Column: In his second year, Newsom needs to start producing results and focus on the achievable

Gov. Gavin Newsom
Gavin Newsom is entering his second year as California’s governor. He’ll unveil a new state budget this week.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The main rap on Gov. Gavin Newsom after one year in office is that his focus is too scattered. He doesn’t prioritize. But there’s a sign that could be changing.

When a politician — or anyone — battles on too many fronts, the fighter’s strength is spread thin and weakened. Often, there’s not much of a fight at all.

But on Tuesday, prior to Newsom releasing his annual state budget proposal on Friday, a senior advisor signaled that the governor could be sharpening his strategy and narrowing his focus in 2020.

“There are three top priorities,” communications director Daniel Zingale said when asked about Newsom’s agenda for the year. “Homelessness, healthcare affordability and wildfires.”


Last year, after promising voters the moon while running for election, every issue seemed to be a top priority for the new governor. That included affordable housing, building more housing of all kinds and resolving age-old water wars.

There wasn’t much progress on those complex issues, although some limited rent control was enacted. Also approved were potential fines for local governments refusing to permit more housing construction.

Asked whether Newsom would be focusing on fewer state problems this year, Zingale hesitated to answer. We’ll need to watch how this plays out, but maybe the governor learned a lesson about prioritizing.

The advisor said that with homelessness, Newsom “now has an idea what is working and feels it’s important to double down. Same with wildfires.”

Actually, on homelessness, there has been a flurry of activity by state and local governments — and $1 billion appropriated by Sacramento for emergency shelters and mental health — but nothing seems to be working yet. On Monday, the federal government estimated California had 128,777 homeless individuals last year — around one-third of all homeless people in the nation.

Newsom revealed the homelessness piece of his 2020-21 budget proposal Tuesday. He’ll ask lawmakers for more than $1.4 billion to bolster state and local efforts to get homeless people off the streets.

Included is a unique new program to tap into Medi-Cal healthcare money to help the mentally ill find shelter and treatment. More than half the funds would come from the federal government.

Concerning wildfires, Newsom will propose spending a lot more money to beef up firefighting crews and equipment, and clear forests of combustible trees and brush. Fortunately for him, the state treasury is still overflowing with tax revenue.

Homelessness and wildfires clearly should be top priorities for any governor. Homelessness is a quality of life, health and safety issue — not only for the homeless, but all people who’d like to use downtown streets.

California has always suffered wildfires, but this is getting ridiculous. Also unacceptable are power shutoffs by private utilities trying to prevent wildfire ignition by their faulty equipment.

The healthcare priority is about the governor trying to make prescription drugs more affordable.

Sacramento insiders and interests have varied opinions about whether Newsom should have emulated former Gov. Jerry Brown and concentrated on just one or two — maybe three at most — issues at a time.

Brown was a savvy old political pro who could quickly size up a proposal’s prospects and would shun fighting losing battles.

Once I wrote that Newsom — a former baseball pitcher at Santa Clara University — seemed to swing at every pitch at the state Capitol, many of them out of the strike zone.

Newsom later told a USA Today interviewer that he is “not capable of not trying to solve a problem. … If [the] critique is we’re swinging at a lot of pitches, absolutely that’s fair criticism.”

But, he added: “Do I tell a senior citizen, ‘Sorry, I can’t help with your prescription because my team says I just need to focus on a couple of things?’ Do you tell kids, ‘Preschool can’t be a priority because my communications staff thinks I should stay on wildfires?’”

Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio, who was communications director for Gov. Gray Davis, another college ballplayer, says: “When you swing at a lot of pitches, you hit a lot of foul balls. He should focus on hitting a few out of the park.”

But some applaud Newsom for not limiting his scope.

“Some people think he’s taking on more than he should,” says Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce. “But I say there are a lot of issues out there that need to be addressed in this diverse state. I would never fault him for trying. Different issues are important to different people. I’ve got to give him credit.”

Dan Dunmoyer, president of the California Building Industry Assn. — the home-building lobby — gives Newsom “high marks” for “sticking his neck out” against local governments and pushing them to permit more housing construction.

Of course, so far it hasn’t worked.

Veteran political lawyer Steve Merksamer, who was Gov. George Deukmejian’s chief of staff, says:

“People give a governor in the first year complete benefit of doubt on whether he fulfills his promises. The second year, the benefit of doubt begins to recede. This governor made more promises than any governor I’ve seen.

“This is not a criticism,” Merksamer continues, “but it’s the time to put up or shut up. Taking on issues other people haven’t is fine, but that’s not the question. It’s taking them on and solving them.

“It’s time to fish or cut bait. It’s the second year.”

Newsom probably knows that.