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California Politics: Newsom needles Democrats while praising Biden in a delicate dance

 President Biden waves onstage with  Gov.  Newsom and his wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom
President Biden onstage with California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom during an anti-recall event last year at Long Beach City College.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

During this summer of Gavin Newsom unchained, the California governor has made a national splash by throwing haymakers at Republican governors for criminalizing abortion, using immigrants as political pawns and restricting voting rights — and at national Democratic leaders for their timid response.

Newsom has done a much more delicate dance when it comes to the de facto leader of the Democratic Party, President Biden. That was very apparent during Newsom’s appearance at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin last Saturday.

After blasting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade and accusing Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, among others, of systematically dismantling the civil rights protections won over the past half-century, Newsom had a word to say to Democrats.

“They want to bring us back to pre-1960s. This is a profound and precious moment. We have to wake up to it,” Newsom said at the event. “We have to meet this moment head on and, dammit, the Democratic Party has to assert itself much more aggressively than we have.”

But when MSNBC political analyst Alex Wagner asked Newsom point-blank if the White House needed to be more “alarmed and activated,” Newsom was much more acquiescent, saying “they have their hands full.”

In a separate interview with Wagner, Newsom said he thought Biden has come to realize that the era of bipartisan compromise, mutual respect and common decency that defined the president’s more than three decades in the U.S. Senate is over. Biden showed that in a prime-time speech this month when he warned American democracy remains in great peril because of the extremism promoted by former President Trump and “MAGA Republicans.”

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“I think the president has learned it the hard way,” Newsom said. “I mean, he’s hardwired for a different world but that world is gone. And he’s acknowledged that very publicly on multiple occasions but ... I think it’s very hard for him, because of his decency, his honor, his character, his moral persuasion. Those are the tools in his toolkit, it’s who he is at his core.”

Distant political allies

The long-distance political relationship between Newsom and Biden remains intriguing. The two are separated by a generation, almost 3,000 miles and vastly different life experiences.

Earlier this month, Biden took the unusual step of publicly pressuring Newsom to sign a new law to make it easier for agricultural laborers to join unions, a hard-fought win for the United Farm Workers.

“Farmworkers worked tirelessly and at great personal risk to keep food on America’s tables during the pandemic,” Biden said. “In the state with the largest population of farmworkers, the least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union.”

That had to sting. Newsom vetoed similar legislation last year, concerned about the integrity of the union elections, and still harbored doubts about the bill. But he signed it anyway on Wednesday.

Biden also can’t be too pleased with all the speculation about Newsom possibly running for president. That political chitchat has only been amplified by Newsom’s rise as a leading and outspoken voice for Democratic progressives in recent months. Newsom has consistently tried to douse those rumors, insisting that he will not run and that Biden has his full, unwavering support.

Least anyone forget, Biden flew to California just a year ago to help Newsom beat back the Republican-led recall attempt.

Newsom dabbling nationally

Still, Newsom’s foray into national politics is far from over — and in fact, Newsom is expected to become more active as the midterm elections approach.

The governor already has made good on his vow to help Florida Democrat Charlie Crist defeat one of his biggest foils — DeSantis. Newsom, through the California Democratic Party, donated $100,000 to a political action committee supporting Crist’s bid for governor. Newsom vowed to deliver the same amount to help Democrat Chris Jones in his bid for Arkansas governor against Republican candidate and Trump loyalist Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Newsom also is helping fundraise for Democrats running for governor in Arizona, Georgia, Texas and Pennsylvania.

Newsom says support for these Democrats is critical, because the states have become the biggest battlegrounds over civil rights and personal freedom. Republicans heaped praise on DeSantis for flying nearly 50 migrant asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. Abbott and Texas Republicans approved a de facto “bounty” — a private right of legal action — on anyone who helps a woman seek an abortion. Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake still clings to the debunked claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump.

“Everything we’ve held dear in the last half century of my life is on the chopping blocks in real time. It’s not just ... abortion. We know it’s voting rights. It’s civil rights. The entire rights agenda that is being wiped out in real time,” Newsom said.

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Political fisticuffs with DeSantis on hiatus

Newsom this week did put his ongoing war-of-words with DeSantis on hold because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Ian. When asked at a San Francisco news conference Wednesday if his challenge to debate DeSantis on CNN still stood, Newsom rebuffed the question.

“Tough time to bring that up. And let me just express deep empathy and respect for the challenges that the governor is facing and, of course, all Floridians are facing. We’ve offered support and they know that when they need it, it will be there for them.” Newsom said. “We are here for our fellow Americans. We’re there and will always be there for Floridians and for Gov. DeSantis.”

On Thursday, the governor’s office announced it was sending emergency management and mass care specialists to Florida to help that state’s response to the crisis.

Newsom in the past has noted that other states, including Texas and other Republican-led states, have provided assistance to California during disasters.

California politics lightning round

— Newsom signed 13 abortion protection and reproductive health bills Tuesday, codifying key parts of California’s campaign to counter the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade. The newly signed laws also set the stage for a November vote to enshrine abortion rights directly into California’s Constitution under Proposition 1.

— Three of California’s eight statewide constitutional officers up for reelection in November — all Democrats — have had missteps or faced allegations of misconduct during their first four years in office, but voters don’t seem to mind.

— In a historic deal between affordable housing groups and labor unions, Newsom signed two major bills Wednesday to convert underutilized and vacant commercial buildings into housing.

— Despite a tenure that has focused on early education, Newsom vetoed a bill Sunday that would have made kindergarten mandatory in California.

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