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‘More aggressive and in your face’: Newsom takes power in California

Incoming California Gov. Gavin Newsom

Incoming California Gov. Gavin Newsom takes office Monday as the golden boy of the state Democratic Party’s self-styled resistance. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California

The incoming governor has a powerful ally in fellow San Franciscan House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but a president eager to use the state as a foil.

SAN FRANCISCO — Gavin Newsom sweeps into the California governor’s mansion Monday hinting that he’ll take a more confrontational posture toward Donald Trump in Washington, but his biggest challenge may be dealing with a friendly Democratic supermajority in Sacramento.

A former mayor of San Francisco who served as outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown’s understudy for eight years, Newsom takes office as the golden boy of the California Democratic Party’s self-styled resistance, promising “Courage, for a Change.” And while the penny-pinching Brown was comfortable wielding his veto pen against the Democrats who lead California’s Legislature, Newsom has made potentially costly promises to powerful California groups. He will now face pressure from state Democrats to make good on them — and more — despite volatile economic headwinds that could quickly rein in his ambitions in the nation’s largest economy.

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In Washington, Newsom has a powerful ally in fellow San Franciscan House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but a president eager to use California as a foil. Days before Newsom’s inauguration, Trump on Friday signaled he is ready for confrontation. “California always complains through their great governors,” Trump said Friday of disputes over border infrastructure and building. “They always complain.”

“Jerry had his style. Gavin will have a more pro-active, aggressive style,” says Democratic strategist Sean Clegg, one of the founders of San Francisco-based SCRB Strategies, the political shop behind Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign. “Gavin’s win is a signal that there will be a different chapter, and a different relationship between California and the Trump administration. … It will be more aggressive and in your face.”

The president’s most recent jabs come as the state prepares for its first Democrat-to-Democrat transfer of power in 132 years. But the ceremonial passing of the torch will also mark a dramatic generational and stylistic shift in the nation’s most populous state as Brown, 80 — who served as both the youngest and the oldest governor in the United States during four historic terms — exits the stage for Newsom, 51, who was just 7 years old when Brown was first elected to the office. His family is young and his wife, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, has already deep-sixed the dated first lady label, saying she will be officially referred to as first partner.

At a Sunday afternoon inaugural party, the governor-elect was caught in the crush of a movie-star-like media frenzy as he toured exhibits at the California State Railroad Museum with his 2-year-old son Dutch in his arms; crowds of parents and young supporters begged him to pose for selfie after selfie as Siebel Newsom and their three other kids navigated the crowd.

Newsom will take the oath of office Monday at noon Pacific time, bolstered by the robust Democratic supermajority that November’s election delivered to both houses of the state Legislature. And he’ll also be surrounded by an all-Democratic roster of newly elected statewide officials — incoming Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Treasurer Fiona Ma, Controller Betty Yee, State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, in addition to reelected Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

The Democrats’ November landslide in California will soon enough force Newsom to face down Democrats ready to spend at least some of the estimated $ 30 billion state surplus and rainy day fund accumulated on Brown’s watch on ambitious goals like free community college, single-payer health care and early childhood education.

“Jerry Brown was not throwing red meat at annual Democratic conventions. … He had somewhat of a contentious relationship with the party base,” on issues including fracking, marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform and social spending, says California political analyst David McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State University.

By contrast, “Newsom has been an aspirational candidate’’ who now faces the test of delivering on numerous promises to labor, progressives and environmental lobbies — in what many predict may soon be a contracting economy. So “the challenge will be how to temper expectations … because whatever promises he made as a candidate will now hit with the reality of governing the world’s fifth-largest economy,’’ McCuan says.

Newsom, for example, will propose expanding the state’s Paid Family Leave program to provide six months of leave to take care of a new baby. According to a summary document provided to POLITICO, the governor would begin expanding family leave by drawing down reserves in the current funding system. It is unclear how sustainable the expansion would be long term and whether lawmakers would need to raise payroll taxes to support it.

California Gov. Jerry Brown

Newsom promised that there will be some parallels with Brown when it comes to spending. Fiscally, the state is “in a very good position this year. But I want to underscore this year,’’ he warned. “There will be a lot of one-time investments so we don’t put ourselves back in a position of structural deficit. … Anyone who suggests that you could create universal this, or universal that — even if you wanted to, in six months or a year, our capacity to deliver on that is limited.”

As Brown leaves office — having shepherded the state through the 1970s energy crisis and cultural upheavals, and in his two later terms, through economic, environmental and technological hurdles — California now confronts demographic, ethnic, energy and technology shifts that represent “a whole new set of issues — and whole new concerns from a new generation of voters,’’ says Peter Ragone, a Democratic strategist who advised Newsom during his years as mayor and headed Newsom’s 2018 independent expenditure committee for governor. “If you look at the transformational moment that we are at, Democratic party leaders like Gavin Newsom are going to have to bring a profoundly different approach to these problems,’’ he says.

But Newsom’s first charge will be to emerge from Brown’s shadow.

Gavin Newsom and Jerry Brown in November 2018.

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom (right) looks on as Gov. Jerry Brown responds to a reporter’s question at the Capitol on Nov. 13, 2018, in Sacramento. | Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

“Stylistically, and in terms of family background, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom are very different,’’ says political analyst Jessica Levinson, who heads the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and teaches politics and ethics at Loyola University of Los Angeles. But politically, the two Democrats still share much common ground, she notes: “In terms of policy, they both care deeply about climate change, income inequality, criminal justice reform and the housing crisis … and they both want California to be the state which is the least like Washington, D.C.’’

While navigating the future of some thorny big picture issues he inherits — like high-speed rail and the Delta Tunnels — Newsom “has to show competence on a much grander scale in the shadow of Jerry Brown, someone who oozed confidence and didn’t want to spend a dime,’’ he says. As the son of the late Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown, McCuan argues, “Jerry Brown had years of relationships walking into Sacramento that Gov.-elect Newsom doesn’t have. So for him, it’s not as easy to know who he can trust.”

Trump in recent months has also proved to be an issue, jabbing at both Brown and Newsom — whom he referred to pre-election as a “clown” — on Twitter in sharp-edged critiques of California’s political leadership on issues ranging from border enforcement to forest and wildfire management.

Already, Newsom — perhaps with an eye toward that long road — has suggested he intends some key departures from Brown on political messaging and his public profile. The governor-elect signaled he will aim for a more mobile and informal relationship to average Californians when he hit a post-election town hall in Fresno — telling residents and community leaders that, as governor, he intends such forums to demonstrate “my commitment, not my passing interest, to this community and this state.’’

Clegg says that Newsom relishes such town hall events — he’s done dozens around the state — and understands that regular question-and-answer sessions with constituents are now “de rigueur” for elected officials because “these events don’t just happen in the room; they happen on Facebook live” and have the potential to reach far bigger audiences. Plus, Clegg says, “It sharpens your thinking — and keeps out the cobwebs.”

Such events also help boost Newsom’s appeal to the increasingly diverse and younger California electorate — many of whom register as “no party preference.’’ He’s increased his profile and political punch with younger voters through a large and loyal social media following — including 1.4 million followers on Twitter.

Among his acknowledgment of the concerns of millennial voters as he prepared to take the executive office: Newsom has vowed to ask lawmakers for two years of free community college as part of his big education push, as reported by POLITICO. And the incoming governor has announced he’ll also propose a $ 1.8 billion package of programs aimed at boosting California’s enrollment in early education and child-care programs — efforts to help address an income and education gap which, he said, threatens generations to come.

He’s made a stylistic nod to millennials this week as well: Newsom’s inauguration events will include a “California Rising” concert to benefit fire victims, headlined by popular recording acts like Pitbull, X Ambassadors and Common.

A POLITICO Illustration

Newsom also signaled he wants to be more financially transparent: He announced last month he would put his wine, hotel and restaurant-related Plump Jack businesses in a blind trust and release his taxes annually. Brown, by contrast, never released his taxes as governor.

The Generation X governor also comes to the job with four young children in tow. Democratic strategist Amelia Matier, who managed the successful campaign for East Bay Assembly member Buffy Wicks, notes that both Newsom and his wife were regularly seen bouncing their youngest, 2-year-old Dutch, in their arms while at the same time delivering stump speeches.

“It sent a message that told people that they understood working families, that they’ll be dealing with the same challenges as a lot of other folks,’’ says Matier.

And Siebel Newsom isn’t shying away from political discourse; when climate change protesters gathered outside the couple’s Marin home last week to send a caroling message to Newsom on issues like carbon trading and the Delta Tunnels, Siebel Newsom got out of her car, talked to them — and then joined them out front for a chorus of “Little Drummer Boy.”

Democratic strategist Jacobson says the Newsom era will test the new governor on many fronts, but so far, he’s shown a nimbleness in presenting a profile “that appeals to the various tribes within our tent,’’ from the more moderate “business Democrats” to Bernicrats, to younger democratic socialists and labor powerhouses like the California Nurses Union.

And with the California Democratic Party currently in upheaval with the resignation of its chairman Eric Bauman following sexual harassment charges, McCuan says Newsom must deal with the challenge of bringing those warring factions together — uniting and leading the nation’s largest Democratic Party — while at the same time maintaining their support for big picture issues like single payer health care, immigration and criminal justice reform.

Newsom’s ascent to the job in Brown’s wake now means he must “join the past together with the future, while also trying to bridge Silicon Valley, Hollywood, San Francisco and Los Angeles,’’ with the interests of more economically challenged conservative rural areas like the Central Valley — and at a time when the boom era may be coming to a close, says McCuan.

California Democratic campaign strategist Dave Jacobson says Trump’s attentions may give Newsom “boundless opportunity in the Trump era” to boost his national profile as a party leader who can effectively counter the president’s agenda and rhetoric. As the governor of the nation’s most populous state, Newsom will immediately be viewed as a future Democratic Party leader — and potential presidential candidate.

That means potential pitfalls will be plentiful, says Levinson. “The national media is going to look at a new governor, and say, ‘What’s your next move?’’’ Levinson says. “Every time he makes a big decision, he’ll be assessed on two levels by the Washington press corps: ‘Is it good for California — and is it good for the future presidential candidate?’”

Angela Hart contributed to this report.

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