Opinion: Fraught times for Gavin Newsom
For years, Gavin Newsom had a Midas touch. He legalized same-sex marriage in San Francisco, and later the U.S. Supreme Court put a stamp of approval on the controversial move. He committed a sort of sacrilege by contesting the 2010 primary election against the almost sainted (among California Democrats) Jerry Brown, then settled for lieutenant governor and went on to become governor in 2018. And more.
Things look different for Newsom today, after 10 months of the coronavirus pandemic, his continued failure to act against big utilities while they keep causing wildfires and the elevation of his old friend Kamala Harris to America’s vice president-elect.
Whatever choices he makes now seem to cause him trouble. Start with his conducting almost daily televised updates on COVID-19, which leaves him woefully overexposed. Rather than stepping in with comforting words and occasional actions to ease the crisis for Californians, Newsom has come to be regarded by many as a sort of prison warden or spokesman for the disease, which has so far killed about 20,000 Californians and closed myriad businesses.
California voters have a long habit of dumping overexposed politicians, a threat Newsom faces today, due for reelection in less than two years and facing a recall movement that claims to have collected more than half the 1.495 million signatures needed to force a special election.
Among the overexposed, Brown served two terms as governor in the 1970s, then was beaten for the Senate in 1980. Once his father Pat Brown had served two terms, Republican Ronald Reagan retired him in 1966, long before governors had term limits.
Now Newsom must make appointments to at least two major offices, and possibly as many as four within the next month. He’s under pressure from ethnic groups of all types in this day of identity politics. Latino groups claim he must appoint one of them to the U.S. Senate seat Harris will vacate. If he anoints California’s Latino secretary of state Alex Padilla, he’ll be vilified by groups saying a black woman has to get the job.
These people don’t mention naming the best possible senator or one with a shot of winning election on their own; only of naming people with particular ethnicities and skin colors. Newsom also must appoint a replacement for Xavier Becerra as state attorney general once Becerra becomes President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of Health and Human Services. And if Newsom makes a senator of his friend and early supporter Padilla, he’ll have to name a new secretary of state. There’s also the real possibility California’s other U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, will retire at 87, and also need replacing.
Whatever Newsom does, he’ll make many people unhappy.
But it would be poor form for Newsom to resign suddenly as governor, letting Lt. Gov. Elena Kounalakis replace him and then put him in the Senate. Folks who pull that maneuver rarely win later on their own.
Then there are Newsom’s own missteps. No governor could look much worse than Newsom did when he joined high-priced lobbyist friends last fall in a soiree at Napa County’s Michelin-starred, hyper-expensive French Laundry restaurant. After warning Californians not to eat indoors at restaurants or to participate in gatherings of more than 10, Newsom was caught with a party of 12 in a space that could barely be considered outdoors.
This slimed him with the hypocrite label no politician wants. But Newsom still can redeem himself with voters. He apologized for the French Laundry embarrassment, just as he earlier did for a years-ago affair with his former best friend’s wife. He’s certainly no saint, but that has not yet hurt him at the polls. He also has time to clean up the many problems and scandals at the state’s unemployment department.
Meanwhile, it’s possible a recall (if it happens) and his quick French Laundry apology can leave him stronger than before. For one thing, a recall election in 2021 would put Newsom into campaign mode early and likely get many voters accustomed to backing him.
So it’s premature, at the very least, to dismiss Newsom as doomed because of his mistakes and the dicey choices he faces.
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Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.