Gavin Newsom’s ambitious and uneven first year as California governor
Few California governors have entered office with a more ambitious agenda than Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose ascension to the job one year ago was marked by a sense of urgency, an insistence that the times demanded a leader who would multitask in a way his predecessors had not.
“People’s lives, freedom, security, the water we drink, the air we breathe — they all hang in the balance,” Newsom said in his inauguration speech last January. “The country is watching us. The world is waiting on us. The future depends on us. And we will seize this moment.”
As his first year draws to a close, the 52-year-old Democrat can point to a string of high-profile victories in service of a progressive agenda and fortifying California’s political resistance to President Trump. But those achievements are only part of the story. Less known outside of Sacramento is that Newsom has struggled with what some critics believe is an undisciplined and impatient governing style. And even many of those who agree with the governor worry the turbulence could disrupt his ability to fix the state’s most pressing issues: the homeless crisis, access to affordable healthcare and the increasingly unattainable “California Dream.”
The Times spoke with more than two dozen people at the state Capitol who were intimately involved in many of the issues, including legislators and their aides, advocates and lobbyists. While many commended the governor for taking on difficult issues, some who strongly supported his 2018 campaign for governor and his pro-government approach to solving the state’s problems also offered critiques. Some of those allies asked for anonymity to speak freely about the governor, fearing repercussions should they be named.
The governor has sought to temper expectations for his rookie year, noting that, given the breadth and severity of homelessness and other critical issues endemic to California, there was only so much he could do in such a short time. But Newsom’s critics and fans alike have accused him of taking on too much, which, combined with a chaotic decision-making process, may have stifled his effectiveness.
“I expected sort of a steadier, more methodical governor. I found the decisions he made, the statements he made, more erratic than expected,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.
Through a spokesman, Newsom declined to be interviewed for this story. In a recent interview with USA Today, he acknowledged concerns about the frenzy of his first year in office.
“If today’s critique is we’re swinging at a lot of pitches, absolutely, that is fair criticism,” Newsom said.
With California’s booming economy and Democrats’ continued iron grip on the Legislature, Newsom was blessed with the flush tax revenues and the political solidarity necessary to make major strides. Newsom and lawmakers touted more victories in 2019 than any other year in recent memory. And a poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California released in November found that 48% of likely voters approved of the way he is doing his job — 33% disapproved, slightly better than Gov. Jerry Brown’s approval numbers after his first year in office, when he slashed funding for state programs to offset a $27-billion deficit.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) dismissed concerns that Newsom took on too many problems, saying she prefers asking colleagues to slow down rather than speed up.
“I guess I see him as really energetic, couldn’t wait to take his job, ready to go,” Atkins said. “And I think we got more done this year than I ever imagined. And it was a hard year for many reasons: the issues, multiple issues, in addition to just getting used to the transition.”
Newsom used executive authority to carry out some of his most consequential actions, including a decision in March to impose a moratorium on death row executions. The Democratic governor also halted the approval of new hydraulic fracturing in the state, launched an effort to consolidate the state’s purchase of prescription drugs to lower costs and irked Trump by pulling many of California’s National Guard troops from their duties near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Other issues were thrust upon him. Three weeks after Newsom took office, the state’s largest electrical utility filed for bankruptcy — a process that prompted him to champion politically challenging legislation to stabilize the industry and create a multi-billion dollar fund for utilities to pay future wildfire claims. There was less he could do to prevent other crises, such as sweeping blackouts that left millions in the dark this fall, the Ridgecrest earthquakes and a mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, which occurred within a matter of weeks in July.
Allan Zaremberg, the president and chief executive of the California Chamber of Commerce, said almost all governors are defined by their response to natural disasters, economic downturns or other unforeseen events. And while Newsom publicly hammered Pacific Gas & Electric for the prolonged power outages and has issued new directives to state regulators to be tougher on the troubled utility, some believe he remains largely untested as the state’s chief executive.
“The real test will come when the economy tanks and more crises and natural disasters happen,” Zaremberg said.
Newsom may have also struggled to step out of Brown’s shadow. With nearly a half-century in California politics and as the longest-serving governor in state history, Brown possessed an unusual familiarity with the complex inner workings of Sacramento and delicate power-sharing dynamic with the Legislature. And Brown served in the twilight of his political career, freed from any designs on higher office, so he could afford to dismiss criticism of his fiscal caution and insistence on limiting his administration to a narrower, more achievable policy agenda.
“One of the problems was the incredible difference between Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) said. “With Gavin, to the extent that there’s a perception that he’s a little more scattered, he’s interested in a wider range of issues than Jerry was.”
While Brown got by with a relatively lean staff in his last year, Newsom added more than three dozen positions and increased his office’s total budget to $24.5 million — a sharp contrast to the resources used in his eight-year tenure as California’s lieutenant governor. He brought a long and weighty to-do list to the governor’s office, but with little experience in how to shepherd that agenda through the Assembly and Senate, where leaders are equally strong-willed about their own political priorities.
A top advisor to Newsom told the New York Times in June that, before joining the administration, he had urged the new governor to focus his attention on a smaller spread of issues.
Both Atkins and Rendon said they communicate more frequently with Newsom than they did with Brown. Many of the 120 legislators in the state Capitol have the governor’s cellphone number and regularly exchange text messages with him on a variety of issues, a level of access that may have also made it more difficult for his staff to keep track of his commitments.
“There were times during the year that I was really irritated, but in retrospect, it probably should have been expected,” Rendon said. “This is my first time working with a new governor. It’s my first time dealing with that turnover.”
Rendon and members of his caucus pushed back on the Newsom administration’s plan to tinker with gas tax funding. Some Democrats in the Legislature felt frustrated by a lack of clear communication from the governor’s office at different times throughout the year.
To some extent, turmoil is typical of any new administration. But those close to the governor’s office said the learning curve felt steeper this year because most of Newsom’s staff was new to Sacramento — some were holdovers from his gubernatorial campaign with limited or no state government experience and others had never worked for him before.
Some in the Capitol felt frustrated that the administration’s flubs, at times, overshadowed important legislative achievements.
Newsom held a news conference in May to announce that his budget would eliminate the state sales tax on diapers and menstrual products but failed to mention to the public and the lawmakers behind the legislation that the reprieve would last just two years.
On a Friday in late August, the governor and legislative leaders announced a deal to cap rent increases statewide — a historic move that bucked the powerful Realtors’ lobby in a feel-good moment for lawmakers who had spent years working to address the issue. But the celebration was short-lived: The following Tuesday, Newsom publicly backed out of an agreement to sign a bill to limit vaccination exemptions for schoolchildren minutes after the legislation passed through the Assembly, inspiring deep frustrations in the Legislature. (He later signed a modified version of the legislation.)
“For a year in, it still has a chaotic, ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing’ kind of feel to it,” said a top legislative staffer, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about working with the governor’s administration.
Nathan Ballard, a former aide to Newsom during his time as mayor of San Francisco, said it isn’t unusual for the governor to change his mind, similar to what he did on the vaccine proposal, one of the year’s most contentious pieces of legislation.
“He has this questing, ceaselessly curious and hard-driving personality,” Ballard said. “It’s Gavin Newsom’s policymaking style. He’s always tinkering with policy until the last minute to always get it right.”
But the governor also may have undervalued the importance of give-and-take with the Legislature. When asked in May how he would convince reluctant lawmakers to impose a new tax to pay for clean water in distressed communities, Newsom seemed unworried about the negotiations.
“I’m not consumed by process, I’m consumed by outcome. Judge us on what we do,” Newsom replied sharply.
Weeks later, the water tax proposal was all but dead. In its place, the governor agreed to pay for the program with revenue from California’s cap-and-trade program, which requires companies to buy permits to release emissions into the atmosphere — an unusual arrangement that could inspire others to turn to the multi-billion dollar fund for efforts with only a tangential connection to climate change.
Lobbyists, advocates and Capitol staffers privately complained about poor communication, and confusion over where the governor stands and to whom they should speak about certain issues.
“I think there’s quite a few people who are still trying to get a great understanding of how this governor’s office works and how they make decisions, but I think overall he is much more proactive on the issues of the day than previous governors have been,” said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic political strategist.
Newsom’s first year in Sacramento was aided greatly by the political dexterity he’s honed over nearly three decades in public office, most notably in San Francisco, a town where politics is seen as a blood sport.
But there were missteps. The Newsom administration opened itself up to criticism for over hyping announcements, an effort some in the Capitol speculate was motivated by an unspoken desire to pad the governor’s resume for a future presidential campaign. Newsom has denied any White House ambitions.
“The blunders came by wanting press hits so badly to show that he’s leading on the national stage,” said a top legislative staffer who asked for anonymity to speak freely about governor.
Newsom’s office inaccurately claimed that his raising of the LGBTQ Pride flag above the Capitol dome in June was a first in state history. Days before he took the oath of office in January, Newsom announced that his family was moving into the historic governor’s mansion in the heart of downtown Sacramento — omitting any mention that the living arrangements would be temporary until they took up residence in a six-acre, $3.7-million Fair Oaks compound they had already purchased.
And there were some embarrassing mistakes that couldn’t easily be undone.
In July, Newsom vetoed an under-the-radar bill to allow some Bay Area communities to place a sales tax increase on their local ballot that would exceed an existing cap on local levies. One of those communities, Emeryville, had plans to ask voters for additional tax revenue to pay for child care services for low-income residents. But Newsom’s veto message wrongly insisted that community leaders had plenty of existing tax authority and didn’t need more help from Sacramento.
Even some of Newsom’s most passionate supporters were shocked. Not only did they point out the error in the veto, but they had heard no objections to the bill from the governor until the decision was made public.
“The governor vetoing AB 618 presented some unexpected roadblocks and challenges that, in my opinion, were avoidable with adequate communication,” said John Bauters, an Emeryville city councilman.
In the weeks that followed, there was confusion and frustration as administration officials tried to quietly distance themselves from the veto. Days before lawmakers adjourned for the year, a second attempt to give Bay Area communities new taxing authority again went to Newsom’s desk. This time, he signed it into law.
Bauters said getting behind the premise of both efforts — that local leaders often know what’s best for their communities — should have been an easy one for the new governor.
“The state should not interfere,” Bauters said. “And Gavin Newsom, as the former mayor of San Francisco, should know that better than anyone.”
Some of Newsom’s strongest supporters in his 2018 campaign for governor have been the most critical. Phillips of the Sierra Club said she was surprised by what she called Newsom’s lack of focus given that he is one of California’s most seasoned politicians. Sierra Club California endorsed Newsom for governor and Phillips praised him for providing funding to supply clean water in polluted, disadvantaged communities and for temporarily halting new hydraulic fracturing in the state.
But Phillips and a number of other influential environmental advocates lashed out at Newsom after he vetoed a bill that would have allowed California to preserve Obama-era endangered species protections and water-pumping restrictions for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that are under threat by the Trump administration. The veto marked the first public rift between Newsom and Atkins, who carried the bill and said she was disappointed by his decision.
“I think he ended up the year looking like a rank amateur,” Phillips said of Newsom’s decision, one of his last actions of the legislative year. “People were very disappointed.”
On the campaign trail, Newsom cast himself as the leader who would finally address the housing crisis and said his administration would spur the construction of 3.5 million new homes by 2025. He later softened his lofty commitment, which he now calls a “stretch goal.” At the end of his first year, there are few signs the state is making the progress Newsom had promised.
Lobbyist Stephanie Roberson of the California Nurses Assn., which gave Newsom one of his first major endorsements, feels that he has failed to live up to his promise to deliver single-payer healthcare — or at least launch a more substantive effort to bring “Medicare for all” to California.
Still, Newsom’s supporters remain hopeful that, given his political skills and time left in office, his results may one day match his campaign rhetoric, Roberson said.
“The nurses aren’t happy. Newsom ran as a healthcare governor. He didn’t run on incrementalism,” Roberson said. “It’s going to take political will. He said he has that political will. We need to cash that in.”
Times staff writer John Myers contributed to his report.
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