Newsom still seen as work in progress in California

Newsom still seen as work in progress in California
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin Christopher NewsomLet's put 'Reaganomics' to rest California to send 500 ventilators to national stockpile Testing struggles emerge as key hurdle to reopening country MORE (D) introduced himself to legislators at his inauguration and in his first State of the State speech, he offered a laundry list of high-profile priorities that would have cemented the Golden State's status as the lodestar of renascent American progressivism.

Nine months later, as the legislature wrapped up its work and sent more than 500 bills to Newsom's desk, some of the wish list has been checked off — but several of Newsom's top priorities were left stuck in committee or dead on the floor.


Newsom has spent his first session in office negotiating deals with both legislators and businesses, including new protections for renters, an agreement with charter school providers and a politically risky bid to save the state's largest private utility company.

"I think we've been the most proactive administration in some time engaging the legislature on the front end," Newsom said at a news conference Monday.

But in interviews with a dozen Sacramento insiders, including legislators, lobbyists and Newsom allies and adversaries, many said his initial session in office felt like a work in progress, rather than the establishment of a vision that will carry through his first term in office.

"Gavin Newsom has been the quietest voice in Sacramento over the last month," said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at UC-San Diego who studies California state government. "He's let the legislature do its job, but he has not driven the agenda."

And there are some worrying signs for Democrats that Newsom's relationship with legislative leaders could be headed for stormy seas.

Newsom's approach to building an agenda has become a marked departure from his predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown (D), a giant in California politics who mastered the levers of state government over four nonconsecutive terms in office and who has only semiretired.

Where Brown dominated the yearly agenda, Newsom has often let legislators take the lead on controversial issues. Where Brown focused on a few major priorities, Newsom involved himself in a wide swath of legislative measures, both at the heart of negotiations over the $215 billion budget, a deal on charter schools and a deal to cap rent increases, and on minor bills with which Brown might not have concerned himself.

"He is helping many Californians experience upward mobility. The American dream is all about upward mobility," said former Gov. Gray Davis (D), a Newsom admirer and Brown's chief of staff in the 1970s. "He is making a difference in real people's lives. That is what matters."

But to the frustration of some Democrats in Sacramento, where Brown was decisive, Newsom has not always been clear about what he supports and what he does not.

"Gov. Brown didn't always weigh in, but when he did it was definitive," said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D). With Newsom, she said, "We'll get a call and he's for something, but then the devil's in the details."

"I think he's still trying to figure out how to be a more activist governor than the last governor, but in a way that makes sense," Gonzalez said.

In some ways, the comparisons with Brown are favorable for Newsom. He took executive action to end the death penalty in California, something Brown did not do even though he also opposed capital punishment. And Newsom signed a $26 billion deal to aid private electric utilities and address the threat of wildfires growing more intense because of climate change.

"Nobody wins on that, it's a political loser," Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D) said of Newsom's wildfire deal. "But he knows it's important for the future of the state."

But in other ways, legislators who were used to dealing with Brown's frankness have been flummoxed by meetings in which Newsom seems to be saying just enough to make everyone in the room think he's on their side. Even Newsom’s allies acknowledge he can be "enigmatic," in one Newsom strategist's words.

Newsom's enigmatic personality showed itself in the first days of September, when the legislature sent him a bill that would have tightened restrictions on those seeking exemptions from receiving vaccines.

No bill in recent memory has sparked as many protests in Sacramento. Anti-vaccine activists gathered in growing numbers on the capitol steps, crowded committee rooms, physically shoved the bill's author and — in an unprecedented display — hurled what they claimed was menstrual blood on the state Senate floor.

The bill's chief sponsor, state Sen. Richard Pan (D), believed Newsom had committed to signing it. But, after the bill passed, Newsom equivocated and asked for additional amendments.

At a press conference Monday, an at-times testy Newsom defended his decision to ask for changes.

"It's a stronger bill because of what we did, and I'm proud of the fact that I listened to my administration, I listened to folks on all sides of this debate, and I supported the vaccination bill because I felt that it can be implemented in an effective manner," Newsom said. "And forgive me, sincerely, for reading the bill. Sometimes I have to ask myself if people read things."

He signed both the bill and its companion, also sponsored by Pan, that incorporated those late changes. Newsom's last-minute demands left some legislators wondering whether his word could be trusted in the future, an ominous sign for a relationship that requires trust to function.

As he builds his résumé, signs of new tensions are beginning to emerge at home. Among the Newsom priorities that died this year was an ambitious plan to increase California's housing supply, a bill that met its demise when Newsom did not publicly campaign for it — though he did sign bills to expand the housing supply, and his administration has sued the city of Huntington Beach in an effort to force new construction.

The legislature also nixed Newsom's push to create tax breaks for investors in housing and renewable energy products, though it agreed to create a fund to fix water systems in crisis that Brown had failed to pass.

And among the few bills Newsom has vetoed this year was a measure authored by state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D), who wanted to allow the state to keep provisions of the Endangered Species Act in place in the Central Valley in case the Trump administration overturned them.

Lawmakers have about four months away from Sacramento to let the tensions cool. But as they get used to a new governor with a new style, many have concluded that unlike Brown, Newsom will be more involved in day-to-day legislative matters — even if he hasn't perfected his own agenda yet.

"Jerry had two things he cared about. He cared about criminal justice reform and he cares about climate change," Rendon said. "This governor cares about more. It’s good and bad. There’s pitfalls associated with that. There’s opportunities for folks to leverage him more."


As the popular leader of the largest and most progressive state in the nation, Newsom's actions are inevitably viewed as a prelude to a possible presidential campaign, no matter his protestations to the contrary.

Those protests are not aided when Newsom embraces the mantle of leader of the anti-Trump resistance.

He has stood next to Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraIs Texas learning to love ObamaCare? T-Mobile, Sprint complete merger Overnight Energy: Court upholds Trump repeal of Obama fracking rule | Oil price drop threatens fracking boom | EPA eases rules on gasoline sales amid coronavirus MORE (D) several times as Becerra has announced new legal challenges to the Trump administration. Newsom has pulled California National Guard troops from the border with Mexico, redeploying them to other parts of the state. And he has traveled abroad, an unusual trip to El Salvador, to inspect the root causes of the immigration crisis.

Most recently, Newsom infuriated the White House when California reached an agreement with four automakers that would hold them to stricter emissions standards set during the Obama administration than the rolled-back standards set under Trump. The Justice Department has launched an antitrust investigation, and Trump on Wednesday said his administration would block California from setting its own emissions standards.

"It's very clear that he wants to be president and wants to put a lot of notches in his belt early on," said one Sacramento-based Democratic strategist, who asked not to be named for fear of angering the governor's team.

But others see a departure from the persona that vaulted Newsom to prominence, first as mayor of San Francisco and now as governor.

"The secret to his success was taking bold positions on controversial issues, like same-sex marriage and gun control," Kousser said. "In his first year, he's been the opposite of that."