Capitol Journal: When it comes to style, Brown and Newsom couldn’t be more different

Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom in November after Newsom was elected governor. Newsom likes to swing for the fences as a politician; the cautious Brown played the percentages.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Although they’re both Democrats, the leadership styles of Govs. Gavin Newsom and Jerry Brown are utterly different. That has quickly become evident.

Newsom swings for the fences. Predecessor Brown played a cautious game, working the percentages.

Rookie Newsom doesn’t yet know his capabilities and intends to test himself. The veteran Brown — in his second gubernatorial tenure, anyway — believed he knew his limits. He wouldn’t fight battles he wasn’t confident of winning.


In his inaugural address Monday, Newsom promised to be a “prudent steward of taxpayer dollars,” but emphasized: “Let me be clear: We will be bold. We will aim high and we will work like hell to get there.”

Contrast that to Brown, who recently told the Sacramento Press Club: “The essence of leadership is knowing when to hold and when to fold, when to move forward and when to stay still.”

Newsom is impatient. His style is to make a big splash, as he famously did soon after becoming San Francisco mayor in 2004. He irritated many Democratic leaders by allowing same-sex couples to marry when it was illegal. That bold action ultimately led to gay marriages becoming legal across the country.

Brown carefully picked his shots. If he didn’t have a good one, so be it.

Newsom has adopted the classic, proven strategy of most governors and presidents: leaking policy proposals to selected news reporters before they’re announced publicly. The purpose is to generate early support and put the best face on an idea before it’s picked apart by the entire media.

One example: The Times last week was leaked Newsom’s intention to propose spending $1.8 billion to expand early-childhood education and childcare.

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Brown didn’t really give a rat. He almost never leaked. In fact, he didn’t care much about the media at all, except for large national publications and Sunday talk shows.

One difference for the public is that Sacramento could be a lot more interesting with a free-swinging governor trying to hit home runs. Brown himself was always interesting — his oratorical flourishes especially — but his governing style was often too much like a ballplayer taking pitches and walking to get on base.

The fact that one Democrat has replaced another in the governor’s office is cited by some analysts as the reason this transition was so dull compared to previous changes of power. But I don’t think so. I think it’s primarily because polarizing President Trump and the Democratic takeover of the House have grabbed the public’s focus.

But Newsom’s rapid-fire actions could start attracting attention. It’s like he has a new toy that he can’t put down.

His early-childhood program was leaked even before he was sworn in.

On his first day as governor, Newsom proposed a sweeping expansion of Medi-Cal, California’s federally subsidized healthcare program for the poor. That was virtually unprecedented. Governors usually spend their first day partying, not engaging in governance.

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One piece of the Medi-Cal expansion will be politically touchy. Newsom wants to extend Medi-Cal coverage to young adults up to age 26 who are living in the country illegally. Undocumented children up to 18 already are covered. The additional annual cost is estimated to be $260 million.

Newsom proposed that all Californians be required to have health insurance, an old Obamacare mandate that Trump and congressional Republicans dumped. Newsom also wants to subsidize insurance for the middle class. And he’d merge the state’s prescription drug buying into a single program to provide more bargaining power and cut costs.

Some of what Newsom wants he can do himself with executive orders. Other things require legislation. Some stuff needs Trump’s and congressional approval. Scratch that.

Newsom characterized his ambitious proposal as an initial step toward the universal healthcare system that he promised in the election campaign.

His second day on the job, Newsom traveled into the Sierra to propose spending $305 million to accelerate the stripping of dying trees and thick brush from wildlands, expand firefighting crews and modernize 911 systems.

Bravo. There’s no higher priority for California right now than preventing and fighting wildfires.

On Day 3, Newsom announced a crackdown on the DMV, which he asserted “has been chronically mismanaged and failed in its fundamental mission to the state customers it serves…. It’s time for a reinvention.” No kidding!

One smart thing Newsom did was move his wife and four small children into the historic governor’s mansion in downtown Sacramento. It has housed 14 governors since 1903, but Nancy Reagan fled the place in 1967, calling it a firetrap. Gov. Jerry Brown updated the three-story, 30-room Victorian and reoccupied it.

It’s close to the Capitol, is majestic inside and should provide lots of mysterious romping space for Newsom’s kids, the youngest of whom stole the inaugural show.

Two-year-old Dutch — sucking on a pacifier and carrying a blankie — toddled on stage halfway through his father’s speech. Newsom scooped him up, smiled and didn’t miss a beat reading off a teleprompter. Everyone got a good laugh.

It showed Newsom to be a multitasker, easily juggling parenting with governing and politicking. It also highlighted a generational divide between Brown, 80, and Newsom, 51.

Brown’s style worked for him. He didn’t lose a real fight in his last two terms.

We won’t know about Newsom for a while.

If a home run hitter connects, he’s a hero. If he strikes out often, he’s benched.

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