Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom has plenty to work on in 2016. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was the first candidate to declare that he will run to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown -- and while the election isn't until 2018, it already seems Newsom is everywhere.
The former San Francisco mayor has put himself front and center on three controversial 2016 ballot measures -- pot legalization, gun control and a higher minimum wage. They're all issues that could shore up his liberal base and raise his profile in areas of the state where he's not well known.
But they also stand to make him some very powerful foes: law enforcement, the gun lobby and the state's business community.
Newsom insists he’ll have time to work on all three measures, while admitting that the gun control proposal, which he is not only backing but sponsoring, will take center stage.
"That's the perversity because I am used to multitasking as a mayor," he said. "I always find it curious -- in Sacramento, you are supposed to focus on one or two issues. Three is too many. When you couldn't go a day without focusing on dozens of issues in my old job.”
Newsom also said this isn't all about raising his profile for 2018, contending that if the ballot measures were purely about getting gubernatorial votes, he'd be focusing on the issues Californians say they are most concerned about -- he cited water, education reform and the economy.
"So for these cynics, that would suggest I'm pretty naive to where public sentiment is," he said. "These initiatives are things I care deeply about as a parent."
'Stop the War on the Poor'
"Guns are priority because they should be. Stopping one of the more insidious aspects of the war on drugs -- and that's the war on marijuana, which I think is disproportionately a war on people of color and on poor people."
And, he said, "it's hard not to support the minimum wage (hike) when I was mayor of the city that had the highest minimum wage in the nation, when I left, at the time … so it's not surprising to people that know me."
Jessica Levinson, a law professor who studies campaign and ethics issues at Loyola Marymount University, said it's all part and parcel of the Gavin Newsom playbook: Play to a liberal base, get ahead on issues that are controversial now but will likely be more broadly embraced in a couple years and also, yes, focus on more mainstream issues like the economy while you are at it.
She said it's a smart strategy.
"I think Gavin Newsom knows his brand very well, and it's using his office and using ballot measures to really try and come out clearly as a solid liberal -- and maybe just a few years ahead of the curve," she said.
"So by the time we are voting for governor," she added, "we will be looking at Gavin Newsom and saying, 'You had ESP, you knew where the state was going when it came to minimum wage, you knew where things were trending when it came to pot and you saw the importance of stronger gun control before other people were acting on it.' "
'He Embraces Being a Liberal Democrat'
Levinson said Newsom's positions may be risky for a moderate, but "he can't run away from the fact that he's a liberal Democrat, so I think he's basically decided to embrace it."
She noted the lieutenant governor is also talking about the economy and water -- "he just made a trip to the Central Valley" -- but that voters won't be paying attention to the actual governor's race for a year or more anyway, so it makes sense to lay the groundwork around other issues.
"I think he is going to be one of the top contenders, and he’s basically laying claim to a number of areas now," Levinson said, noting Newsom has been "trying to lose the lieutenant part of his title since before the day he was sworn in."
She said it's smart to use ballot measures to burnish his political credentials for another reason: Initiatives are not subject to the same campaign finance limits that candidates are.
"You can tie yourself to an issue without the same rubric of money restrictions, and in some ways it's less risky, because if a ballot initiative goes down, it's not a referendum on you as a candidate," she said.
And he expressed confidence that the pro-legalization community can coalesce behind one measure.
"You just have to. If there are two or more initiatives it will fail ... it will confuse voters," he said. "If you care about the cause you have to put aside your differences. If you don't care about your cause, it's about personalities, then they are on a collision course and they are going to set back the movement years and years."
The lieutenant governor also hinted at what he'll be focusing on beyond 2016 -- and for you cynics, it is one of those issues that polls well.
"The issue that defines me literally -- I am not overstating it -- is economic development. It's my passion, it's the issue that transcends all other issues," he said. "At the end of the day, you can't tax your way to prosperity, nor can you cut your way to prosperity. You gotta grow your way to prosperity."