Gavin Newsom must decide how far he wants to lead California to the left
SACRAMENTO – Few can argue with California Democrats that their sweeping victories on Tuesday are a clear mandate to set in place an agenda for the state that will last well into the next decade. Less clear, though, is what those marching orders should be – and whether voters will embrace the full panoply of demands that have lurched the state’s dominant party leftward since the election of President Donald Trump.
No one will face that task more directly than Gov.elect Gavin Newsom. The 51-year-old Democrat, who won a resounding victory over Republican challenger John Cox, will preside not only over the nation’s largest economy, but also as leader of America’s most fierce resistance to Trump and the nationalist shift of mainstream GOP politics.
But the history of how Democrats came to dominate California politics over the past quarter-century is a story less about provocation than pragmatism. The majority of the state’s modern-era governors have been Republicans. Newsom’s platform was hardly one of a centrist, even though the state’s electorate has rarely been as liberal as its national reputation – choosing instead to be socially moderate but fiscally stingy, environmentally progressive but solidly behind get-tough-on-crime efforts.
No one knew that chapter of California’s political life better than the man Newsom will replace in January, Gov. Jerry Brown.
The cliche that has followed Brown for decades is his “canoe theory” of politics, a belief that paddling a little on the right and then on the left ensures the vessel of government steers in a straight path. Few leaders could pull off a multibillion-dollar expansion of Medi-cal, the state’s Medicaid program serving lowincome individuals, while at the same time coming across as a frugal guy who canceled state worker cellphones and stashed money in a rainy-day fund.
Conservatives never thought the iconic Democrat was all that straight in his paddling. But Brown’s approach stood the test of time; public opinion polls consistently found a majority of voters liked the way he handled the job these past eight years.
Newsom, in contrast, made his campaign slogan “Courage for a change.” It came across as equal parts swagger about the path forward and a not-so-subtle rejection of what came before. If the governor-elect intends to recalibrate that bold promise in the weeks and months to come, he didn’t offer any hints on Tuesday night.
“The sun is rising in the west, and the arc of history is bending in our direction,” he said to supporters at a crowded Los Angeles victory party. “This is not just a state of resistance. California is a state of results.”
Newsom, only the third California lieutenant governor in the past 70 years to win the top job, must quickly focus on the practical. Gubernatorial transitions are a dive into the deep end of the pool, with state budget decisions that will need to be made – in consultation with Brown – in a matter of weeks, long before Newsom takes the oath of office in January.
The new governor also may have to contend with the other Democrats elected to statewide office on Tuesday, each seeking a platform to demand change. Most of them, like Newsom, will be new to the job. None ran on a platform of moderation.
In Sacramento, they will join a California Legislature where Democratic leaders have spent two years pushing forward an agenda that has become the nation’s most persistent repudiation of Trump. That effort remains largely intact, thanks to Brown’s signature on a series of environmental and immigration laws. The president has largely ignored the state, although his administration unsuccessfully asked the courts to block the “sanctuary state” immigration enforcement law enacted earlier this year.
Brown has only occasionally criticized the president, often sounding a note of indifference to any taunt from Trump about the state’s actions. “We can follow our own trajectory,” he told reporters Wednesday. “I would rather focus on the creativity and the unique opportunities and needs of California, as opposed to defining everything in relationship to the president.”
Newsom has been far less restrained. He didn’t reference Trump by name Tuesday, only by reputation. “It’s been a long two years, but tonight America’s biggest state is making America’s biggest statement,” he said. “We are saying – unmistakably and in unison – that it’s time to roll credits on the politics of chaos and cruelty.”
Nor has the governorelect held back in his embrace of ideas that embody the base of his Democratic Party. No topic looms larger on that score than universal health care – Newsom has insisted, as he did during a candidates’ forum last year, that “single-payer is the way to go to reduce costs and provide comprehensive access.”
So will he lead an effort in 2019 or beyond to revive a stalled attempt in the Legislature to do just that? The party’s base may demand it, a test for Newsom in his early days as governor. The topic was a key flashpoint during the 2018 primary, when former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the proposal floating around the statehouse in 2017 was nothing more than “snake oil,” lacking the details necessary to be taken seriously.