Newsom Promises 'Bold' Leadership as Governor, But Can He Deliver?

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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)

Depending how you interpreted Gavin Newsom's campaign slogan "Courage For a Change," he either has more courage than Jerry Brown (his campaign says that's not what they meant) or that Newsom has the courage needed to bring about big changes.

For a man who often struggled to win Brown's praise, or even his attention, it's an attempt to promise fresh ideas and perhaps a willingness to embrace issues the outgoing governor left for others, such as single-payer health care.

Either way, Newsom could be challenged by a possible economic downturn and a newly emboldened California Legislature with massive majorities in both houses.

"If you're looking for timidity, I'm not your person," Newsom said before the election. "If you're looking for someone to be bold and courageous, lean into issues, change the order of things, I'm committing myself to that cause as the next governor."

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A Different Kind of Governor

When Newsom takes office Jan. 7, he will bring to Sacramento a very different style and set of priorities. Journalists often referred to Gov. Jerry Brown as "the adult in the room" when he huddled with legislators to close their differences. It was not a label legislators much cared for.

"I would resent it, too, if I was the Legislature," Brown told KQED, insisting he never said that. The governor said he expected legislators would push back against the next governor in ways they did not with him.

When he became governor in 2011, Brown said, legislators were willing to embrace a cooperative approach, partly because the economy was bad. He added that he appreciated how lawmakers worked with him to solve problems and to compromise when necessary.

"As things get easier, then people get more restive, and I think there is a desire for the Legislature to assert (itself)," Brown said. "Gavin will have his challenges, but he's older now than I was when I left the first time," he said, referring to the end of his second term in 1983. Brown said Newsom's age and experience will serve him well.

Over the years, Newsom has shown a tendency to get out in front of issues.

In February 2004, he had been mayor of San Francisco for about a month when he made a bold — some would say reckless — decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For weeks on end, hundreds of couples from all over the state and nation lined up to get married.

The California Supreme Court soon put a stop to the weddings, but four years later, it ruled 4-3 that preventing same-sex couples from marrying violated the state constitution. It helped pave the way for a U.S. Supreme Court decision 10 years later legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Gavin Newsom, then mayor of San Francisco, speaks during a news conference following a California Supreme Court decision to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage on May 15, 2008.
Gavin Newsom, then mayor of San Francisco, speaks during a news conference following a California Supreme Court decision to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage on May 15, 2008. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

To his growing number of supporters it also signaled Newsom’s willingness to push the envelope.

"I think he’s a risk taker, and I think he's a true intellectual believer in the notion that you can fail fast as long as you’re moving forward," said Joyce Newstat, Newsom's policy director in the early part of his mayoralty.

Thinking Outside the Box

Newsom’s penchant for taking risks may have its roots in his childhood. He was not a particularly good student, and he was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia. Figuring out how to compensate for that learning disability was a gift, he said.

"You know, nothing was rote, nothing was linear. I had to work around things, work differently, see the world differently," Newsom said on KQED's "Political Breakdown." "It allowed me to think outside the box. I've always been willing to take risks because you have to because you're never going to thrive in the more traditional sense."

Whether it was outside the box thinking, political courage or just trying to keep his name in the headlines while he was lieutenant governor, Newsom helped lay the groundwork for a statewide ballot measure legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

"I think Gavin Newsom has demonstrated a really deep understanding of where the zeitgeist is going," said technology forecaster Paul Saffo. He sees Newsom as fitting in well with the attitude of innovators in Silicon Valley.

Saffo said Newsom seems to share what he calls their disrespect for authority. "The entrepreneurs' creed is that it’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission," Saffo said.

That tendency in Newsom was not always appreciated. After his first marriage fell apart, he had an affair with a top aide’s wife. And some felt he too often seemed bored with being mayor and took his eye off the ball while thinking too much about his political future.

Passing the Torch

Today, at age 51, Gavin Newsom is 30 years younger than the outgoing Brown and totally different in style and temperament. Former Gov. Gray Davis said it’s appropriate for a new governor to bring fresh ideas and priorities.

"This transition is really a passing of the torch, not just of one governor to another but from one generation to another," Davis said. "So it’s great that they have different styles. It’s almost by necessity you have to govern for the times."

Newsom is taking over a state whose economy is the fifth largest in the world, and he has ambitions to match. California has the nation’s highest rate of childhood poverty, which Newsom wants to address. He also wants to reform the health care system and provide government-subsidized child care.

But he can’t do it alone. He’ll need help from people like Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

Rendon and Newsom haven’t always seen eye to eye. Asked about Newsom’s ambitious agenda, Rendon said that compared to Brown — who focused on climate change, fiscal stability and criminal justice reform — the new governor has a wider range of policy interests.

"Which I guess makes a lot of sense at the beginning of an administration," Rendon said, perhaps suggesting that his interests will have to be scaled back after he takes office.

Rendon declined to compare Newsom to Brown, saying only that "they’re both exceptionally thoughtful leaders."

As Brown prepares to exit, he’s leaving the state flush with cash, including a rainy day fund of $14 billion. Brown’s parting piece of advice for Newsom? “Don’t screw it up.”