Gavin Newsom takes center stage

Gavin Newsom, flanked by wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom and their children, is sworn in as governor by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, right. (Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor who roiled Democrats across the country when he issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples, was sworn in Monday as California’s 40th governor. He succeeds the unprecedented, largely successful tenure of four-time governor and fellow Democrat Jerry Brown, who moseyed on back to his 2,500-acre ranch in Colusa.

Newsom, 51, who served eight years in Brown’s shadow as lieutenant governor, took the oath at the state Capitol in televised ceremonies. The millionaire Newsom is co-founder of the PlumpJack Group, which runs an array of two dozen businesses, including wineries and hotels. His role in the company was placed in a blind trust before he was sworn in.

Newsom’s new role as governor of the nation’s largest state propels him into the national spotlight – a not uncommon position for California governors.

Newsom, offering few specifics in a 26-minute speech,  pushed a progressive agenda on labor, the economy, the environment, the disadvantaged, and big business, among others. In his first hours of governor Monday, Newsom proposed a major health care plan to restore a critical piece of the Affordable Care Act and issued an executive order that gives the state Department of Health Care Services the sole authority to negotiate drug prices for Medi-Cal.

“We will be bold, we will aim high and we will work like hell to get there,” Newsom told an audience that included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

His wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a documentary film maker, was present, as were his four children. One of those, 2-year-old Dutch, clambered toward the stage and was scooped up by Newsom as he delivered his remarks. Dutch was named after the Gold Rush-era town of Dutch Flat in the Sierra Nevada northeast of Sacramento.

Newsom’s new role as governor of the nation’s largest state, controlled nearly entirely by Democrats, immediately propels him into the national spotlight – a not uncommon position for California governors.

Speculation about his future political plans – a run for the presidency? — has simmered for months and only intensified after he named Ann O’Leary, a close ally of Hillary Clinton with solid D.C. connections, as his chief of staff.

As Democrats scramble for a presidential candidate in 2020, the movie star-handsome Newsom offers options – and problems. Newsom himself has said that running for president is “not my aspiration.”

He also faces the possibility that two other Californians, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who are pondering presidential bids will enter the race and try to tap the same pool of campaign cash.

Brown ran for president it mid-way through his first term in 1976, came up short, then ran mid-way through his second term in 1980 and, again, came up short. Brown was slammed then for taking more time to run for higher office than he spent governing the state and for acceding to his political ambitions. Pollster Mervin Field said Californians felt like a “jilted lover” when they saw Brown run for president so soon after being elected governor.

Newsom confronts similar timing.

A 2020 run, half-way through his first term, would take him out of the state for significant periods of time starting late this year. He is likely to be able to raise money – he’s been known as a solid fund raiser since his days in San Francisco government and, as an incumbent governor, he has advantages.

But he also faces the possibility that two other Californians, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who are pondering presidential bids, will enter the race and try to tap the same pool of campaign cash.

“Let’s say Newsom joined the race by July 1 of 2019, just six months after taking office as governor,” wrote author Ethan Rarick in a July 28 L.A. Times opinion piece, Is Gavin Newsom on a Fast Track to a 2020 Bid?

 “It’s not as unrealistic as it seems,” Rarick wrote. “The new governor and the Legislature could wrap up an on-time budget along with some other policy achievements in Newsom’s first few months, and then he could launch his White House campaign by saying: ‘I never wanted to be president, but Donald Trump’s latest outrage against decency and democracy means that all of us must join the fight. As the leader of the state that leads the resistance, I have a unique perspective, a unique experience, a unique voice. And so today I am announcing that I will be a candidate.’ I’ve seen far crazier moves from politicians.”

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, had similar views. “Why Newsom? He turned 51 last month,” Whalen wrote on Nov. 28 in Real Clear Politics. “He’s the father of two girls and two boys all under the age of 10. Listen to his rhetoric and track down his policy stances and one discovers a fondness for the term “future.”

Newsom has been on the national stage before, but only intermittently.

In 2004, he gained national attention for backing same-sex marriage, with the city issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples and Newsom himself officiating same-sex marriage ceremonies on the City Hall steps. Over nine days alone, some 3,200 couples were married. The courts declared the practice illegal, although voters four years later approve approved same-sex marriage in California.

But the issue gave Republicans ammunition against Democrats, many of whom were angry at Newsom and believed it was at least one factor in the defeat of Democratic presidential contender John Kerry at the hands of George W. Bush, a memory that still rankles. Several states approved bans on same-sex marriage, keeping the issue front and center during the campaign.

“I believe it did energize a very conservative vote,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said at the time. “It gave them a position to rally around. The whole issue has been too much, too fast, too soon.”

Opponents wonder whether Newsom is too liberal for California and other Democrats have argued that he’s not progressive enough.

“People have strong opinions about me, trust me, and they have no problem sharing,” he told a Capitol Weekly reporter after he was elected lieutenant governor. “Walk with me for two blocks, you’ll get it.”


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