Imagine that you have two finalists for a senior job on a bridge-building project. One of the applicants has more than two decades of experience in the field, doing exactly the kind of work required for this very project. The guy is smart, thoughtful and has well-informed ideas about improving the engineering process.
The other applicant has neither an engineering degree nor any relevant experience. But he has read books about engineering and has had enlivening conversations with real engineers. And now he has some enthusiastic, if half-baked, ideas about how to build that bridge.
Assuming you don’t want the bridge to crumble, which one do you hire? It’s a silly question, we concede. But this is essentially the question being put before voters in the California governor’s race: One of the two candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot is more than ready; the other almost comically unqualified.
In this case, the experienced and prepared candidate is Gavin Newsom. The Democratic lieutenant governor has spent more than 20 years in public office, starting with his first unglamorous gig on the San Francisco Parking and Traffic Commission in 1996. Although he had (and no doubt used) certain political connections through his father, Newsom climbed the political ladder the old-fashioned way. He started at the bottom, learning the business and working his way up through San Francisco city politics, becoming a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and ultimately the city’s mayor in 2004. Currently, Newsom is serving the final months of his second term as lieutenant governor.
The other guy? That’s Republican businessman John Cox, whose political resume is limited to waging a number of unsuccessful campaigns (including a brief foray into the 2008 Republican presidential primary and several efforts to win office in Illinois, where he was born and lived before moving to California in 2011). Not only are a couple of long-shot campaigns an inadequate substitute for public service, but Cox doesn’t seem to have used his time between them to develop concrete ideas about governing. His platform consists mainly of cataloging and overstating the state’s ills and offering vague promises that “help is on the way.” (That’s actually his campaign slogan.)
But he offers few specifics. Instead, he flogs the usual conservative themes: high taxes, over-regulation and the perils of immigration. His few fleshed-out policy statements are worrisome: He supports President Trump’s boondoggle of a border wall and wants to stop enforcing the state’s so-called sanctuary laws. He has yet to articulate anything suggesting he could effectively govern an enormous and complex state.
How did such an unqualified candidate get so far? He’s wealthy and he’s willing to spend his fortune in pursuit of the job. Apparently, that’s what it takes in the California GOP these days.
Newsom, by contrast, has a broad and deep understanding of California’s policy challenges, from the looming problems in public employee pensions to the changing nature of the labor market to what it will take to reach the state’s carbon emission goals. His grasp of the granular facts and figures of government is impressive. And unlike his rival, Newsom has already wrestled with some of the thorniest issues that public officials have to face. As mayor of San Francisco, he grappled with homelessness, budget shortfalls, pension reform and gay marriage. In 2004, the world was mesmerized when Mayor Newsom ordered the city clerk in San Francisco to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Even as lieutenant governor, a largely ceremonial job, Newsom was able to use his position to persuade voters to pass ballot measures to tighten state gun controls and to legalize recreational marijuana. As an ex officio member of the University of California Board of Regents, he distinguished himself by consistently opposing tuition increases and pushing budgeting efficiencies.
As governor, he says, it would be a priority to establish universal preschool and expand prenatal care as part of a package to improve educational outcomes for Californians.
Readers may recall that the Los Angeles Times editorial board endorsed former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in the June gubernatorial primary. But Newsom was a close second choice. Our quibbles — about his squishiness on high-speed rail and the future of single-payer healthcare in the state, among other things — remain. We noted that some critics called him a whirlwind of ambition, and that some wondered just what he stood for. We hope he will buckle down in this job and articulate a clear and achievable agenda for the state.
The next governor will face a severe housing crisis, crumbling infrastructure, enormous unfunded pension liabilities, failing schools, rampant homelessness and regular mudslides, floods and mega-fires. California cannot afford a dilettante or an amateur. It needs a seasoned leader who is savvy and charismatic, politically adroit, compassionate and innovative.