California’s status as a virtual nation-state makes Gov. Newsom more than just one of 50 governors. He demands to be watched. POLITICO sat down with Gov. Gavin Newsom to reveal five dynamics at play in Newsom-world, including some challenges that he views as potential opportunities for California (and, naturally, himself).
To access Newsom’s full interview and dive deeper into California policy and politics, learn about becoming a POLITICO California Pro subscriber here.
1. Trump 2020 is good politics for Newsom
Donald Trump loves slamming Newsom’s California — and that’s as good for the Newsom brand as it is for the Trump brand.
Long connected to some of California’s most prominent families — a photo of Bobby Kennedy and Newsom’s late father, William, a state appeals court judge and manager of the Getty family oil fortune, adorns the governor’s office wall — the charismatic Newsom has been a man on the rise for two decades now. He emerged relatively unscathed from scandal — an affair during his time as mayor of San Francisco – and waited out two terms as Brown’s lieutenant governor before winning election handily last November.
It’s a given in California political circles that Newsom wants someday to run for president — and while 2020 is too soon, 2024 could work just fine, the theory goes…if Trump wins re-election, of course.
Newsom seems to relish a public fight with the president — and Fox News and conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, who often takes aim at California, and whom Newsom name-checks repeatedly in the course of an hour. He shrugs off concerns that Trump and the Republicans will exploit the deal Newsom and California lawmakers cut last week on health care for some undocumented immigrants.
“If it’s not this, it’s ten other things,’’ he says. “If I’m going to be worried about Donald Trump’s feelings and Tucker Carson’s feelings and Fox News’ feelings, then I won’t be taking care of the people in this state,’’ he adds. “I won’t be doing justice. to millions and millions of Californians who will benefit from our health care expansions, the biggest expansion [to benefit] the middle class - something no one thought was achievable few years back.”
Still, Newsom clearly pays close attention to the daily drama of Trump’s White House. “[Trump] says he has a great [health care] plan, and maybe it’s in the left pocket, not the right one. He pulled out the deal with Mexico today; maybe he has a deal on health care,” Newsom says.
As any California governor should, Newsom has the “as goes California, so goes the nation” message down pat. After all, California’s politics do have a way of presaging things to come to the rest of American politics — think the Proposition 187 vote on immigration in 1994 or the state’s early debates over fuel efficiency standards.
And in Newsom’s view, there’s a message there: Under Trump, national Republicans “are into the politics of what California was into in the 1990s..and they’ll go the same direction — into the waste bin of history, the way Republicans of the '90s have gone. That’s exactly what will happen to this crop of national Republicans.”
Still, he’s cautious on the impeachment question. Newsom, who is close to fellow San Franciscan and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, defends her reluctance to start impeachment proceedings. “What’s so remarkable about someone with the experience and temperament of Speaker Pelosi is that she’s seen a lot of movies,’’ he says. “She’s been there. She’s got a better sense than a lot of folks. So I think we should stay the course. What we’re doing is working...I think Democrats are winning right now.”
2. Health care could be California's — and Newsom's — sweet spot
Newsom wants you to know he’s a policy wonk, and he’s using his perch to move the needle on hot-button policy issues that Democratic 2020 contenders — and the House Democratic majority — have far less ability to affect. As the most populous state and the country’s biggest economy, Newsom’s actions carry outsize weight – and are guaranteed outsize publicity.
Consider the national attention it garnered when Newsom signed an executive order in March halting executions – sparing 737 people on California’s death row. Witness the proclamation his office wrote last month “welcoming women to California to fully exercise their reproductive rights” after a wave of conservative states took steps to limit abortion. Newsom is outspoken on immigration, traveling to El Salvador earlier this year in his first international trip as governor.
Newsom is remembered by many for leading the way on same-sex marriage during his days as San Francisco mayor. And now, he is determined to plant the flag on universal health care – something that was not seen as a top priority for Brown — including for all undocumented immigrants.
“We’re going to get it,’’ Newsom insists. “We’re committed to universal health care. Universal health care means everybody…We will lead a massive expansion of health care, and that’s a major deviation from the past.’’
“That’s the real story coming out of California,” Newsom says. “A lot of the think tanks that are informing these presidential candidates, are informing their policies. But California is doing. We’re implementing.”
3. He's all in for Kamala Harris in 2020 — really, he is
Newsom is backing Sen. Kamala Harris in 2020, but it’s worth remembering that the two were long viewed as political rivals. Both former San Franciscans enjoyed the patronage of former Mayor Willie Brown as they ascended the ranks of the state party. Harris was also reportedly eyeing the governor’s race before Newsom claimed that turf, declaring his candidacy two years ahead of the election. She announced her 2016 run for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Senator Barbara Boxer weeks later.
Newson maintains that he’s all in for Harris; he endorsed her early in the Democratic primary, and he’s done his part to help boost her campaign coffers, hosting a recent fundraiser in the Getty home in San Francisco that raised $300,000 in one night. He gives little credence to recent polls showing that Harris is trending in the wrong direction.
Asked whether he will campaign for Harris, Newsom quickly responds: “I have been. Every time I’ve been asked.” He adds: “I’m campaigning for her right now, it sounds like.”
Harris, he argues, has “consistently been in the top five, that’s an extraordinary achievement with eight months to go before the first vote is cast.’’ The former California AG “has shown a successful ability to navigate the white waters...and continue to be part of the conversation against powerhouses — Sanders, Biden, and some of the most well-known brands in American politics,” Newsom said.
Even amid polls showing Biden and Sanders leading Harris among Democratic voters in her home state, Newsom says Harris is not at risk in California’s early primary next March. “She hasn’t really started campaigning” in her home state yet. … She hasn’t campaigned at the level she will be.”
Still, Newsom acknowledges that he has met with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and read Buttigieg’s best-selling book, “Shortest Way Home.” The former San Francisco mayor jokes that there’s something of an affinity there: “Mayors get it done.”
In the end, supporting Harris costs Newsom little — if she wins the nomination or even the presidency, he enjoys some of the credit, and the benefits of having helped. If she doesn’t, he was still the loyal soldier as he built his own profile.
Never miss a beat on California politics or policy.
Learn more about POLITICO California Pro here.