California Politics: Obama’s strategist evaluates Newsom

Vice President Kamala Harris with   Gov. Gavin Newsroom at a  rally
Vice President Kamala Harris joins Gov. Gavin Newsroom at a Northern California rally against the 2021 recall campaign targeting the governor, which failed.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom is getting the David Axelrod treatment.

The Democratic strategist known for masterminding Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns paid a visit to Sacramento this week. Axelrod recorded an interview with Newsom for an upcoming episode of his Axe Files podcast and sat down with me for a conversation at the California News Publishers Assn. conference Thursday. (A day earlier at the same conference, I had a much shorter interview with Republican former U.S. Atty. Gen. Bill Barr, which you can read about here.)

Axelrod’s take on Newsom: Newsom is an obvious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2028.

“Gavin Newsom’s name will be on the top of any grouping of potential candidates, and properly so. When you govern a state of this size and deal with the issues as complex as you deal with as governor of California, that gets you into the discussion,” Axelrod said. “So I think he’ll be in the mix if he decides that that’s what he wants to do.”


He called Newsom “bright,” “charismatic” and “passionate” and said he was impressed by Newsom’s story of overcoming severe dyslexia as a child to become a successful politician: “That’s a reflection of persistence and character. So it’s a great story to tell.”

But he had some words of advice for Newsom too: Cool it with the self-congratulatory criticism of national Democrats.

“I would dial down the moralizing about other people’s lack of courage and make the points you want to make, because when you do it the other way, the coded message is, ‘Why can’t they be more like me?’ And that’s an unappealing message,” Axelrod said. “Doesn’t exactly make friends either.”

Newsom should continue pushing the liberal worldview by trolling Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Axelrod said, but with a different spin: “He’s right to challenge the sort of bullying of DeSantis. But he’s wrong to suggest that he’s the only guy who’s willing to do it.”

His harshest assessment of Newsom was a word that came up several times in our conversation: authenticity.

“He’s a very talented performer and he’s got a powerful story in many ways. But the authenticity thing is important. And it’s TBD as to whether he communicates that.”


Hi, I’m Laurel Rosenhall, The Times’ Sacramento bureau chief, here with your guide to the week’s news in California politics.

The Kamala factor

Authenticity is also a problem for Vice President Kamala Harris, Axelrod told me, as she evaluates her political future.

“This is a question that both of them are going to have to confront,” he said. “The one thing that is non-negotiable if you’re going to be successful at the national level in politics is authenticity. And if you don’t have that, you’re just not going to make it.”

The Washington Post reported this week that many Democratic leaders in pivotal states are concerned that Harris cannot win a presidential campaign. Axelrod shared an observation that reminded me of Harris’ tenure as California attorney general, when she was known for being extremely cautious about taking positions on controversial subjects:

“One of the things that has plagued the vice president in her campaign and in the vice presidency, is there always seems to be a seven-second time delay as she tries to calculate what the right political answer is,” Axelrod said.

“And what it communicates is a sense that she doesn’t know, that she’s not comfortable with who she is, or that she doesn’t know what her core is. And I think that’s something that she needs to address.”

Another problem both Harris and Newsom would face in running for president is the California factor. Axelrod said Obama benefited greatly from his connections in Illinois and his mother’s roots in Kansas.

“California has connotations to people that I think could be challenging in parts of the country,” Axelrod said. “My advice to the Democratic Party is: don’t be so coastal.”


A political feeding frenzy

The ripple effect of California’s 2024 Senate race is in full swing, even though Sen. Dianne Feinstein has yet to announce whether she’s running for reelection next year.

Ambitious politicians are eyeing soon-to-be vacant House seats in Los Angeles, Orange County and possibly the Bay Area as representatives from those areas jump in to run for Senate, write Times political reporters Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta.

“It’s like reverse Jenga or something,” said Dan Newman, a Democratic operative based in San Francisco. “Once something opens up, there’s this cascading effect of open seats, down to city council and dog catcher, races that are going to end up with open seats thanks to a potential U.S. Senate retirement that hasn’t even actually officially happened.”

But with the primary scheduled for March 2024, candidates — both for the Senate and prime House seats that may become vacant — have been antsy to kick off their campaigns.

Here’s a list of people considering a run for House seats now held by Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, who have said they’re running for Senate.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi weighed in on which of her colleagues she’s backing for Senate if Feinstein does not run, saying Schiff “knows well the nexus between a strong Democracy and a strong economy.” Schiff’s endorsement from the powerhouse San Francisco Democrat and several other members of the California congressional delegation signals an early show of force in the marquee race of 2024.


And here are some takes on the Senate race from Times political columnist Mark Z. Barabak:

Guns, weed and fast food

More stories you need to know this week to keep up with California politics:

California Democrats try again to rewrite concealed-carry gun law
Five months after a high-profile gun-control bill died amid Democratic infighting in Sacramento, California lawmakers are trying to revive the legislation to strengthen the state’s restrictions on who can carry loaded firearms in public.

Skelton: Newsom is pushing for more gun control restrictions. Polling shows Californians overwhelmingly support them
Fresh polling data shows that California voters will have the backs of Democrats
launching a new effort to restrict carrying concealed loaded guns, writes Times columnist George Skelton.

Skelton: How do you win voters over on gun control? Meet them where they are — in front of the TV
It is very rare that anything monumental gets done in America’s political system without strong public support. That’s certainly the case with gun control. Columnist George Skelton argues for a hefty gun safety TV ad campaign.

Lawmakers want investigation, hearings into ‘Wild West’ of California cannabis and farm work
California lawmakers are calling for a sweeping investigation into corruption in the state’s cannabis industry, legislative hearings on the exploitation of farmworkers and new laws to thwart labor trafficking in response to revelations of rampant abuses and worker deaths in a multibillion-dollar market that has become increasingly unmanageable.

‘I feel duped’: Inside the fast-food industry’s push to dismantle a new California labor law
California voters complain that canvassers for a measure to repeal a law expanding protections for fast-food workers lied about the effects.


Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents used their house to bail him out. But they rent the land from Stanford
Indicted crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried’s $250-million bail deal was the largest ever, secured with his parents’ house. But they aren’t typical homeowners.

California is isolated and alone in battle over Colorado River water cuts
After a key deadline passed this week without an agreement on how to address the Colorado River’s crisis, California is now sharply at odds with six other states over how to take less water from the shrinking river.

‘Gimme Shelter’: Will Newsom’s new mental health plan reduce homelessness?
Los Angeles and seven other counties plan to join Newsom’s program that aims to reduce homelessness by compelling mental health treatment.

Column: Voters in Kevin de León’s district support recalling him. Now comes the hard part
De León is going about his comeback like the political equivalent of a snapping turtle — an annoyance who will retract into his shell and emerge to snip at people, writes columnist Gustavo Arellano.

Editorial: Bass bungled her first test on public safety
Mayor Karen Bass bungled one of her most important duties by turning what should have been a public process for selecting the chief of police into an insider’s game, writes The Times’ editorial board.

At Tyre Nichols’ funeral, Kamala Harris calls for national police reform
Congress must act to pass national police reform, Harris told mourners at the Wednesday funeral of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who died after being beaten bloody by Memphis police officers last month.


Graphic video of Paul Pelosi attack, suspect’s confession to police released
A graphic video showing the October attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was released Friday by a San Francisco court.

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