At one of the many gatherings that marked the recent state Democratic convention, the party’s future could be glimpsed. As Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke to a group of activists, his eyes briefly darted to a commotion at the back of the room. Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris was trying to leave after her own speech but had been mobbed by admirers begging for autographs and pictures.
Moments later, Newsom was surrounded by his own crush as he tried to exit.
Democrats have swept the statewide offices in recent elections, but their success has masked a looming problem: The party’s top officeholders — Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — are all in their 70s. Brown’s absence from the convention after surgery for skin cancer — however mild — was a reminder of the party’s need, at some point, to turn to a new generation.
Any list of up-and-coming Democrats is topped by Newsom and Harris, both veterans of the rough-and-tumble San Francisco political machine. Although they are silent about their future plans, it’s become a parlor game for party activists to speculate about the dynamics of their relationship, whether there will be room for both at the top and what sort of deals might be made behind closed doors to avoid public competition.
“It’s a little bit like a sibling rivalry,” Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio said. “They both are cut from the same cloth; they have the same base of supporters in many ways.... It’s difficult for one to break out from the other, because they are both well-respected and have the attraction that Democrats are hungry for as we look at the future.”
Others say the rivalry is more jugular.
“They’re like a couple of cats circling each other in an alley,” said a Democratic strategist who knows both politicians and insisted on anonymity to avoid alienating either one.
Aides to Newsom, 43, and Harris, 46, flatly reject any hint of competition, saying that the pair and their staffers worked closely in San Francisco.
“We all grew up together, we’ve all been through a lot together,” said Peter Ragone, an unpaid advisor to Newsom who served as his mayoral spokesman. “We both work hard for each other to succeed.”
They began their careers in different worlds — Newsom as a restaurateur and businessman, Harris as a prosecutor. But their entry into politics and trajectory since are parallel. In the 1990s, while serving as Assembly speaker and then San Francisco mayor, Willie Brown appointed Harris to a state commission and Newsom to a city panel. In 2003, Newsom was elected San Francisco’s mayor and Harris was elected the city’s district attorney. And in November, both won statewide office.
Along the way, each has cultivated powerful friends. Former President Clinton provided a key boost in Newsom’s tight 2003 mayoral race, and Newsom was an early and ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign; Harris’ friendship with President Obama predates his rise to national success. Each recently received glowing profiles in splashy publications — Harris in Harper’s Bazaar and Newsom in New York magazine.
By dint of her office, Harris should have the upper hand now. She oversees a $735-million budget and a staff of 4,700, and her job has been a natural springboard to the governorship for candidates as varied as Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian, Pat Brown and Earl Warren.
Since taking office, Harris has visited the U.S.-Mexico border to discuss gang violence and placed an emphasis on reducing the expense of the criminal justice system by attempting to “shut the revolving door.” She has decried attacks on labor’s right to organize and on abortion rights, and has fought to protect Obama’s healthcare initiative.
In contrast, Newsom has a budget of less than $1 million and a staff of three.
But he has used his job’s nebulous nature to focus on unemployment, arguing that California has been resting on its laurels and needs to become more aggressive to spur job creation.
In a trip derided by Democrats in Sacramento, he joined a GOP delegation’s visit to Texas to learn about job-creation efforts there and meet with Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
“We’ve got cowboys and Indians up here. Democrats just talking to Democrats, Republicans just talking to Republicans,” Newsom said. “I don’t know how the heck you make progress if you think you have all the answers and no one else does.”
Some strategists say Newsom has found a way to use his office to work on a topic that is a priority for Californians.
“It’s put him in a smart place for future positioning and to do a job that really has no description,” Maviglio said.
Both candidates would strain under substantial baggage in high-profile statewide races. Harris was criticized in San Francisco for not being sufficiently tough on crime, including a case in which she declined to call for the death penalty for the killer of a police officer. Newsom faced personal scandal — an affair with his campaign manager’s wife — and some argued that he was more interested in splashy headlines than the work of governing.
And there are other Democrats likely to vie for future roles as well, including State Controller John Chiang and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, as well as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Several Democrats said a battle between Harris and Newsom would be foolish, given the number of prominent seats likely to open up over the next decade.
Newsom and Harris each claim to have given little thought to the next step.
“After I’m finished with this interview, then I’m going to go in and speak to the Latino caucus,” Harris said during the convention. “That’s my future as far as I’ve planned it.”
Newsom, at a convention party hosted by education unions, similarly demurred.
“What I want to do next is introduce the new DJ,” he said.
But few believe that they haven’t thought about their political futures. Among those who seem to think they have is Gov. Brown, who recently made a point — jokingly — about his own longevity.
“I have to say to Gavin Newsom and the others who are lusting for my position, I brought my aunt with me to my inauguration,” he said. “She’s my father’s sister and she’s 99.”