Newsom slams red state governors on D.C. trip, stoking speculation about his future

Gov.  Newsom accepts an award for innovation
Gov. Gavin Newsom accepts the Frank Newsman Award for State Innovation from the Education Commission of the States at the JW Marriott in Washington.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)
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Gov. Gavin Newsom said he’s frustrated with Republicans and Democrats.

He’s tired of conservatives criticizing California and rolling back rights. And he’s irked that his own national party isn’t fighting harder in the culture war.

If they won’t, he said, he will. He pushed back in a recent television ad in Florida. In an interview Monday. And in a speech in Washington, D.C., Wednesday as he accepted an education award on behalf of the state he governs — while stoking speculation about his possible presidential ambitions.

“This is someone very proud of the state, that’s sick and tired of the state getting bashed 24/7 by the right wing,” Newsom told The Times before heading east. “I can’t take it.


“I’m not going to just sit back and watch these guys dominate that narrative.”

The governor accepted an education innovation award on behalf of California on Wednesday and used the platform the Education Commission of the States provided to blast red-state efforts to ban books, pass policies dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” laws by their opponents and limit education about race in public schools.

“I had no idea, no idea, that 1,586 books have been banned just in the last 12 months in the United States of America,” Newsom said in his acceptance speech. “We’ve banned 42 children’s books. Books about Mandela. Books about Cesar Chavez. Books about Rosa Parks.”

The Democratic governor contrasted the “performative politics” of Florida, Texas and other Republican states with what he described as “real education reform” in California, including expanded pre-kindergarten and free meals for all schoolchildren.

“Education is under assault in the United States of America,” Newsom said. “And we have an obligation, moral and ethical obligation, to call out what’s going on as it relates to suppression of free speech.”

Newsom also met with First Lady Jill Biden and congressional leaders during his Capitol trip, just days after he ran an ad in Florida calling out Republican leaders for attacking freedoms. The 30-second, Fourth of July spot featured pictures of President Trump shaking hands with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is considered a GOP presidential contender, in large part because of his vitriol for the left.

It was the first advertising salvo post-primary in his race for a second term as governor — of a state 2,500 or so miles away from where the ad ran.


As Democrats across the nation reeled in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade and hand abortion law to the states, Newsom made a splash by beckoning women from conservative states to visit California for abortion services. The state budget sets aside more than $200 million to expand reproductive care.

Those actions, and California’s effort to strengthen its gun control laws in response to the Uvalde school shooting in Texas, have helped Newsom build a narrative around himself and the left-leaning state as the antithesis to the conservative dogma.

“Democrats are often pegged as that 98-pound political weakling, who gets the sand shoved in their face every day at the beach with Republicans. And he has an opportunity and is taking the opportunity to fight back against that,” said David McCuan, chair of the political science department at Sonoma State University.

They’ve also drawn criticism.

Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant and former communications director to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said it’s easier for Newsom to draw comparisons nationally than sell a narrative about his own governance in California.

“What are we doing about drought?” Stutzman said. “What are we doing about homelessness, other than a couple of photo ops and talking about how much money we spend? None of it really hangs together as a governing narrative.”

News articles dissecting what many consider Newsom’s attempt to boost his name into 2024 presidential conversations have included rumblings about discomfort among the national Democratic Party and supporters of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.


But ask Newsom and he insists the White House is not in his sights, nor is the opportunity for the spotlight motivating his decisions.

“I’m not looking to fill a void, be the guy,” Newsom told The Times. “But I’m also not going to regret not expressing myself at this moment. I’d rather take the hits from pundits. I’ll accept all that. But what I can’t accept is being absent in this national debate when democracy is quite literally in peril, when the rights revolution is being rolled back in real time.”

Newsom has been pointed, he said perhaps too pointed, with his criticism of the national Democratic party. Shortly after the draft of the Roe decision was leaked in May, the governor held a news conference at a Planned Parenthood Los Angeles office. He urged Americans to “wake up” to whom they are electing. He scolded his party for not launching a more disciplined counteroffensive to the far right.

He called the reaction to his comments “extraordinary.” While he offended some, he said, many people, including some well-known public officials across the country whom he declined to name, reached out to thank him for giving voice to their concerns.

Newsom said he’s not talking about Biden when he calls out the party.

“The president of the United States has to do his job,” Newsom said. “Governors, it’s time for us to step up. Democrats of all stripes, unify, step up, have this guy’s back, have this administration’s back and push back against [Republicans]. We have to call them out. We need to hold them to account and their actions are egregious and outrageous. Their desperate demonization is disgraceful.”

Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic political consultant who was former Sen. Barbara Boxer’s chief campaign advisor, said she doubted Newsom would cause any problems for Biden. And, she said, it’s much easier for Newsom to be an outspoken advocate for the left.


“I think Democrats embrace anyone who can get out there and make the case for Democratic values and the Democratic vision,” Kapolczynski said. “Gavin Newsom represents a blue state that largely supports his agenda and is happy to have him as governor. There’s no political downside for Gavin Newsom to travel the country raising these issues, talking about the California model and California success stories.”

Newsom said actions of governors like DeSantis and Greg Abbott in Texas are anathema to everything California stands for. But the more he talks, the more clear it becomes that Newsom’s feelings are also deeply personal.

The Democratic governor said he reached his tipping point when DeSantis threatened to fine the Special Olympics $27.5 million for requiring athletes to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Newsom said his mother worked with children with intellectual disabilities and he’s pushed his administration to hire more people with disabilities.

“I don’t like bullies,” he said, noting that the incident led to the Florida campaign ad. “I don’t like people that hurt vulnerable people. I don’t like him.”

Times staff writer Freddy Brewster contributed to this report from Washington.