newsom is making some noise.
He’s coming out swinging at Donald Trump (and Fox News). Emerging from Jerry Brown’s shadow. Pushing an ambitious state policy agenda backed by a fatter-than-ever budget. Preparing the ground, many believe, for his own potential run at national office after the 2020 circus winds down.
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The generously coiffed former San Francisco mayor, who spent the better part of the last decade waiting his turn back in the political klieg lights, is on the attack, and on multiple fronts.
Speaking to POLITICO in his office at the state Capitol, California’s new governor uses superlatives like “magnificent” to describe his achievements in his first six months, basks in the bliss (for now) of leading a Democratic super-majority in Sacramento and wastes no opportunity to score points on the national stage.
“America in 2019 is California in the 1990s,” Newsom says, not approvingly. “The xenophobia, the nativism, the fear of ‘the other.’ Scapegoating. Talking down or past people. The hysteria. And so, we’re not going to put up with that. We are going to push back.”
If Newsom doesn’t yet have the national profile he might want, he also knows California’s status as a virtual nation-state, as so many pols and pundits here are fond of saying, makes him more than just one of 50 governors. He demands to be watched, and will be.
There will be multiple ways for Newsom to trip up in the months ahead. The Democratic supermajority in Sacramento could easily push him to overreach, and that could backfire on him, fiscally speaking, if the state economy turns sour. His expansive policy agenda easily could turn unfocused. The state’s realities — the highest poverty rate in the country, a housing crisis, vicious identity politics that place it to the further left of the nation as a whole — risk becoming serious liabilities for this ambitious governor.
An hour with the governor reveals five dynamics at play in Newsom-world, including some challenges that he views as potential opportunities for California (and, naturally, himself).
Trump 2020 is good politics for Newsom
Donald Trump loves slamming Newsom’s California — and that’s as good for the Newsom brand as it is for the Trump brand.
Long connected to some of California’s most prominent families — a photo of Bobby Kennedy and Newsom’s late father, William, a state appeals court judge and manager of the Getty family oil fortune, adorns the governor’s office wall — the charismatic Newsom has been a man on the rise for two decades now. He emerged relatively unscathed from scandal — an affair during his time as mayor of San Francisco – and waited out two terms as Brown’s lieutenant governor before winning election handily last November.
It’s a given in California political circles that Newsom wants someday to run for president — and while 2020 is too soon, 2024 could work just fine, the theory goes…if Trump wins re-election, of course.
Newsom seems to relish a public fight with the president — and Fox News and conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, who often takes aim at California, and whom Newsom name-checks repeatedly in the course of an hour. He shrugs off concerns that Trump and the Republicans will exploit the deal Newsom and California lawmakers cut last week on health care for some undocumented immigrants.
“If it’s not this, it’s ten other things,’’ he says. “If I’m going to be worried about Donald Trump’s feelings and Tucker Carson’s feelings and Fox News’ feelings, then I won’t be taking care of the people in this state,’’ he adds. “I won’t be doing justice. to millions and millions of Californians who will benefit from our health care expansions, the biggest expansion [to benefit] the middle class – something no one thought was achievable few years back.”
Still, Newsom clearly pays close attention to the daily drama of Trump’s White House. “[Trump] says he has a great [health care] plan, and maybe it’s in the left pocket, not the right one. He pulled out the deal with Mexico today; maybe he has a deal on health care,” Newsom says.
As any California governor should, Newsom has the “as goes California, so goes the nation” message down pat. After all, California’s politics do have a way of presaging things to come to the rest of American politics — think the Proposition 187 vote on immigration in 1994 or the state’s early debates over fuel efficiency standards.
And in Newsom’s view, there’s a message there: Under Trump, national Republicans “are into the politics of what California was into in the 1990s..and they’ll go the same direction — into the waste bin of history, the way Republicans of the ’90s have gone. That’s exactly what will happen to this crop of national Republicans.”
Still, he’s cautious on the impeachment question. Newsom, who is close to fellow San Franciscan and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, defends her reluctance to start impeachment proceedings. “What’s so remarkable about someone with the experience and temperament of Speaker Pelosi is that she’s seen a lot of movies,’’ he says. “She’s been there. She’s got a better sense than a lot of folks. So I think we should stay the course. What we’re doing is working…I think Democrats are winning right now.”
Health care could be California’s – and Newsom’s – sweet spot
Newsom wants you to know he’s a policy wonk, and he’s using his perch to move the needle on hot-button policy issues that Democratic 2020 contenders — and the House Democratic majority — have far less ability to affect. As the most populous state and the country’s biggest economy, Newsom’s actions carry outsize weight – and are guaranteed outsize publicity.
Consider the national attention it garnered when Newsom signed an executive order in March halting executions – sparing 737 people on California’s death row. Witness the proclamation his office wrote last month “welcoming women to California to fully exercise their reproductive rights” after a wave of conservative states took steps to limit abortion. Newsom is outspoken on immigration, traveling to El Salvador earlier this year in his first international trip as governor.
Newsom is remembered by many for leading the way on same-sex marriage during his days as San Francisco mayor. And now, he is determined to plant the flag on universal health care – something that was not seen as a top priority for Brown — including for all undocumented immigrants.
“We’re going to get it,’’ Newsom insists. “We’re committed to universal health care. Universal health care means everybody…We will lead a massive expansion of health care, and that’s a major deviation from the past.’’
“That’s the real story coming out of California,” Newsom says. “A lot of the think tanks that are informing these presidential candidates, are informing their policies. But California is doing. We’re implementing.”
He’s all in for Kamala Harris in 2020 — really, he is
Newsom is backing Sen. Kamala Harris in 2020, but it’s worth remembering that the two were long viewed as political rivals. Both former San Franciscans enjoyed the patronage of former Mayor Willie Brown as they ascended the ranks of the state party. Harris was also reportedly eyeing the governor’s race before Newsom claimed that turf, declaring his candidacy two years ahead of the election. She announced her 2016 run for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Senator Barbara Boxer weeks later.
Newson maintains that he’s all in for Harris; he endorsed her early in the Democratic primary, and he’s done his part to help boost her campaign coffers, hosting a recent fundraiser in the Getty home in San Francisco that raised $300,000 in one night. He gives little credence to recent polls showing that Harris is trending in the wrong direction.
Asked whether he will campaign for Harris, Newsom quickly responds: “I have been. Every time I’ve been asked.” He adds: “I’m campaigning for her right now, it sounds like.”
Harris, he argues, has “consistently been in the top five, that’s an extraordinary achievement with eight months to go before the first vote is cast.’’ The former California AG “has shown a successful ability to navigate the white waters…and continue to be part of the conversation against powerhouses — Sanders, Biden, and some of the most well-known brands in American politics,” Newsom said.
Even amid polls showing Biden and Sanders leading Harris among Democratic voters in her home state, Newsom says Harris is not at risk in California’s early primary next March. “She hasn’t really started campaigning” in her home state yet. … She hasn’t campaigned at the level she will be.”
Still, Newsom acknowledges that he has met with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and read Buttigieg’s best-selling book, “Shortest Way Home.” The former San Francisco mayor jokes that there’s something of an affinity there: “Mayors get it done.”
In the end, supporting Harris costs Newsom little — if she wins the nomination or even the presidency, he enjoys some of the credit, and the benefits of having helped. If she doesn’t, he was still the loyal soldier as he built his own profile.
Jerry Brown’s long shadow
One of Newsom’s biggest challenges is coming out of the shadow of his predecessor, Brown, who spent four terms governing California – from 1975 to 1983 and then from 2011 to 2019. That’s why Newsom is trying hard to project an aura of fiscal prudence amid a laundry list of expensive campaign promises.
Notwithstanding his national “Moonbeam” caricature as an unapologetic liberal, Brown was known in California as a penny-pincher — the proverbial “adult in the room” willing to say no to more free-spending legislators. That approach helped the nation’s largest economy and state budget emerge solvent and successful from the financial crisis and the recession.
And while Newsom’s rein in San Francisco was solidly pro-business, he entered office in January with the Republican party decimated — Democrats now enjoy two-thirds supermajorities in both chambers, and political and policy fights are largely intra-party, with factions of moderate Democrats holding the balance of power on any given issue. Plus, there’s the prospect of an inevitable economic downturn. So the big question in Sacramento has been whether Newsom will be able to withstand the pressure to spend — or whether a newly empowered legislature would run roughshod over him.
Five months in, Newsom and the legislature just agreed on a $215 billion budget, and he argues that they’re toeing the line fiscally. The budget would expand health care for middle-income families and undocumented immigrants, clean up drinking water in rural communities and pay down teacher pension debt, while leaving the state with $19.4 billion in reserve funds.
“We wanted to really get ready to prove our critics wrong — that we could govern without being profligate, that we can be progressive in our values,” Newsom says. “We can’t do everything overnight. But we can do more than people think.”
With the budget situation still rosy, Newsom and the Democratic legislature – including Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins — are still largely in honeymoon mode and there hasn’t yet been a knock-down intra-party fight. “We all are sort of prone to friction, and I don’t think we’re providing much of it,” Newsom says with a smile.
But that’s unlikely to last, particularly if the economic situation shifts, and California’s budget — which is particularly sensitive to national economic trends – takes a hit.
Either way, it’s clear Newsom is more than a little eager to move beyond the Brown comparisons. Asked about his failure to get a housing bill through this year, Newsom noted that the effort’s been going for three years. “The previous two years you were running headlines about how Jerry Brown fell short, getting that to his desk…right? Forgive me.”
The (bad) California Dream
For all of Newsom’s California-dreaming, he’s well aware that the state’s Democrats have their own problems. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the state’s enormous income equality gap — California had the highest poverty rate in the country last year, according to Census data — and its housing and homeless problem.
Both are on display in the Bay Area, where the riches of Silicon Valley – and the skyrocketing housing prices they’ve driven – sit uneasily next to growing encampments. Amid the expanding homeless population in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, Newsom has repeatedly warned legislators that the issue is a stain on the state — and “we own it.”
Asked this week his most effective efforts to date, the governor — whose budget proposes a $1 billion investment to tackle the issue — ticked off a list of policy responses. Among them: “something that’s never been done in our state’s history,’’ a survey of all California surplus property” — including “44,000 specific parcels” that have been analyzed over the last five months for potential housing development.
His budget, which includes millions for tenant protection, assistance to homeless university students and mental health investments, will be supplemented by “novel strategies for new housing types and developments,’’ and helping major cities with planning and infrastructure to build them, he said.
“We’re not naive about our systemic challenges as it relates to income inequality and issues of affordability,” he said. “That didn’t happen overnight, that’s a 20-30-year trend. We own it now, we’re owning up to that. That’s at least a change: no one is denying the crisis.”