As Gavin Newsom disposes of the last few bills from the 2019 legislative session, he more or less closes the book on his first year as governor and it’s an appropriate moment for a progress report.
Overall, he’s had a moderately successful rookie season. He made some progress on some of his campaign promises, but what he called “big hairy, audacious goals” remain elusive and probably impossible to achieve.
Stylistically, Newsom has clearly departed from the oh-so-cautious approach that predecessor Jerry Brown adopted in his second stint as governor. Rather, the initial months of his governorship more closely resemble Brown’s first governorship four decades ago.
Like that of Brown 1.0, Newsom’s governorship has been somewhat chaotic as he flits from topic to topic and confounds the Legislature with his abrupt changes of attitude.
California’s labor unions scored big wins in the just-concluded legislative session — to the surprise of precisely no one. Democrats’ huge gains in last year’s legislative elections, coupled with the election of Gavin Newsom, who had strong union support, as governor, foretold what would happen.
The prime example of the latter was how Newsom handled a very controversial bill that would crack down on physicians who issue phony exemptions from the state’s mandate that children must be vaccinated before attending public schools.
With the anti-vaccination fanatics besieging the Capitol, Newsom told legislators that he wanted some specific changes in the bill before he would accept it. The changes were made, but then at the last moment, he demanded — and grudgingly got — even more amendments.
It breached one of the Capitol’s most cherished, albeit unwritten, rules of protocol — that when one asks for amendments as a condition of support for a bill and gets them, reneging is bad form and induces distrust.
Newsom has emulated the earlier Brown in another respect — craving a role in national politics.
As the young, unmarried and unconventional governor of the nation’s most populous state, Brown received lavish media attention and scarcely a year into his first governorship, ran for president.
Newsom hasn’t made that mistake, but he relishes his self-proclaimed role as a leader of the “resistance” to President Donald Trump, most recently declaring Trump to be “completely corrupt.”
Ironically, however, Newsom not only seems to be emulating Brown in his first governorship, but in some ways Trump.
Gavin Newsom’s website is topped by a photo of him talking to a group of children, and he has repeatedly stressed that as a governor and a father, he considers nurturing them to be his highest priority. Twice in recent weeks, Newsom has acted to protect California’s children.
Like Trump, he’s given to making sweeping pronouncements and promises that don’t hold up to factual scrutiny. There’s simply no way Newsom can generate 3.5 million new housing units by 2025, or bring single-payer health care to California.
Like Trump, too, Newsom’s craving for attention manifests itself in an addiction to Twitter and tweeting out a running commentary on issues large, small and trivial.
So, one might wonder, how does Newsom strike the voters who put him in office by a more than 3-2 margin over token Republican opposition?
It’s a difficult question to answer because of two recent, but widely disparate polls that posed almost identical questions to samples of voters.
One, conducted by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times, asked voters, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way that Gavin Newsom is handling his job as governor of California?” and found that 60 percent of them approved.
The second, by the Public Policy Institute of California, asked, “Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the way that Gavin Newsom is handling his job as governor of California?” and got a positive response from just 44 percent of all adults and 43 percent of likely voters.
That’s a very wide gap and could be explained by the fact that the IGS poll was conducted via the Internet while PPIC’s was by telephone.
Whatever the reason, we don’t yet know whether Newsom’s style and substance are resonating with Californians, or he’s turning them off.