High Expectations on the Left for Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom

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Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom speaks during an election night event on Nov. 6, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Gavin Newsom might just be the most progressive Democrat ever elected governor in California.

Newsom, who ran for San Francisco mayor in 2003 as a business-friendly moderate, has since earned his progressive bona fides by championing same-sex marriage, gun control, criminal justice reform and legalization of marijuana. And as he begins to assemble his new administration, his impressive victory is raising expectations from liberals that their priorities will come first.

One of those groups with high hopes is the powerful nurses union, which championed Newsom because of his embrace of single-payer health care. At a national convention of nurses in San Francisco just over a year ago, then-candidate Newsom told them exactly what they wanted to hear.

"My opponents, they call it snake oil. I call it single-payer. It's about access. It's about affordability. It's about time, Democrats," Newsom told the adoring crowd.

Single-payer is where state government essentially replaces insurance companies in paying health care providers. Last year, nurses were furious when a bill to advance single-payer died in the state Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown expressed doubt the state could afford it.

Now, with Newsom set to replace Brown as governor, Stephanie Roberson, legislative advocate with the California Nurses Association, hopes to move the single-payer ball down the field.

"I think for us, we all need to be in a room like-minded with the goal in mind of passing a single-payer system," Roberson told KQED. "We have spent so much time sitting in a room saying that we're for the system, but we don't actually get there."

Roberson knows the opposition to single-payer is fierce — but she expects Newsom to make it happen. That said, nurses are also aware that he has in some ways backed away from the ironclad guarantee he gave nurses last year.

"You know, I understand that the lieutenant governor is talking to a lot of folks, a lot of people have his ear," Roberson said. "We're aware of what appears to be some backpedaling on behalf of Gavin Newsom."

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, wife of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, stands beside a bus from the nurses' union supporting him for governor.
Jennifer Siebel Newsom, wife of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, stands beside a bus from the nurses union supporting him for governor. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Meanwhile, Angie Wei with the California Labor Federation — one of Newsom's most ardent supporters — says creating decent jobs that pay a living wage is her group's priority. The most pressing issue there is the future of work in the age of technology, an issue on which Newsom loves to pontificate.

"He's a man we believe looks forward toward the future," Wei said. "And that's kind of the orientation we need, to solve big challenges facing workers in our economy. And our challenge is going to be to make sure that workers get uplifted by the use of technology, that technology can really be a tool to make workers' lives easier, and not just to eliminate our jobs."

Wei says that means making sure labor is at the table — a key player in the new administration. But at the same time, Newsom may be pressed by Republicans, business types and even some local officials to do something about mounting costs related to public employee retirement costs.


Another group hoping to be at the table — environmentalists, especially the so-called “leave it in the ground” lobby. They were disappointed Gov. Brown didn’t take a harder line on fossil fuel production.

Adam Scow, with Food and Water Watch, is hoping Newsom will phase it out altogether.

"A reasonable phaseout means starting with the most dangerous and egregious practices," Scow said, meaning an end to fracking and drilling for oil in Southern California neighborhoods.

"It hasn't happened yet. It's gonna take guts. But we think he's the guy to do it. We need Gavin Newsom to show bold leadership in saying, 'OK, it's time to reduce the influence and use of oil in California.' "

And while children's advocates and others appreciate the incremental progress made under Brown — for example, creating and then expanding a state earned income tax credit — Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget and Policy Center, said there's more to be done.

"This governor has made strides, but we're still not back to where we were before the Great Recession," Hoene said. "I would expect (the Legislature) to see whether a Gov. Newsom is perhaps willing to go a bit further than Gov. Brown was in general."

But what are Newsom's priorities?

In addition to health care, he wants to tackle housing and childhood poverty, while expanding early childhood education. Of course all these issues have trade-offs, and many cost money. And eventually, that recession Jerry Brown has been warning about for six years will actually happen.

So the new governor will have to do a serious balancing act with his supporters on the left to make sure their priorities — and his — don't get forgotten.