Running to replace the governor, Gavin Newsom embraces Jerry Brown—at arm’s length

It’s hard to run as the change agent in the California governor’s race when you’re the state’s second-ranking elected leader. But Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is giving it his best shot.

Since launching his bid for governor in early 2015 (arguably, since he was first elected to the position of lieutenant governor five years earlier), Newsom has championed himself as the more progressive, fierier alternative to Gov. Jerry Brown. That’s been a fine line to walk on the campaign trail where Newsom, a Democrat and the front-runner in a crowded gubernatorial field, has been selective about which components of Brown’s legacy to embrace and which to jettison.

On climate change policy, K-12 education funding reform, and the expansion of Medi-Cal, Newsom is happy to bear the imprint of the current administration. On single-payer health care, higher education funding, homelessness, and universal pre-school? “With respect”—as Newsom often says when he disagrees with someone—not so much.

That’s a balance that Newsom struck during a recent visit to CALmatters. In some cases, he paid homage to Brown, who remains popular with a majority California voters, according to a new poll. In others, he highlighted his areas of disagreement.

Sometimes he did both at once. Earlier this week, Gov. Brown’s announced that he would be sending some 400 national guard troops to the state’s southern border with Mexico, assenting to a request by President Donald Trump, but only under the condition that they not be used to enforce immigration law or help build a wall.

Newsom distanced himself from that position—but he didn’t go too far.

“I wouldn’t have done it,” Newsom said of the troop deployment. “But if I did do it, I would have done it exactly the way Governor Brown did it.”

On some differences Newsom was more blunt. Asked about the rising cost of public higher education in the state, Newsom laid the blame squarely on “withering state funds.” And, by extension, the governor.

“I would significantly increase the investment in higher education and, by the way, the governor could do that,” he said. “With all due respect, we have the resources today to do that.”

He also criticized two of his Democratic opponents in the race, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and state Treasurer John Chiang, for their refusal to back a legislative proposal that would create a single-payer health insurance system in California.

“They say why it can’t be done. I say we have no choice but to lean into this conversation,” said Newsom.

But Brown has been one of the most prominent skeptics of single-payer in California, which he told reporters last March “makes no sense.”

While on the topic of his challengers on the campaign trail, Newsom also responded to the news that a pro-Villaraigosa independent expenditure group sponsored by the California Charter Schools Association had just received a $7 million donation from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

“It’s a little heartbreaking, because that’s the beginning, that’s not the last check,” he said. Newsom, who is endorsed by the California Teachers Association, has said that he supports good quality charter schools, but that more oversight and transparency is needed. He dismissed the idea that the extra spending might amplify the discussion about public education in this election.

“We’re in a campaign, come on,” he said. “We’re not talking about how to fix things—we’re talking about how to destroy the other person.”

By Newsom’s own account, he owes much to the man he hopes to call his predecessor. As a kid, he says he remembers licking envelopes for one of Brown’s earlier political campaigns. Today, he calls the governor a “political mastermind,” a grand master of electoral stratagems who knows exactly which battles to pick and when. While Brown is politically savvy and cerebral, Newsom says he isn’t “constitutionally capable” of containing his passions or his principles.

“I tend to want to engage on everything early in the process,” he said.

The dual mandate at the heart of Newsom’s campaign—to celebrate the achievements of the past, while calling for dramatic and disruptive change—is encapsulated in its main tagline: “Courage. For a change.” As a campaign slogan, it alternately offers a hopeful vision of the future and a jab at those who currently hold power.

It all depends on where you put the emphasis.

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