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Analysis: In State of the State, Gov. Gavin Newsom sprints out of the shadow cast by his iconic predecessor

Gavin Newsom
Gov. Gavin Newsom walks up the aisle of the Assembly chamber in Sacramento to deliver his State of the State address on Tuesday.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

There was an itchiness to the relationship between Gavin Newsom, who spent eight years as an understudy, and former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Much of it was institutional: California’s lieutenant governor and chief executive don’t run on a joint ticket and once elected, the second in command has almost no official duties. The structure allows even a middling leader to cast an imposing shadow.

But with Brown, an iconic Democrat and the state’s longest-serving governor, the shadow was more like a slow-moving solar eclipse.

That may help explain why Newsom, in his first State of the State address, sought in tone and tempo to revise his agenda for California and rethink its approach to governing. Where Brown often embraced incrementalism, Newsom urged lawmakers to speed things up.

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“There are problems that have been deferred for too long and that threaten to put the California dream out of reach for too many,” he said. “We face hard decisions that are coming due.”

Some pronouncements in his address marked a clear departure from the Brown era. Most notably, Newsom embraced only part of California’s beleaguered high-speed rail project, declining to commit to much more.

“Let’s be real,” he said.

But it was potential, not reality, that Brown used as a measuring stick for the $77-billion project. Six years ago, he used his State of the State speech to liken the endeavor to the children’s book, “The Little Engine That Could.”

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“I think I can,” Brown said, reciting from the book and channeling its optimism. “And over the mountain, the little engine went!”

Newsom pledges to scale back high-speed rail and twin tunnels projects in State of the State speech »

Newsom cast doubt on that approach, obliquely criticizing the Brown administration’s management of the bullet train. He sounded a similar concern for the status of the controversial Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water project, promising a “fresh approach” on another key but unfinished part of the Brown legacy.

Californians would be forgiven if they expect Newsom’s tenure to be a sequel to Brown’s. They are the first Democrats since 1887 to follow each other into the governor’s office. Newsom, whose ties to Brown go back a couple of generations in San Francisco politics, frequently praises the former governor’s fiscal discipline and stewardship of the idea of California exceptionalism. Introducing Brown at last year’s State of the State event, Newsom praised him as a sui generis leader, a Latin phrase meaning “of its own kind.”

But the 51-year old governor, beginning his second month on the job, on Tuesday offered a perspective on state and national events that was more pugnacious than any similar speech by the man who came before him.

Speaking to a Legislature stocked with Democrats — who now hold 88 of its 120 seats — Newsom renewed his support for a state single-payer healthcare system, an effort Brown refused to even consider without first knowing where the money would come from.

Where the former governor insisted California’s wildfire future depends on loosening the liability standards that force utility companies to pay billions, Newsom instead framed the path forward as one focused on “justice for fire victims, fairness for employees, and protection for ratepayers.”

And while just a few months ago Brown heralded his last budget’s record-breaking support for K-12 schools, the governor who inherited that fiscal framework said Tuesday that California is overdue for an “honest conversation” about whether the state is doing enough for education.

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Newsom began carefully distancing himself from Brown long before the State of the State speech. Through the end of last year’s campaign and in his first few weeks in office, the governor has hinted before that he won’t hesitate to go where Brown didn’t.

Last month, Newsom said he would roll up his sleeves to search for consensus on rethinking California’s tax structure in hopes of avoiding a 2020 ballot fight over the legacy of the landmark Proposition 13, which has strictly limited growth in property taxes for more than 40 years.

“Gov. Brown had no interest in this, even at the peak of his power, influence and insight,” Newsom said of working on tax reform. (What he didn’t say: Brown argued that a lack of broad-based political consensus would make pursuing the issue impractical.)

Newsom’s State of the State address may be remembered most for providing him the best opportunity to step out of Brown’s shadow, but there is much on which the two leaders agree. The governor’s budget proposal last month asked lawmakers to take an approach similar to one that has been in place for the last several years: Spend billions of dollars in tax windfalls largely on one-time expenses, not ongoing endeavors.

Nor was all of Tuesday’s address different from those in the past. Like Brown, the new governor condemned the effort by President Trump and congressional Republicans to scrap the Affordable Care Act as actions tantamount to “vandalism.” Later, he embraced Brown’s frequent demands to loosen the California Environmental Quality Act. The former governor once called an overhaul of the law “the Lord’s work.” In his speech, Newsom framed loosening the constraints of CEQA as a means to boost construction of needed housing.

Nor did he completely disavow high-speed rail, pausing for a beat in his speech to praise the vision of Brown and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“There’s no doubt that our state’s economy and quality of life depend on improving transportation,” Newsom said.

The path forward for the governor has little precedent. Only three lieutenant governors in the last 70 years have gone on to the state Capitol’s corner office. Few, if any, followed behind a governor who left office with high job approval ratings and a reputation — even among his critics — for pragmatism.

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In his first chance to take stock of things, Newsom offered familiar but notable observations as bookends.

“The state of our state is strong,” he said at the speech’s outset.

At the end, though, he told the audience, “The best is yet to come.”

john.myers@latimes.com

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