California Politics: An exit interview with Ana Matosantos, Newsom’s Cabinet secretary

Gov. Newsom announces the appointment of Ana Matosantos as  "energy czar" in 2019.
Ana Matosantos has served as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Cabinet secretary since before he took office and is stepping down at the end of August.
(Adam Beam / Associated Press)

Many of the tough questions I’ve asked the governor’s office to better understand his policy announcements over the last four years were met with familiar responses: “I’ll ask Ana,” or “You should ask Ana.”

Easier said than done.

That’s because in order to get Ana Matosantos on the phone you have to divert her attention away from the all-consuming job of translating Gavin Newsom’s ideas into government action. Behind the scenes through the pandemic, the PG&E bankruptcy, record wildfires, a power shortage and the crises in between, Newsom has leaned on his Cabinet secretary to simultaneously execute his agenda and solve the state’s most pressing problems.

“I thought I had the biggest crisis behind me,” Matosantos said, referencing working for Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown during and after the Great Recession. “The joke was on me.”


I’m Taryn Luna and I cover the governor. In today’s newsletter, I’ll share some insights from an exit interview with Matosantos, who is stepping down on Aug. 31.

If you don’t know Matosantos, she’s a career public servant, whom Newsom and many of her colleagues consider brilliant. She became the first finance director to serve governors of different parties under Schwarzenegger and Brown, and the youngest, first Latina and openly LGBTQ person to hold the job. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump also appointed her to the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, where she grew up.

Now she’s seen as a unicorn in Newsom’s office whose experience in the finance department, Cabinet and Legislature give her and the governor a detailed understanding of how state government works.

“When it came time to put together a new administration, one of the very first calls I made was to Ana,” Newsom said. “Her knowledge of the inner workings of California state government is without parallel, but even more impressive is the passion and compassion she brings to her job every day.”

To understand how integral Matosantos has been to Newsom, consider the to-do lists the governor makes for his top aides. While some staff lists consist of rather facile tasks, such as calling someone back on his behalf, hers is often centered on the big picture: Keep the lights on in a heat wave and land a deal that ends the feud between charter and traditional public schools, for example.

But she didn’t tell me that. She groaned in discomfort when I asked about the lists.


“My job is an operations and policy job,” she said. “I’m kind of the main person in working with departments and agencies to get what he wants to see done and making sure that we’re governing in a manner that’s consistent with what he wants to achieve and his overall vision and that he also knows what’s coming.”

In summary, Matosantos does it all. And now, after a long career at the state Capitol that began in 1999 as a Senate fellow, she’s done doing it all. In government, at least. Or so she thinks.

Tough Days

I didn’t cover Brown or Schwarzenegger. So naturally a lot of our conversation centered on the last few years and my desire to satiate my own curiosity about the inner workings of the Newsom governor’s office.

Let’s be clear on one thing: Matosantos is almost annoyingly complimentary of Newsom, even when we discussed the difficulties of working for a guy who wants to break the bureaucratic speed limit with his pace. We’ll get to that later, but first let’s talk about two really bad days in her life that told me a little about both of them and their relationship.

In the fall of 2011, the California Highway Patrol arrested Matosantos in downtown Sacramento for driving under the influence of alcohol after an officer said he noticed her car weaving after midnight on a Friday. The arrest made headlines all over the state. She said she felt like an idiot and offered her resignation to her then boss, Brown. He refused to accept.

Then she got a call from Newsom.

“It could have been a small thing for a lot of people but it was a big thing for me,” she said. “He called me to see how I was doing. It was very kind. I didn’t have any kind of relationship with him.

“Before that point in time, I had always seen him from afar as like a courageous person who was willing to take things on and push the envelope for the things that he felt were right and just,” she said. “It was a kindness to me as a human that I did not at all expect and I really appreciated.”

That phone call set the building blocks for a relationship that would benefit both of them over the years. She said she agreed to come back to work in government in 2018 because she felt hopeful about what he could achieve for California.

“I saw him and still see him as somebody uniquely positioned to lead in this time,” she said.

I also asked her to describe her worst days working for each governor.

Under Schwarzenegger, she remembers the most difficult day as a “72-hour period, sadly a continuous day” in 2009 pulling together votes for a tax increase.

For Brown, she scored a tie between the day the budget accidentally ended up online early in 2012 and in 2011 when they learned Republicans were not going to vote to place a tax extension on the ballot. The morning after she was arrested for the DUI was also pretty bad, she noted.

Her worst day under Newsom came in August 2020 when demand for power exceeded supply, resulting in rolling blackouts. That day was particularly hard because she felt like she let him down.

“He was very clear from before Day 1 of our obligation to make sure we were always staying on top of all the energy pieces and making sure that we did not have blackouts, that we did not have energy problems,” she said. “So one of our charges was regularly working with all the agencies to make sure that we had what we needed to make sure that we maintain reliability.”

Right before the governor’s daily COVID-19 briefing, Matosantos got a note that the California Independent System Operator was issuing a flex alert.

“So then he mentions that at the press conference and later in that day, we keep hearing they think we’re gonna make it, they think we’re gonna make it and then we don’t and we have rolling outages,” she said. “Adding that on top of COVID and everything else that we were experiencing, and he could not have been more clear on his direction to us around what we were supposed to do, I just felt like, I just totally failed.”

Newsom, she said, was justifiably “pissed.”

“And then he immediately like, you know, called everyone to task and got everyone going and pulled everything that he could pull to not make that happen,” she said.

Sense of urgency

During his first year in office, Newsom was criticized for an impatient and undisciplined governing style, which Newsom downplayed and rephrased as “swinging at every pitch.” He rebuffed an attempt by at least one advisor to convince him to narrow his policy agenda and focus on only a few issues — a strategy that had worked for Brown.

I asked Matosantos if Newsom is as impatient behind the scenes as he appears to those of us following along from the outside.

“I’m trying to remember how that saying goes, ‘do as much good as you can for as long as you can,’ and there’s a third leg of it that I can’t remember,” she said.

I looked up the full quote, which many attribute, and some say inaccurately, to John Wesley.

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can,” I read.

“There you go,” she said. “It has a lot more than three.”

Matosantos said the quote makes her think of Newsom.

“He feels a huge amount of urgency in terms of what are the needs Californians have and how he can do as much as he can to try to make things better,” she said. “And he is willing to take the hit for moving too quickly or setting a goal that’s too ambitious because he feels, and I think he has proven out, that he gets more done because he reaches further.”

During the pandemic, Newsom accelerated that already feverish pace. The governor announced several new programs a week as he and his staff charted their own path to try to contain COVID-19, prevent hospitals from being overrun with patients and provide assistance to Californians who lost their jobs.

“I mean, it’s both super motivating and super exciting because that’s what you come to public service to do, and super exhausting at the same time,” she said of Newsom’s drive and pace.

Newsom, and Matosantos as his right hand, made missteps along the way. Hasty efforts to secure masks and other personal protective equipment backfired when companies failed to deliver as promised. Newsom’s constantly evolving guidance and rules frustrated and confused local governments and residents.

The governor was widely criticized for keeping schools shut longer than other states. His personal decisions to attend a fancy dinner with lobbyist friends during the pandemic and appear in photos unmasked created a sense that he was a “do as I say, not as I do” governor.

But the pandemic also cemented Newsom’s legacy as a crisis governor and his resounding defeat of the recall showed that Californians approved of his leadership regardless of any judgment errors.

“Crisis governing is what he has had to do and I think that he’s really good at it in terms of being clear, being decisive, taking responsibility, even when other people could make the argument that the responsibility was not his,” she said. “He’s always like, the buck stops with me. I’m in charge. He gets out there. He is accountable. People know they’re accountable and he just, you know, works around the clock to get it done.”

It’s time

Matosantos said she’s tired.

“And I’d like to sleep,” she said. “In all seriousness, I feel like I have loved working for him and with him and I have loved this job and I love the team and the privilege of what this opportunity allows you to do. I feel like I have stayed longer than the average amount of time that people last in these jobs.”

Based on her calculations, the average burnout among her predecessors in prior administrations is about two years.

Turnover has felt even more frequent under Newsom, who grappled with the bankruptcy of the state’s largest utility, the aftermath of the Camp fire and the repercussions of public safety power shut-offs all in his first year before COVID-19 upended the lives of every Californian and inspired intense scrutiny over his actions.

Newsom’s original chief of staff, two communications advisors, two communications directors, two legislative directors and a few other senior staff have left since Matosantos joined the Newsom administration prior to the 2019 inauguration.

“In terms of what he’s faced and what we have faced working for him during this time, it’s crisis after crisis after crisis after crisis,” she said.

“The sheer number of crises this governor has faced is hard to compare to the experience of anyone I’ve worked for, or in prior history in the last few decades.”

Newsom said he’s “deeply grateful for her partnership” and will miss her counsel in tough times.

“Ana has played an instrumental role in helping millions of people who will never know her name,” he said.

Based on her unease with talking about herself, she’s probably OK with that.

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California politics lightning round

— Veteran political columnist Mark Barabak explains, once again for all the pundits outside California, that Newsom is not running for president in 2024.

— The governor launched his first television ad of the general election on Monday, in Florida, fueling speculation about his presidential ambition. Newsom spent $105,000 to air the ad on Fox News around the state in his latest attempt to troll GOP leaders.

— In the heat of summer, a lifeguard shortage is forcing many public swimming pools to cut back hours. Lifeguards are in limited supply partly because of the temporary shutdown of beaches and public pools and the “great resignation” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

— California voters will not get a chance to vote on increasing the minimum wage to $18 in November after an initiative to do so failed to land enough valid signatures to qualify for the general election ballot. The state is already set to raise the minimum wage for all employers to $15.50 an hour in January, which proponents of the measure say is not enough, especially as housing costs and gas prices soar.

Newsom is facing criticism from community organizations for not providing money in the state budget for a proposed fund aimed at advancing health equity and racial justice. Supporters of the proposed Health Equity and Racial Justice Fund had called on Newsom to allocate millions of dollars to support community-based groups, clinics and tribal organizations offering services and programs to address health disparities.

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