Gavin Newsom criticized for flip-flopping on California's most pressing issues

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor, takes a picture with supporters during a rally in Hollywood on June 3. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

While mayor of San Francisco, Democrat Gavin Newsom supported high-speed rail in California so strongly that he partnered with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008 to push for a $10-billion state bond measure to help build it.

Six years later, Newsom pulled his support, citing exploding cost overruns and delays. Two years after that, he was back on board.

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Newsom has made several about-faces during his two decades in politics. Early in the 2018 governor’s race, his shifting stances were targeted by Democratic rivals, who accused the lieutenant governor of flip-flopping or equivocating on high-speed rail and other pivotal issues facing California, including a single-payer healthcare system and sanctuary policies. Newsom’s rival in the November election, Republican John Cox, is sure to continue that criticism as he highlights his opposition to the front-runner on several issues.

Similar to other politicians on the campaign trail, Newsom has made pronouncements that can be interpreted in different ways, allowing voters to hear what they want to hear, said political scientist Melissa Michelson of Menlo College. That strategy can create doubt in voters’ minds about what a candidate will really do if elected, she said.

“As a politician, you’re trying to both read and lead the public,” Michelson said. “You certainly don’t want to say things that make you unpopular.”

Newsom campaign spokesman Nathan Click dismissed the criticism, saying the lieutenant governor has a long history of taking bold, risky policy positions, including authorizing same-sex marriages in 2004 while mayor of San Francisco.

“California voters have overwhelmingly supported Gavin Newsom at the ballot box because he has had the political courage to champion bold reforms and aggressively see them through,” Click said.

Michelson said it’s common for political beliefs to evolve, especially for someone who has been in public office a while. For Newsom, that includes his views on aspects of San Francisco’s sanctuary policy. The policy bars the city from spending funds to enforce immigration law, and prohibits local authorities from detaining people based solely on their immigration status, Michelson said.

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Throughout the campaign, Newsom has boasted about his support as mayor of San Francisco as a sanctuary city, including extending healthcare coverage to immigrants who entered the country illegally.

“I’m proud to come from a sanctuary city,” Newsom said at a February debate. “Sanctuary cities are about keeping people safe, healthier and more educated. If you’re a victim of crime, if you’re a witness of crime, you’re more than likely to communicate with police officers.”

But while mayor, Newsom directed the city to begin referring juveniles who were in the country illegally and who had been charged with felonies to federal immigration authorities for deportation.

The policy was implemented shortly after the 2008 slaying of Anthony Bologna and his two sons, who were killed on a San Francisco street by Edwin Ramos, a 21-year-old Salvadoran immigrant who had entered the country illegally. Ramos, who was later convicted of first-degree murder, had been released from San Francisco County Jail three months before, and was twice convicted of felonies as a juvenile.

When the Board of Supervisors voted to end the policy, Newsom vetoed the measure. When the board overturned his veto, the Newsom administration continued referring young people to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, former Supervisor David Campos said.

The policy “led to the deportation of many youth, including many youth who were wrongly convicted,” Campos said. “[Newsom has] been trying to position himself as a champion of sanctuary cities. Don’t rewrite history.”

Campos said it was improper to turn over young immigrants before they had been convicted, saying they deserved due process. Newsom has since agreed and apologized for enacting that policy.

“These were people charged ... but not convicted. Some people ultimately were exonerated that got caught up in it,” Newsom told the Sacramento Bee in July. “I’ll just say this to my critics: fair game. Looking back, there were things we could have done differently. I’m very honest about that.”

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Part of the foundation of Newsom’s campaign for governor has been his strong support for establishing a single-payer healthcare system in California.

As evidence of his longstanding dedication to the issue, Newsom points to the San Francisco universal healthcare system adopted in 2006 while he was mayor. Healthy San Francisco, as it was known, was the first of its kind in the nation, and at its peak provided affordable care to more than 70,000 uninsured residents in the city.

“People said it couldn’t be done,” Newsom said at a candidate forum hosted by the San Francisco Chronicle in October.

But former San Francisco County Supervisor Tom Ammiano, author of the ordinance that evolved into Healthy San Francisco, said Newsom “tried to undermine it as best he could” while it was being debated, in part because of concerns over cost to employers in the city. After Healthy San Francisco was approved, Newsom embraced it, Ammiano said.

“When something is working, he’ll attach his coattails to it,” Ammiano, a frequent critic of Newsom, said in an interview earlier this year.

Newsom has argued that Ammiano's initial proposal amounted to a health insurance program that did not cover most of the uninsured in San Francisco. He said he authored a separate proposal focused on providing direct care — not insurance — to everyone without healthcare coverage in the city.

Click said Newsom believes healthcare is a human right, and that he fought for that principle as mayor and will do the same as governor. He noted that Newsom has also received endorsements from major healthcare providers because they know he will “deliver on a system that puts patients first and works for everyone.”

“As mayor, Newsom brought every stakeholder to the table to pass the nation's first countywide universal healthcare package, and, at every point in this campaign, has committed to leading a similar process to guarantee healthcare for every California resident,” Click said in an email.

During the gubernatorial campaign, Newsom has been accused of parsing his words when asked about his position on Senate Bill 562, legislation to create a state-sponsored single-payer healthcare system, which was shelved in the Assembly last year. Former Democratic rival Antonio Villaraigosa accused him of being a “snake oil salesman” by tailoring his message for different audiences.

In September, Newsom spoke to the California Nurses Assn., the most vocal advocate for legislation. He told the crowd that the time for single-payer healthcare was now and added: "It's time to move 562," setting off a round of cheers.

But minutes later, when talking with reporters, Newsom explained his statement wasn’t a full-fledged endorsement of the legislation. He said he supported moving the bill through the legislative process, but cautioned that there were some major "open-ended" issues, including the plan to finance it.

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When the legislation was approved by the state Senate, Newsom praised the move in a tweet: “Thanks to @CASenDems & @CalNurses, CA is one step closer to making universal health access a real right, not an empty platitude.”

The Assembly later shelved the bill over concerns about cost and the lack of a comprehensive plan to pay for such a massive new government program.

Garry South, who was a political consultant for Newsom’s short-lived 2010 gubernatorial run, said the front-runner’s message has always been crystal clear.

“Gavin Newsom has publicly affirmed that he supports a single-payer system,” South said. “He’s not coy about it. He’s not cute about it.”

South also said that Newsom’s positions on some issues were bound to change over his two decades in office. As mayor of San Francisco, Newsom was primarily concerned with local political issues. As lieutenant governor and now a candidate for governor, he examines policy decisions from a statewide perspective, South said.

As a San Francisco County supervisor in 2002, Newsom argued in favor of higher bail schedules, saying drug dealers were coming into the city because they knew bail was lower there than in the surrounding counties.

But as a candidate for California governor, Newsom been been a strong proponent of bail reform.

"Cash bail insidiously exacerbates our criminal justice system's class and racial disparities by creating a cascade of devastating effects for poor people and their families who often lose jobs, homes and even their children before a court even considers their guilt or innocence," Newsom wrote in a 2017 opinion column that ran in the Orange County Register and other newspapers.

Click said Newsom is one of the leading advocates for criminal justice reform in California.

“Newsom was the first statewide elected official to champion ending the cash bail system, and the only one to endorse every criminal justice reform ballot initiative over the last decade,” Click said.

The early 2000s were also a different political era, a time when issues such as bail reform were not part of an intense national debate. Public support for California’s high-speed rail system has also fluctuated over the last decade.

When California voters approved funding for the high-speed rail project, they were promised that the system would transport passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes. As mayor, Newsom hailed the rail line as a game-changer for California, and said it was a “generation overdue.”

“Finally California is going to get it right with this high-speed rail,” Newsom said at the 2010 groundbreaking ceremony of the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco.

But by 2014, Newsom had become disenchanted with the project because of myriad funding problems, and polls showed many Californians felt the same way. During an interview with conservative commentator Ben Shapiro that aired on a Seattle radio station, the lieutenant governor said he would redirect the high-speed rail funding to other infrastructure needs. Coming from one of the highest ranking Democratic politicians in the state, Newsom’s criticism was a gut punch to a project staunchly supported by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Two years later, Newsom told the audience at a Sacramento Press Club event that he was no longer opposed to the project — then estimated to cost $64 billion — and that while he still had concerns, he would try to find a public funding source for it if elected governor. Newsom said he decided to back the project again after the planning and management had been improved.

Newsom has been needled throughout the campaign about his back-and-forth on the rail project, and was asked point-blank during a May gubernatorial debate if he would tell Californians where he stood on the issue.

“I’ve long supported the vision, but I’ve been honest about the financing,” Newsom responded.

Joseph Tuman, a professor of political and legal communication at San Francisco State, compared Newsom’s tentative embrace of high-speed rail — he supports it, but says he still has reservations — to President Trump saying he accepted the U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but that it "could be other people also."

“You can’t be in a situation where you’re trying to have it both ways,” Tuman said.

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