Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ascent to the top of California’s political pyramid did not happen overnight. It’s been 23 years since he entered public life as a San Francisco parking and traffic commissioner and more than a decade since first saying he wanted to be governor.
But through an alchemy of hard work, lucky breaks and larger demographic and electoral shifts, Newsom has hit his stride at a unique moment in California. And it is hard to argue with the observation that he is now the most powerful person in California politics.
How long the moment lasts depends on what happens next. Newsom must choose which battles to fight, and which causes to champion. The size of his list seems equal to his enthusiasm.
“The world is waiting on us,” he said after taking the oath, pausing briefly for maximum impact. “The future depends on us. And we will seize this moment.”
That Newsom managed to win the job as the presumptive favorite from wire to wire of the 2018 campaign was, in part, due to his own decision to seize the opportunity four years ago this week. It was then, in the wake of a surprise announcement by Sen. Barbara Boxer that she would not seek reelection, that several prominent Democrats wrestled with whether to jump at the chance that appeared.
For Newsom, that day in 2015 was serendipitous. He had been on a collision course to the gubernatorial election for three years with another political heavyweight, then-state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris. It wasn’t clear he would win such a showdown. And so four days after Boxer stepped aside, Newsom stepped forward to decline a Senate race and — in effect — announce his intentions to run for governor.
The next day, Harris did just the opposite. Newsom simultaneously encouraged his most powerful rival to switch gears and launched his 2018 campaign — all with a speed that meant his political machine would be fully operational months and years before others decided if they wanted to run.
The move also allowed Newsom to take the job of lieutenant governor and expand it from a nothing-to-do way station into a legitimate role of California governor-in-waiting. In 2015, he dug into the policy debate over legalizing marijuana, helping craft the following year’s successful ballot measure, Proposition 64. He challenged the National Rifle Assn. to fight against Proposition 63 and its requirement of new background checks before buying ammunition for guns — even though it crossed paths with a similar effort by his fellow Democrats in the Legislature.
More recently, Newsom used his de facto role as California’s political heir apparent to ramp up his criticisms of President Trump. And he expanded his base of friends in politics, campaigning last fall for the party’s challengers in battleground congressional and legislative races. Some of those new members of Congress left Washington in the middle of a tense federal government shutdown to celebrate his inauguration.
Only a gubernatorial candidate ahead in the polls and confident of victory would have diverted that much time to other efforts. But Newsom likely knew how helpful it could be in the long run. He can count among his assets a handful of important IOUs on Capitol Hill, ones that could pay off long after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a longtime friend — relinquishes her own place of power.
What California’s 40th governor does with his newly expanded influence is one of the new year’s most fascinating questions. History will remind him that there’s a very real chance of overplaying his hand: Former Gov. Gray Davis famously told a newspaper editorial board that legislators must “implement my vision,” and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lurched so far to the right in his first two years that it took twice as long to regain his political footing.
But in an era of indisputable Democratic dominance — Republicans have failed for three consecutive elections to win a statewide race — Newsom’s prowess seems especially important. No one is better positioned to singularly determine the path forward for major public policies, to play political kingmaker or to go toe-to-toe with the president of the United States.
The kingmaker role could prove especially interesting as California’s early presidential primary next March could feature a number of Newsom’s fellow Democrats in the state — including one-time rival Harris — who hope to challenge Trump. An endorsement from Newsom, now the state party’s nominal leader, could carry real weight in a crowded field.
Less likely, but always possible if Democrats are divided by a wide field of candidates: Newsom could put his own name on the ballot using an old power move called the “favorite son” strategy. There, a home state leader pledges to later throw all of California’s delegates toward one of the hopefuls at the national convention. It would be controversial — but conceivable — if his political power endures.
The presidential machinations might not end there. Legislative Democrats were unable to get Brown to sign a law requiring a presidential candidate to release his or her tax returns before being placed on California’s ballot. The bill was squarely aimed at Trump, who has steadfastly refused to do so. Would Newsom agree to put the squeeze on the president and sign the bill?
Newsom could also take a much more active role in bringing lawsuits against the Republican president and his administration. His predecessor left much of the political rhetoric over California’s four dozen Trump-related lawsuits to state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra. Or Newsom could simply ratchet up his critiques of Trump, whom he’s called a “disgrace” with a “limited attention span.”
In his inaugural speech, the new governor singled out a host of bogeymen, including pharmaceutical companies and the pay-day lending industry.
“Here in California, we have the power to stand up to them,” he said. “And we will.”
Waging those kinds of battles could further grow Newsom’s political influence, bringing along with it more television interviews, talk show segments and speaking invitations in Washington and beyond.
Still more significant uses of his newfound political power could be on the horizon. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who will turn 86 in June, could decide to retire before the end of her newly won six-year term. Newsom would pick her successor, a weighty decision given the Democrats’ lock on statewide races.
Nor is it out of the question that Newsom himself could develop a case of what’s politely been called “Potomac Fever.” The last four governors have all either run for president — Gov. Pete Wilson and Brown — or been talked up as having what it takes to win the White House on the strength of California’s electoral college heft. Depending on what happens in 2020 and whether he’s reelected in 2022, Newsom could use his political muscle to launch a presidential campaign in 2024 at age 57.
Should he choose to remain focused on Sacramento, Newsom will still have enormous political potential. More Democrats than any other time in modern history hold seats in the Legislature, but they all must lobby for the governor’s signature on their bills. Newsom also has line-item veto authority over the state budget. In general, vetoes by the state’s chief executive have become sacrosanct; none has been overturned by lawmakers since 1980.
And if lawmakers don’t bend to his will, Newsom can go around them and take proposals directly to the ballot. The recent record of governors promoting such measures is mixed — Brown won all of his efforts over the last eight years while Schwarzenegger bombed in 2005 only to return with success in 2006 and 2010.
The arrival of each new governor resets the state’s political compass, and some of the resulting dominance — the power of the executive branch — is institutional. But few moments have seemed to find more stars aligned for a single figure to dominate the state than this one.