Column: Could Gavin Newsom be president? Not with Kamala Harris next in line

Vice President Kamala Harris, California Governor Gavin Newsroom and First Lady of California Jennifer Seibel-Newsom
Gov. Newsom’s presidential ambitions, if they exist, face a major impediment: His friend and rival, Vice President Kamala Harris. Joining them at a recent rally was Newsom’s wife, Jennifer.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Recently, as he bathed in the afterglow of his romping, stomping recall victory, Gov. Gavin Newsom was asked the inevitable question.

Did the smashing result, Major Garrett of CBS News wished to know, “accelerate or diminish” Newsom’s ambitions to be president?

“Literally 100% never been on my radar,” said the conquering Democrat, delivering the inevitable response.


“Just to be clear, Gov. Newsom has no presidential ambitions?” Garrett followed up.

“No, none, never,” Newsom replied.

Here’s what we know after the polls closed about the attempt to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Sept. 15, 2021

Newsom should be a very hot commodity right now, especially after beating the recall by such a huge margin. He might conceivably top the list of prospective Democratic presidential candidates touted by political gossips and others who set the early betting line.

But one thing stands in his way: Vice President Kamala Harris.

For well over half a century, the office of California governor has had a sort of magical quality, transforming even the most wooden occupant — think George Deukmejian or Gray Davis — into presidential timber.

Part of it is history.

Ronald Reagan used Sacramento as his stepping stone to the White House and others tried. Jerry Brown ran for president three times, and probably would have done so again in 2016 if his age, 78 at the time, hadn’t caught up with him. Pete Wilson also gave it a shot.

Part of it is heft, that whole nation-state thing.

Apart from president, there is no bigger job in American politics than leading the wealthiest and most populous state in the country.

For Democrats, in particular, California is foundational. The state accounts for nearly a fifth of the electoral votes needed to win the White House — which the party’s nominee typically starts with and looks to build upon — and is far and away the largest source of campaign cash for Democratic candidates and causes nationwide.


But as big as California is, there’s not room enough for two top-tier White House hopefuls — especially when one is already the proverbial heart tick away from the presidency.

Harris and Newsom came up together through San Francisco politics, where Harris was elected district attorney and Newsom, after a time on the Board of Supervisors, served two terms as mayor. They have, in the way of many siblings, a history of friendship, rivalry, envy and mutual aid.

Each supported the other in a conspicuous time of need. Newsom publicly backed Harris’s forlorn presidential campaign. Harris flew to the Bay Area for a homestretch anti-recall rally alongside the governor. Privately, each didn’t mind watching the other squirm just a bit, say those familiar with their personal dynamic.

As vice president, Harris is the undisputed favorite to succeed President Biden — though really, truly, she would insist, seeking the White House is not anything she’s thinking about. Which isn’t saying a whole lot. It may not be top of the mind at the moment, but at some point it will be.

Beyond that, the political future looks murky.

Will Biden — at age 78, the oldest president in history — seek a second term in 2024? Will Harris run in 2028, when Biden might be finishing up a second term or, perhaps, his Republican successor facing reelection?

If she runs in 2024, will Harris face a challenger within the Democratic Party? She most assuredly would in 2028, if the nomination seemed up for grabs.

Those who have spent considerable time with Newsom say they have never heard the governor openly hanker after the White House. That’s not to say, though, he lacks for ambition.

“He wants to be on the biggest stage, having the biggest conversations, with the biggest stakes,” said a longtime Newsom watcher, a former top aide who requested anonymity to preserve their relationship. There is, he noted, only one venue where that sort of monumental decision-making takes place: “The obvious what-next for a governor of California is president of the United States.”

It’s too easy in California to force a costly and wasteful special election like Tuesday’s vote.

Sept. 15, 2021

Maybe not for Newsom.

At least not yet.

He seems a shoo-in for reelection next year unless, say, the governor returns to the French Laundry to sign legislation parking oil rigs off the shoreline from San Diego to Crescent City.

Newsom may be checkmated by Harris at the moment, but time is on his side. At just 53 years old, he could seek the presidency anytime between now and 2044 and still be younger than Biden when he took the oath of office in January.

In their post-election conversation, Garrett asked the victory-flushed Newsom if he was definitively ruling out a bid for the White House.

“You’re never running?” he pressed.

“I’m governor of the fifth-largest economy on planet Earth,” Newsom replied, suggesting his position was “as good as it gets” — especially after walloping the recall and trouncing replacement candidate Larry Elder, the radio provocateur and Trump stand-in.

“Two and a half years in the term, we’re focused and more energized and with the ability to get things done here in California,” he said. “It’s a very challenging environment in Washington, D.C., but that’s not in my cards.”

Listen closely. He didn’t say no.