Gavin Newsom has a very ambitious agenda as governor, but ambitious governors haven’t fared very well in the past.
There has been, by happenstance, a cyclical pattern in the mindsets of California governors in the post-World War II era and Gavin Newsom fits it to a tee.
We tend to alternate between activists who want to shake things up and more passive governors who are happy with incremental changes.
The syndrome dates back to Earl Warren, a Republican who held the governorship for more than a decade before becoming chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953.
Warren was the archetypical Tory reformer, who sought to modernize and rationalize governance of a state that was experiencing rapid population and economic growth.
Republican Lt. Gov. Goodwin Knight, who succeeded Warren, was much more passive, spending much of his six-year governorship feuding with his party’s right wing and losing a 1958 bid for the U.S. Senate.
Successor Pat Brown, a Democrat, essentially embraced Warren’s approach, pushing for big public works, such as a state water plan, and more highways, colleges and universities.
Brown also presided over an expansion of state welfare and health programs, civil rights protection and other liberal causes that sparked a backlash among voters, who rejected Brown’s third term bid in 1966 and elected actor Ronald Reagan.
While Reagan talked big change, not much did change on his watch, thanks to a stalemate with a Democratic Legislature.
Pat Brown’s son, Jerry, was next, coming in with an agenda of social change, such as collective bargaining rights for public employees and farm workers, and environmental issues. However, Brown became distracted by Potomac Fever, running for president (twice) and the U.S. Senate.
Voters not only rejected Brown’s 1982 Senate bid, but elected a polar opposite, Republican George Deukmejian, as governor, with just two major objectives – building more prisons to lock up more felons and keeping a lid on other state spending – and succeeded in both.
However, he failed to recognize an immense socioeconomic wave that broke over the state in the 1980s – high population growth from immigration and a new baby boom, and a coincident transformation to a post-industrial economy.
Pete Wilson, who defeated Brown’s 1982 Senate bid, continued Republican control of the governorship in 1990, but he was a sharp contrast to Deukmejian.
Wilson sought to be a Tory reformer in the Warren mold with an ambitious agenda he called “preventive government,” dealing with issues before they became crises. However, he largely set it aside to manage an unprecedented wave of natural and human-caused disasters.
Passivity returned to the governor’s office in 1999 in the form of Democrat Gray Davis, whose failures to confront budgetary and energy crises led to his recall in 2003, and the simultaneous election of another Republican actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger promised to shake up what he described as an insular and ineffective state government, but mostly failed when voters rejected his package of reform ballot measures in 2005.
Jerry Brown returned to the governorship in 2011 but was, for the most part, very modest in his ambitions and very cautious about taking on battles with low chances of success – more like Deukmejian than either his father or his earlier self.
And now we have Gavin Newsom, who voices the most ambitious agenda of any governor in the post-World War II era.
In his State of the State address, Newsom ticked off issue after issue he intends to address and presumably resolve, including the housing crisis, economic inequality, climate change, homelessness, educational deficiencies, aging, Alzheimer’s, Internet privacy, medical access and costs, and workforce displacement.
Good luck. He’ll need it. Activist governors haven’t been terribly successful since Warren and the elder Brown.