Will they run or won’t they? The undecideds could wreak havoc on California’s governor race


Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has never said, publicly anyway, that he’s pondering a run for governor of California. But he hasn’t totally doused speculation about it either.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer last spring categorically rejected the idea of a gubernatorial bid. But that was two seasons ago, and word’s out that he may be having a change of heart.

Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer was mulling over a run but now says he may have a higher calling — contesting President Trump’s attempts to roll back policies that combat climate change and protect immigrants.


While the race to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown already has attracted a small cadre of well-known Democrats, the behind-the-scenes strategizing, cajoling and guessing games surrounding a handful of other potential contenders could create havoc in what’s expected to be California’s biggest showdown since 2010.

The latest episode of this saga has been airing out of Silicon Valley, which over the years has stewed with politically ambitious millionaire and billionaire business titans seeking new conquests.

The news site Politico has spent the last month stoking whispers that PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, one of the few tech giants to back Trump’s presidential campaign, may be entertaining a run. Thiel has neither expressed interest nor put a stake through the idea.

Thiel could be joined by Menlo Park venture capitalist and former state controller Steve Westly. Nearly two years ago, Westly told a gathering of Silicon Valley tech executives that he planned to run — but he has yet to launch a campaign.

Among those watching these machinations most intently are the formidable candidates already definitely in the running, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang.

This political hokey pokey could continue for months as politicians and other gubernatorial aspirants dance around the idea of running a well-worn course that has spawned its own clichéd vernacular: Testing the waters, going on listening tours, sending up trial balloons and launching exploratory committees.


The opportunity to nab one of California’s most coveted political prizes may be too enticing to pass up, especially for a generation of younger Democrats who have been biding their time as the 78-year-old Brown serves out his historic fourth and final term. Should Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein opt not to run for reelection in 2018, the clash among California’s political rising stars could go supernova.

Intrigue about Faulconer surfaced earlier this month after a single offhand comment by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who told a Politico reporter that Faulconer confided to him last fall and told him he was going to run for governor.

That put the Republican San Diego mayor in an uncomfortable spot. Faulconer is seen by many Republicans as their greatest hope to revive a GOP that hasn’t won a statewide election in a decade. But in May he categorically rejected the idea of a gubernatorial bid when pressed about it during his reelection campaign for mayor.

Jason Roe, one of the San Diego mayor’s political consultants, said Faulconer has been encouraged by many prominent Republicans to run, and although he listened to their arguments, he has not committed.

“In the last year, I’ve had one conversation about it with him,” Roe said. “It wasn’t: ‘Should I run?’ It was: “So, what do you think?”


Veteran Democratic political consultant Ace Smith, who is working on the Newsom campaign, said politicians tend to be flattered when their names are bandied about as a possible candidate for higher office. But if they’re going to run, they’d better not stay on the sidelines for too long.

“Before floating your name out there, you ought to be pretty sure that you’re serious,” Smith said. “Otherwise, you’ll become target practice.”

Riordan, who himself ran for governor in 2002 and lost in the Republican primary to conservative Bill Simon, was mulling over a second run for the office during the 2003 recall campaign against then-Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Riordan said his political advisors had cautioned him to study up on the issues before announcing.

Riordan said he was all set to jump in after potential GOP rival Arnold Schwarzenegger came to his house one Sunday and urged him to run, offering his full support.

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger declares his candidacy for California governor on NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno in August 2003.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Four days later, Schwarzenegger appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno and announced his candidacy. Riordan never entered the race and Schwarzenegger went on to win two terms as governor. (Schwarzenegger, in his autobiography “Total Recall,” said it was actually Riordan who encouraged Schwarzenegger to run for governor.)


“It was sort of a strange situation,” Riordan said.

Garcetti, a Democrat, could face a dilemma similar to that of his fellow San Diego mayor, Faulconer. The hitch for the Los Angeles mayor is timing. Garcetti is in the midst of a campaign for the March primary, and the general election day isn’t until mid-May. While he doesn’t appear to face any serious challengers, it would still be impolitic to announce a bid for higher office while also running for a second term as L.A.’s mayor. One of his long-shot challengers called on him to reveal whether he also has eyes on the governor’s office. Even if he waited until after the general election to announce, Garcetti probably would face criticism for not finishing out his term at City Hall.

But Melissa Michelson, a political scientist at Menlo College in the Bay Area, said Faulconer and Garcetti would probably get a pass no matter what promises they make. In an era that produced President Trump, voters might not care if a politician gets criticized by the media or opponents for breaking a campaign pledge, she said.

“It seems like people are willing to dismiss news they don’t agree with about their preferred candidate,” Michelson said. “If Faulconer runs for governor, maybe his constituents in San Diego … will forgive him and say, ‘He had to say that.’”

Newsom said one of the greatest dangers politicians face is having loyal supporters and political consultants who seduce them into the idea of running for higher office.

“They get ahead of you. They leak out a conversation before you’ve even made up your mind,” said Newsom, whose nearly two decades in elected office includes two terms as mayor of San Francisco. “They tell you not necessarily what you want to hear, but what they think you want to hear. And not necessarily what you need to hear.”

Newsom said he had mixed feelings about his short-lived bid for governor in 2010, which he abandoned after it became obvious that he couldn’t beat Brown for the Democratic nomination. Newsom chose to run for lieutenant governor instead.


This time around, however, Newsom said he had complete conviction, so much so that he jumped into the governor’s race in February of 2015, close to four years before the 2018 general election.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to be candid than coy,” Newsom said. “Nine out of 10 times we all know what that person is doing. And we know that they know what they are doing. And if that’s the case, you ought to be straight with people.”

Jumping in early can also have tactical advantages.

Just a week after U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her retirement, then-state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris jumped into the race and quickly established herself as the Democratic Party’s favored candidate. Rumors swirled about both Newsom and Villaraigosa challenging Harris, but in the end, both opted to skip the race. Harris went on to win the Senate election in November.

Democratic political consultant Garry South said that in the end, the decision to run for higher office comes down to a “visceral” decision by a candidate. Polls offer little guidance and even well-meaning advice from political experts can be off the mark.

“In order to jump into a race for anything, you have to be a little foolish,” South said.

Twitter: @philwillon


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