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With Kamala Harris as VP pick, Gavin Newsom’s White House hopes have stalled

Sen. Kamala Harris and then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2018.
Sen. Kamala Harris endorsed then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the California governor’s race in an appearance at USC’s Ronald Tutor Campus Center on Feb. 16, 2018.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Maybe you’ve noticed: Gov. Gavin Newsom no longer looks like a promising future presidential prospect. He has been leaped over and left behind by a California ally, Sen. Kamala Harris.

Since Newsom was elected governor in 2018, the expectation has been that he would seize the first opportunity after this year to run for president.

Newsom, 52, wasn’t ready this year. But if President Trump won reelection, the Oval Office would be open in 2024. And if a Democrat ousted Trump, there’d be another opportunity in 2028.

California governors have long had their eyes on the White House. After all, this is the state with by far the biggest blocs of convention delegates and electoral votes.

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Democrat Jerry Brown ran three times for president. Republican Pete Wilson ran once. Ronald Reagan finally won on his third attempt.

The late Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti of Van Nuys candidly told me after losing the 1974 gubernatorial primary to Brown that the only reason he ran for governor was to gain a launching pad for the presidency.

But now you can forget about any liftoff for Newsom. His potential route to the White House has been abruptly blocked by Harris’ ascent to the Democratic vice presidential slot.

“Kamala is smart. She’s tough,” presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden told a TV audience of millions in explaining why he chose her as his running mate. “She’s ready to do this job ….

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“As the child of immigrants, she knows personally how immigrant families enrich our country, as well as the challenges of what it means to grow up Black and Indian American in the United States …. Her story is an American story.”

That’s a priceless public introduction by the man who’s likely to become the next president.

Many Black progressives weren’t fans of Kamala Harris. But President Trump’s racist attacks have proved exactly why supporting her is necessary.

Harris, 55, undoubtedly will run for president again at her next opportunity, which will be when Biden, 77, isn’t running — either in 2024 or 2028.

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It isn’t like Newsom to run against her. He and Harris have been political stablemates, operating as a team, dividing up California’s top offices. In running for governor and the Senate, they shared the same political strategist, Ace Smith.

When former California Sen. Barbara Boxer retired in 2016, then-Atty. Gen. Harris and then-Lt. Gov. Newsom quickly agreed: She’d seek the Senate seat that year and he’d run for governor in 2018.

And even if Newsom did attempt to compete against Harris for the presidency, he probably wouldn’t get far.

“No matter what happens in November, Kamala Harris goes to the top of the list in the next presidential race,” says Rose Kapolczynski, a longtime Democratic consultant who managed Boxer’s Senate campaigns. “If somehow the Biden-Harris ticket loses to Trump, Kamala Harris will be the front-runner for 2024.

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“And if they win … you can see Kamala Harris dominating Democratic politics for the next 16 years — as vice president and then as the elected president.”

Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic consultant who is director of the Center for the Political Future at USC, agrees that Harris has been elevated probably beyond Newsom’s reach.

“Obviously Kamala Harris, especially if she and Biden win, which I think they will, becomes the front-runner in 2024 or 2028,” Shrum says. “And that makes any path to the White House for Newsom more difficult ….

“California political power and resources would unite behind Harris because she’s the vice president.”

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California is also a state of immigrants. And fittingly, Sen. Kamala Harris is the daughter of immigrant parents — a father from Jamaica, a mother from India.

Shrum points out that a sitting vice president hasn’t lost a nomination for president since Democrat Alben Barkley in 1952.

The winning VPs: Republican Richard Nixon in 1960, Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968, Republican George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

“Kamala’s a charismatic candidate now,” Shrum says. “She’ll become a deeper and even better candidate if she runs for president” after being VP.

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Newsom may also have another problem: He’s a white male in a party in which power is trending toward women and people of color.

“I think it’s very unlikely we will see two white men on the Democratic ticket again,” Kapolczynski says. In selecting a woman of color as his running mate, she says, Biden “cast his vote for the future of the Democratic Party.”

Actually, there hasn’t been an all-male white Democratic ticket since 2004.

“We’ve been seeing a major cultural shift over the last several years,” Kapolczynski says.

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California is a leading example.

With P.V. Gopalan, an upright civil servant and doting patriarch, Kamala Harris forged one of the defining relationships of her life.

Newsom is the only white male holding elective statewide office. Both U.S. senators have been women for nearly 28 years. So is one of the two most powerful members of Congress: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.

An estimated 61% of the state’s likely Democratic voters are women, the Public Policy Institute of California reported last year. Roughly half are white and half are people of color.

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Newsom’s political future?

On Thursday night, he needs to take full advantage of an invaluable gift: a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. Newsom’s speech must be concise and hard-hitting, unlike many of his ramblings.

In 2022, Newsom will run for reelection. Winning should be a snap, assuming some big “ifs” — if he can bring the spread of the coronavirus under control, reboot California’s economy and fix state government’s computer mess that has plagued seemingly everything, including COVID-19 data collecting, DMV renewals, payment of unemployment benefits.

Then he should take a hard look at running for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat when she’s up for reelection in 2024. Feinstein will be 91 and it’s a good bet she’ll retire.

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Or maybe Harris can find Newsom a Cabinet job.


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