Column: Gavin Newsom is ready to battle Trump, but can he unite California first?

Gavin Newsom addresses an election night crowd after he defeated Republican opponent John Cox to become 40th governor of California in Los Angeles on Nov. 6.
Gavin Newsom addresses an election night crowd after he defeated Republican opponent John Cox to become 40th governor of California in Los Angeles on Nov. 6.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

In the biblical epic that is California’s fight against Donald Trump, you can’t find two holy warriors more dissimilar than Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom.

The outgoing governor is our Moses, the grump who led us through the desert that was the aftermath of the Schwarzenegger years and the Great Recession. He took Californians to the brink of the Promised Land, a state that remains a dream for millions across the world despite its real and perceived problems. But before Brown retires to the mountaintop that is his Colusa County ranch, the octogenarian is warning us that there will be troubles ahead and urging his people to remain humble and pragmatic.

Newsom, by contrast, already imagines himself as David going up against our presidential Goliath. He is brash, handsome, revels in power (and had his own Bathshebas). He ascends to the Sacramento throne with a mandate to build a Temple — or something better than high-speed rail. Maybe single-payer healthcare, universal preschool or affordable housing?

But before Newsom gets crowned in January, may he hear the advice from this minor Mexican prophet: Be careful and thoughtful, not just passionate and rash. In other words, a bit more like Brown.


Newsom already imagines himself as David going up against our presidential Goliath.

Forgive my sins, liberals, but I’ve never been a rider on the Gavin Express. He’s always looked to me a lot like a Northern Cal gringo version of Antonio Villaraigosa: A politician who’s in the gig for the adulation. He says and pushes for the right things not just because he’s a true believer, but because he is very aware of how it will play for the cameras and social media. And his zealotry has the potential to harm the very people he claims to fight for.

I can’t recall anything revolutionary Newsom accomplished as San Francisco mayor (or lieutenant governor), save one. Just before Valentine’s Day 2004, he righteously started issuing same-sex marriage licenses, in defiance of state law.

My lasting memory of that historic weekend, though, is of Newsom on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, shortly after the California Supreme Court had just allowed the massive wedding party to resume after temporarily blocking Newsom’s move. It was a time to celebrate. Instead, Newsom gloated.

“As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation,” he declared, his words aimed not at the gay couples around him, but at those opposed their marriage rights. “It’s inevitable. This door’s wide open now. It’s going to happen, whether you like it or not.”

Those words came back to help torpedo same-sex marriage in 2008. Proponents of Proposition 8 ran Newsom’s quote again and again on radio and television commercial, and voters passed the ban. Years later, Newsom admitted the experience humbled him.

But did it? On election night — a time to try to unite all Californians, especially those who voted against you — Newsom doubled down on the holier-than-thou routine. In a victory speech overpacked with alliteration, he went on and on about how California is a diverse state, how awesome we are, how we stand against hate.

He never mentioned Trump or Republicans by name — but everyone knew who he was decrying as “agents of anger” who “criminalize diversity” and “put profit ahead of clean coastlines.” It surely thrilled the national audience of up-late progressives still watching returns, but told us Californians nothing new, let alone what concrete things we might expect in the next four years.


And then this line of his caught my ear: “We don’t demean, we don’t discriminate and we don’t demoralize.” Unless, of course, you’re a Trump supporter.

Brown, to be sure, hurled all sorts of invective against Trump’s dangerous, anti-California policies when needed. But he always governed as someone who lived the maxim “heavy lies the crown.”

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During Brown’s first term, many observers compared him to a prophet — and they didn’t mean it as a compliment. I can close my eyes and hear his raspy scolds: Don’t spend so much money even if it’s for a worthwhile cause. Plan for the future of climate change. The boom times will turn bust, so store extra in the years of plenty. I mean, who wants to listen to a politician issue jeremiad after jeremiad to his restless subjects instead of trying to uplift them?


But now, especially compared with the glitzy governor we’re getting, Brown looks genuinely prophetic. He will exit with the respect of Democrats and Republicans alike. The latter group now realizes, too late, that he was the last adult standing in Sacramento. They should’ve paid more attention to him instead of carping over gas taxes. Newsom isn’t going to be as magnanimous.

California should be the leader in the #resistance to Trumpism, and Newsom has his role to play in it. But it’s not a solo role.

Gavin: You need to become the leader of Californians first to earn the title of a national leader. And that means connecting with residents not just in the big blue cities, but also the Clovises and Poways among us. Be down with your inner Brown, por favor.


Twitter: @GustavoArellano