Gavin Newsom’s dilemma: Making a change, while following Jerry Brown’s lead
After the victory music had quieted, after the introduction by his wife was done, Gavin Newsom took to the stage at a Los Angeles nightclub and began to walk the fine line that will likely define his first year as California governor. Even as he laid out his vision for renewing California, calling it “a land of plenty but… far from perfect,” Newsom praised the man he will replace.
“For literally my entire life, Gov. Jerry Brown has been blazing his trail. He’s been a role model for me, and tonight we all owe him a profound debt of gratitude,” Newsom said to loud applause from the crowd that included many campaign donors, lobbyists and Democratic legislators.
It’s been more than 130 years since a Democrat followed another Democrat into the California governor’s office—and with this generational changing of the guard, Newsom will replace one who is particularly accomplished and popular. That means he’ll face a tension other recent governors have not: to both follow the path carved by his predecessor while also living up to his campaign slogan, “courage for a change.”
“Too many Californians are being priced out of housing, health care and higher education,” Newsom said as he declared victory in his campaign against Republican businessman John Cox. “Too many children are growing up in poverty, starting school from behind. In many ways, in many places, we are simultaneously the richest and the poorest state.”
Newsom’s priorities and connections are, in many ways, more of an extension of Brown’s than either camp tends to highlight. Both are Democrats eager to challenge President Trump’s approach to immigration and the environment. Both have roots in San Francisco and experience as big-city mayors. Even their family history is intertwined: Brown’s father was friends with Newsom’s grandfather; and Brown appointed Newsom’s father as a judge. Newsom has said he feels very connected to Brown’s legacy and is “inclined to protect it.”
But their styles and life experiences are different. Brown had been governor before voters granted him two more terms in 2010 and 2014; he had his 10,000 hours long before his most recent election. This is Newsom’s first time in the state’s highest office.
In the 1970s, Brown was the monastic young governor who frequented a Zen meditation center and drove a Plymouth sedan. Newsom is an impetuous entrepreneur who owns bars and wineries and has three Teslas parked in his driveway. Brown never had children. Newsom has four. Brown’s early political crisis involved fruit flies. Newsom’s involved his campaign manager’s wife.
Fatherhood, private enterprise—these are formative experiences that give Newsom a different perspective from Brown, whose most recent gubernatorial tenure focused largely on fighting climate change, reversing tough-on-crime criminal justice policies and launching a high-speed train. Newsom insists he’s going to govern accordingly, laying out his own policy priorities: preschool, universal health care, affordable housing.
Yet even as he proposes expanded services that could cost billions of dollars, Newsom also says he will emulate Brown’s fiscal restraint.
“When it comes to fiscal discipline, I am absolutely in the same mold,” he said.
It will be a difficult balance to strike.
“The biggest question is: Does Gavin take the same approach on spending that Gov. Brown has?” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, a group that advocates for the state’s biggest companies.
“The economy defined a lot of Gov. Brown’s priorities… Gavin can define his own priorities, until the economy defines him.”
Brown won his third term in 2010 in the depths of a recession, and, through a combination of program cuts and tax increases, spent his first few years digging the state out of a $26 billion deficit. Much to the irritation of legislative leaders, Brown, by then 72, earned the reputation as the “adult in the room” who reined in Democrats’ desires to spend more. Even when the economy began to recover, he lectured legislators with Bible stories about saving grain for years of famine, and handed them playing cards with pictures of his dog saying, “Bark if you hate deficits!”
Newsom takes the reins during a strong economy, with low unemployment and state coffers flush with $9.4 billion in reserves. He campaigned on an ambitious—and costly—agenda, and will soon negotiate a state budget with legislative leaders who share his interest in expanding housing, health care and preschool. They expect Newsom to deliver—and with Democrats appearing to win a supermajority, could potentially pass a tax hike without any Republican support.
“I do think we need more money as a state,” Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said, adding that he’s open to considering a tax increase to pay for expanding public preschool.
“It’s hard to speculate without any details, but if we want to do pre-K we will have to.”
Senate leader Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who wrote the single-payer health care bill that stalled last year, said she’s excited to work with Newsom to expand health care and reduce homelessness. But she said lawmakers are well aware of the state’s budgetary limits, and don’t need Newsom to put them on a leash.
“None of us want to be part of a Legislature that goes from a surplus to being in deep trouble,” Atkins said. “That is not the legacy I want.”
Their views indicate the Legislature’s growing sense of empowerment, an outgrowth of a change to term limits voters approved several years ago. Most of today’s lawmakers can run for re-election for up to 12 years, giving them a new sense of longevity in the Capitol. Whereas Brown, who is 80, was the long-time politician negotiating with a changing cast of less experienced lawmakers, Newsom will come in as a brand-new governor working with a more stable Legislature. The generational shift could affect dynamics as well: Newsom, who is 51, is a contemporary of most lawmakers, whose average age 53.
Rendon has said he thinks the Capitol’s balance of power will tilt toward the Legislature when Newsom becomes governor, though a past legislative leader dismissed the notion that the Legislature’s power changes much from one governor to the next.
“The dynamic largely remains the same,” said Darrell Steinberg, the Sacramento Democrat who led the state Senate during the last gubernatorial transition, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Brown.
“Governors are very powerful institutionally. They have the bully pulpit. They initiate. They veto… And they generally are able to get most of what they want done.”
Brown has been selective about attacking Trump, and has shunned the word “resistance.” Newsom campaigned to head the resistance, and may go even further than Brown did in positioning California—and himself—as the nation’s progressive leader.
“I think he realizes we are not just about saying no all the time…. We have to lead. That means being bold,” said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation, a powerful union group that endorsed Newsom.
“If we have a bold agenda, we will have to figure out how we pay for it. And those discussions will happen.”