Capitol Journal: Gavin Newsom is a potential rock star. But he’ll need to show he can perform

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom addresses the crowd at an election-night party on Nov. 6 as his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, left, looks on.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

What kind of governor will Gavin Newsom be? An innovative progressive? A pragmatic moderate? An empty suit? It’s anyone’s guess.

He’s a blank slate — probably the blankest slate of any California governor-elect in modern times.

Everyone knew what to anticipate from Gov. Jerry Brown and he met expectations. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a celebrity showman and governed like it. Gray Davis had been an uncharismatic Sacramento fixture for 24 years. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian had solid records in major elective office. Ronald Reagan had never held office, but had been preaching his political beliefs for years. Pat Brown was a career politician.

Newsom was mayor of San Francisco, but that job has little relevance to being governor of the state with the world’s fifth largest economy. Then he became an ignored potted plant as lieutenant governor.


And because Newsom didn’t have a competitive general-election race, he jogged and was never forced to commit himself to policy details.

Here’s what I think about Newsom: I don’t think he’s an empty suit.

I don’t really know him. But in a few lengthy conversations I’ve had with Newsom, he has been impressive. I’ve been struck by his knowledge of issues and his having thought them through. He seems to be a serious policy wonk. And he can articulate his thinking, a trait all leaders need.

Although Newsom’s campaign slogan was “courage for a change,” he appears to be girded with the kind of cautious pragmatism that you’d expect from a very successful businessman. (He made his money in wine and lodging.)


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At the same time, he definitely has a flair for the dramatic.

The best example of that was when he allowed same-sex marriages in San Francisco shortly after he became mayor. They were illegal then. He was boldly ahead of his time.

Then there were the two hot-button ballot initiatives he sponsored two years ago. One legalized marijuana, although he insisted to me he’d never smoked pot. Alcohol had earlier been his demon, he said. His other ballot measure made California’s gun controls even tighter.


Based on history, we can expect Newsom to make a big splash with something early in his governorship.

But right now he needs to hire a good speechwriter. His election-night victory speech had some nice lines, but included way too many platitudes. Newsom is better than that.

This wasn’t bad, clearly aimed at President Trump: “Roll the credits on the politics of chaos and the politics of cruelty.” Also: In California, “we don’t separate families and we don’t lock kids in cages.”

So Newsom, unlike Brown, apparently sees himself as the Trump resister-in-chief for California. But he should mute himself. I’ve a hunch most voters have OD’d on the anti-Trump drumbeat and want their new governor to focus on making life better for them.


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One thing Newsom needs to be constantly reminded of: Although he won by a landslide, he carried only a small sliver of geography along the coast. He was rejected in all but two counties — Sacramento and Yolo — in the 400-mile-long Central Valley stretching from Redding to Bakersfield.

If the Democrat truly hopes to unite the state and achieve bipartisan victories in the Capitol, he can’t ignore Trumpland in inland California.


It’ll be tricky. At the same time, he’ll have to satisfy his liberal base — particularly labor unions — in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. “Courage for a change” means having the guts to say “no.”

But first he needs a successful transition to one of the most powerful political jobs in America, one that can ultimately be a springboard to the White House.

“Nothing is more important than the transition,” says political attorney Steve Merksamer, who was Deukmejian’s chief of staff. “It’s like building a foundation for a new house.

“He has to turn his first state budget in to the printer by mid-December. He’s very lucky he’s inheriting a big surplus.”


“The most important thing he’s going to do,” Merksamer continues, “is figure out who to surround himself with. They’re going to define his administration. He’s going to have hundreds — maybe thousands — of people applying for jobs. He’s going to be contacted by some people he hasn’t seen in 30 years.”

His second most important appointment — behind only chief-of-staff — is state finance director. Schwarzenegger and Reagan both screwed up on their initial picks.

One other thing Newsom needs to decide: Do he, his wife and four children live in Sacramento, which the governor-elect has called “dull,” or try to commute from their gorgeous home in Marin County, a short scenic drive over the Golden Gate Bridge from glamorous San Francisco?

He shouldn’t even think about it. He badly wanted to be governor. Sacramento comes with the 24/7 job. Move into the rehabilitated governor’s mansion and send the kids to private schools.


One thing Newsom should tackle is tax reform: The current outdated system is dangerously volatile. Politically, it must be revenue-neutral: Sales taxes need to be cut and extended to services. Income taxes also need to be trimmed, from the middle to the top.

Newsom says he sees an opening in conjunction with a proposed property tax overhaul set for the 2020 ballot. “I’m open to putting everything on the table,” he told me.

But his first priorities are expanding early childhood education, eradicating homelessness and establishing universal healthcare — not necessarily single-payer.

“I’m going to push the envelope, lean in on this and see how far we can take it,” he said of healthcare.


Newsom is a potential rock star. He has the looks, persona, smarts and a talented actress-filmmaker wife in Jennifer Siebel Newsom. But he’ll need to show he can perform.

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