Californians made their choice in November, electing Gavin Newsom their next governor. Now, Newsom faces some crucial choices of his own — who will serve in his administration.
There won’t be much time to waste. Newsom, a Democrat who is finishing his second term as lieutenant governor, will be sworn in the first Monday in January, leaving him just weeks to fill key posts.
Given the task, it was perhaps unsurprising that, in chatting with reporters immediately after the election, the governor-elect sounded more like a human resources director than a policy wonk.
“I’ve focused on policy for years and years and years, and now I’m focusing on personnel,” Newsom said. “I’ve told my staff we’re going from the how business to the who business, and we’re assessing the applications that are coming in.”
With all the vacant positions, Newsom joked, he has a lot of “new best friends.”
Most crucial will be those whom Newsom hires for the “Horseshoe,” the U-shaped suite of offices that house the inner circle of the governor’s senior advisors.
“You have to create a team where all the puzzle pieces fit,” said Dana Williamson, a top advisor to Gov. Jerry Brown. “You’ve got disparate roles with people who can offer different voices. The lieutenant governor is going to have to decide what kind of team he wants.”
Here’s a guide to the top jobs to watch in the new administration.
Chief of staff
The chief of staff sits atop the food chain, effectively serving as the governor’s right hand. It’s often a governor’s first major staffing choice, since it sets the tone for the hires to follow.
Within days of his election, Newsom announced his pick: Ann O'Leary, former advisor to Hillary Clinton.
With wide-ranging job responsibilities, the person picked for the job has enormous influence in the daily operations of the administration.
“It’s someone who is empowered to negotiate with the Legislature, to cut deals, to run the staff,” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist and former communications director for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It’s the enforcer — both internally and externally.”
Scuttlebutt around Sacramento was that Newsom had sought a chief in the model of Nancy McFadden, the top aide to Brown who died in March after battling cancer. McFadden, whose title was “executive secretary” in a nod to her top role in the executive branch, was credited with being the most pivotal staffer to execute Brown’s policy and political agenda.
The governor’s top budget official has an office outside the Horseshoe, but don’t underestimate the importance of the job. The finance department is a massive operation — and Newsom must roll out his first budget plan within days of taking office.
That means a finance director is likely to be an early hire.
“The budget needs to be done being drafted around Thanksgiving,” Stutzman said, and the “A Pages,” which summarize the budget and highlight significant policy initiatives, are written through December.
“The whole thing needs to be done by Christmas,” Stutzman said.
The state budget is one of the main ways the governor can accomplish policy goals, and it’s a major haggling point between the executive and legislative branches. So although the spending plan is about dollars and cents, it also sets the power dynamic between Newsom and state legislators.
“At the end of the day, budgets are overwhelmingly controlled by governors,” former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) said. “It's a huge leverage point.”
Typically the No. 2 aide after chief of staff, the cabinet secretary is in charge of making sure the governor is plugged into what’s going on at the agencies and departments that comprise state government. It can be an unwieldy task, given the sprawl of state government.
“It’s the one who is tasked with herding the cats in terms of agency secretaries,” said Rachel Michelin, executive director of California Women Lead, a group that advocates for women to be appointed in state government. “You’re making sure all of those folks have what they need.”
Williamson, who served as cabinet secretary under Brown for six years, said the job requires an awareness that transcends the sometimes-insular world of the Horseshoe.
“It’s important they can maintain a big-picture perspective,” she said. “You’ve got to try to connect all the dots with everything else going on.”
Serving that role for Newsom will be Ana Matosantos, a Capitol veteran who had served stints as finance director under Schwarzenegger and Brown.
Want a sense of the divergent approaches governors take in staffing? Consider how different the message-making — or spin-crafting — shops have looked under recent administrations.
Schwarzenegger’s first hire after his unprecedented election was Stutzman as communications director. Media interest in the bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-governor was at a fever pitch, and the press shop was built accordingly, with nearly 30 people reporting to Stutzman, including speechwriters and those who wrote official correspondence.
Brown, meanwhile, has been much more limited in his press interactions, and his media team has been much smaller. The administration never had a communications director; instead, the top media official was the press secretary.
Expect a more muscular communications shop from Newsom, who has generally been more inclined toward media exposure.
“The governor should communicate more than Brown has,” Stutzman said. “It’s healthy for the state.”
The governor’s office is on the first floor of the Capitol building; the legislative secretary is tasked with managing the relationships with those upstairs — lawmakers.
Whether it’s managing the flow of the hundreds of bills that wind their way to the governors office, or understanding the nuances of legislative procedure, the legislative secretary has the key role of making sure the two branches of government are coexisting (relatively) peacefully.
While other posts may be filled by officials who haven’t spent time in Sacramento, this is one job in which Capitol experience is usually a prerequisite.
“This is one position where the person really needs to have done legislative work,” Williamson said.
Newsom’s pick, Anthony Williams, has put in time at the Capitol, working for two former Senate leaders: Democrats John Burton of San Francisco and Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento. Most recently, he led government relations for Boeing.
There are more than 3,000 jobs that are appointed by the governor, from full-time regulatory posts to volunteers for boards that meet only occasionally. The appointments secretary’s role is to make sure all those jobs are filled.
“That is, in my opinion, one of the hardest jobs in the state government,” Michelin said. “It is the gatekeeper. That person has to vet all the candidates for appointments. They have to go out and recruit, they make sure that people are prepared to serve as an appointee, they become advocates for appointees when making presentation to the governor.”
A key qualification for the job, Michelin said, is emotional intelligence and the ability to consider a diverse, and sometimes unorthodox, field of potential appointees.
“You really have to have someone that likes people and has that sense of being able to work with all kinds of different people, [from those] who are extremely politically engaged all the way down to people who never knew they could serve as an appointee,” she said.
The governor’s in-house lawyer has a long list of duties, including crafting legal decisions and guidance from the executive branch agencies. The legal secretary also helps the governor consider the implications of potential legislation.
“We’ve had our legal team look at bills — how does this policy change interact with other things we’re doing?” Williamson said.
The position also oversees the governor’s pardons, commutations and paroles, as well as help with judicial appointments.
Newsom has named Catherine E. Lhamon to the job. Lhamon, who currently chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, was a top appointee to the federal Dept. of Education under President Obama.