Unfortunately, Gavin Newsom Is the Future of the Democrats

Gavin Newsom came into office with “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” like universal health care — and proceeded to fulfill as few of them as he could. It’s no wonder he came dangerously close to facilitating a GOP power grab in a deep blue state.

Gavin Newsom speaking at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

In 2018, Gavin Newsom was swept into power as governor of California, beating his Republican rival by nearly 24 points and becoming the first Democrat in over 130 years to succeed another Democrat for the office. Barely three years later, he was pulling out all the stops to survive a recall election, throwing more money at the race than he did to get elected the first time, and enlisting heavy hitters like Barack Obama and President Joe Biden to get him over the top.

What happened?

Newsom’s is more than a story of a nonsensical set of rules for recalling a governor, though there’s no doubt the GOP’s attempt to muscle into power in the blue-dominated state couldn’t have happened without those. It’s also the story of hubris, imprudence, unforced errors, and, as is so often the case with the Democratic Party, liberal betrayal.

A standard-issue Democrat best known as a former San Francisco mayor, Newsom’s time at the city’s helm combined chumminess with the superrich with a wavering push for universal health coverage and defiant advance of marriage equality for gay couples. Running for California’s highest office in a post-2016 world, he won his primary and then a thumping mandate by reading the room to rebrand himself as something like a Berniecrat, rejecting “timidity” in favor of “Big Hairy Audacious Goals,” and rallying progressive activists and organized labor to his side in the process.

But though he’s outperformed what his corporate, centrist bona fides would have led one to expect, Newsom’s two years in the job have been defined by disappointment, compared to both the bold promises he made to voters and the ongoing reality of one-party rule in the ocean-blue state. Now we’ll see if his brush with failure serves as a wake-up call or brings more of the same.

Whole Newsom World

Coming in just as the Bernie Sanders movement seemed on the cusp of ascendancy over the Democrats’ corporate wing, Newsom talked a big game: “Guaranteed health care for all. A ‘Marshall Plan’ for affordable housing. A master plan for aging with dignity. A middle-class workforce strategy. A cradle-to-college promise for the next generation. An all-hands approach to ending child poverty.”

His term started out strong. A staunch opponent of capital punishment, Newsom ordered a moratorium on the death penalty throughout California early on, casting his decision in simple moral terms. For his trouble, he was slapped with accusations that he had defied the will of voters, since they’d rejected earlier ballot measures to get rid of the practice and actually voted to expedite it.

He launched lawsuits against cities that violated housing supply laws, permitted pharmacists to give out two months’ worth of an HIV-prevention drug without a prescription, signed legislation mandating that charter schools be held to the same transparency standards as public schools, tightened gun control in the state with fifteen different laws, allowed college athletes to profit off their profiles with the Fair Pay to Play Act, and pulled (two-thirds of) the National Guard troops Donald Trump had sent to the border of Mexico. As he would for the rest of his term, he pardoned a handful of immigrants who were set for deportation, one eye on solidifying California’s brand as the antithesis of Trumpism.

Several measures reached for bolder ambitions. Legislation he signed in the tail end of 2019 banned private prisons and immigrant detention camps, and Newsom’s now moving ahead with shuttering two of the state’s thirty-five prisons. A landmark law around the same time granted protections to freelancers, making it harder for companies to classify them as independent contractors, and so deprive them of things like the minimum wage or workers’ compensation. That year, he also signed into law a tougher new legal standard for use of force by police, though its impact has proven limited.

With a $21 billion surplus, Newsom put forward a fairly ambitious budget that, among other things, raised the eligibility age limit for Medi-Cal — the state’s Medicaid program — from eighteen to twenty-five for undocumented immigrants, moved the state closer to his goal of universal pre-K, and poured record amounts into education at all levels. Soon after, he signed a bill extending paid family leave from six weeks to eight, then the following year, another one requiring twelve weeks of unpaid leave for large employers. At his urging, the legislature also expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income earners to apply to people making as much as $30,000, and boosted the benefit for Californians with kids.

So it wasn’t for nothing that, by the end of 2019, critics were calling him “California’s most liberal governor ever,” citing bills cracking down on certain types of littering, protecting animals, and banning single-use plastics as examples of the liberal nanny state run amok.

Newsom’s record was nothing to scoff at. Still, it fell far short of the kind of transformative rhetoric he had ridden to the governor’s mansion, let alone the specific promises he’d made to voters and activists.

Not all of this was necessarily his fault. The governor isn’t an emperor after all, and in some cases, he’s had his ambitions pared back by a legislature that hasn’t quite played ball, as when Democrats rejected the $140 million tax on water users he proposed in his first budget to pay for clean water projects.

Other times, it’s been the opposite. That same year, the legislature approved three union-backed bills — one making cities and schools pay for mistakes that accidentally inflate retirees’ pensions instead of the workers themselves; another extending workers’ compensation rights reserved for some peace officers to more of them; and a third giving communication between workers and unions the kinds of protections that attorneys and their clients enjoy — only for them to languish, never reaching Newsom’s desk. Usually, that signals a fear of the governor’s veto.

Even two years later, the state is nowhere near Newsom’s most eye-popping promise: to create a state insurance system giving every resident health care coverage. In his first year, Newsom appointed a commission to look at the idea, and he put in place a state version of Obamacare instead, pairing insurance subsidies with a state-level replacement of Barack Obama’s hated insurance “mandate” that a federal court had struck down two years ago — a giveaway to insurance companies.

But arguably Newsom’s biggest betrayal of this period was his decision to let Proposition 22 pass last year without a fight. Tech companies had been incensed by Newsom’s bill extending worker protections to freelancers, and they fought back by pushing the ballot measure to exempt gig workers from the law with one of the slimier campaigns in recent history. Even while centrists like Biden and running mate Kamala Harris spoke out against it, Newsom, with a history of chumminess with the tech industry, stayed on the sidelines, refusing to so much as say how he voted on it. Already the measure has meant layoffs, reduced benefits, and lower pay for workers.

Ironically, it was the twin crises of the pandemic and the Republican recall effort that nudged Newsom into more ambitious territory. This shouldn’t be surprising: even Trump did a handful of unthinkably progressive things as a result of the crises triggered by COVID-19.

With the state’s economy shot and Newsom’s political survival far from assured, he put forward a measure that was half-stimulus, half-ass-saving Hail Mary: a nearly $200 billion budget, the largest in state history, made partly possible by the avalanche of federal aid money authorized by Congress at the start of the year. Besides direct stimulus payments to two-thirds of Californians in the form of tax rebates, the budget poured money into education and anti-poverty programs, including billions in rental and debt relief, mental health, housing construction, and preschool for all four-year-olds.

Newsom has also used the opportunity to further expand the Medi-Cal program. Undocumented Californians fifty years and older now qualify for the program, and he’s removed the program’s asset test, which barred low-income people from qualifying if they had more than $2,000 (or $3,000, for couples) in some types of assets — the same thresholds that were used thirty-two years ago.

Housing Market of Cards

Results have been similarly mixed with Newsom’s response to the state’s urgent housing crises. California has been home to some of the country’s most unaffordable metropolitan areas for a while, meaning sky-high rents, house prices that rose 24 percent in 2020, 7.1 million people reduced to poverty by rising costs, and 150,000 people who are homeless.

Newsom has gone some way to tackling this. With voters having rejected a ballot measure setting up statewide rent control, he signed a law in 2019 capping rent increases instead, by 5 percent each year. But though it was opposed by some landlord and business groups, it was rife with exceptions, like not applying to family homes unless owned by corporations or real estate trusts, nor to any housing built in the last fifteen years. The result is that it covers only an estimated 8 million of the state’s 17 million renters.

When the opportunity came up in 2020 to expand rent control, Newsom defied progressives, unions, and his own party to oppose the measure, going so far as to appear in ads created by real estate interests to defeat it. It lost.

Though he allowed cities to impose eviction moratoriums — like Trump’s, a pandemic mitigation measure more than a housing justice one — Newsom’s other moves have on the whole been small-ball. At the start of 2020, he announced he would send a puny one hundred trailers to help the more than 100,000 Californians living in their cars or outdoors. The pandemic forced him to think bigger, paying for 15,000 hotel and motel rooms to house the homeless and slow the virus’s spread. Even the 42,000 units of homeless housing in Newsom’s major $100 billion “Comeback Plan” this year will barely make a dent in the 3.5 million units he’d promised to build by 2025.

There are now two bills sitting on Newsom’s desk purported to deal with this festering issue, but that would in reality just expand market-rate housing. We’ll find out soon what Newsom decides to do with them.

Going Viral

While right-wing anger at Newsom’s pandemic restrictions drove the recall effort against him, his response to the virus has faltered, ironically, for being too accommodating to right-wing and business interests in California. In this way, Newsom mirrors the wider Democratic response to the pandemic: lackluster, but less homicidal than what Republicans have done.

Newsom was prudent in putting in place the country’s first shelter-in-place order, but he soon squandered his own progress by succumbing to business pressure and reopening just before summer 2020, when cases were merely plateauing. He was quickly forced to change course and, as in the rest of the country, the result ever since has been an endless series of stop-start, confusing, and piecemeal restrictions that inconvenienced workers and business owners more than a strict, short-term elimination strategy. Adding to this, Newsom would later be photographed violating his own restrictions while dining with lobbyists at a three-star Michelin restaurant, an incident that quickly became the focal point of the furious right-wing recall campaign.

There were other mistakes. Despite his close ties to the tech sector and virtually outsourcing California’s public health system to it, Newsom’s pandemic strategy was serially hobbled by one tech failure after another: a glitch that led to a backlog of 300,000 test results and obscured crucial data to guide the response strategy; endless and frustrating delays in accessing unemployment compensation, caused by the program’s many-decades-old computer system; and tens of thousands of people accidentally unenrolled from the Medi-Cal program. Once the vaccine was finally available, Newsom then oversaw an initially chaotic and failed distribution system that delegated to underfunded and overburdened county health departments, which fortunately improved over time. Still, for a leader whose primary political skill was meant to be technocratic efficiency, these were avoidable and damaging errors.

With the recall behind him, Newsom now has a chance to make yet another mistake: signing AB 654, a bill business groups have lobbied for that would let businesses keep data bout COVID outbreaks in workplaces secret.

Climate Denial by Stealth

Of all issues, possibly none exhibits Newsom’s leadership failures and duplicity better than climate change. Like all corporate Democrats, Newsom has positioned himself as a climate leader by verbally attacking and contrasting himself with Trump, setting himself a floor-level bar to clear. And, like all corporate Democrats, Newsom’s actions have shown he is in practice every bit as much the climate denier as the man he pits himself against.

Newsom started out with mixed signals. He opened his term by imploring Californians to “let’s be real” and jettison the state’s delay-plagued plan for high-speed rail, first thought up under former Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — a gift to Republicans and every climate denier bent on killing essential public transit projects. He soon reversed himself and later fired the state’s top oil regulator, supposedly for approving too many fracking permits.

Unfortunately, any promise these early actions suggested were quickly proven a mirage. After Trump rolled back the Endangered Species Act, Newsom vetoed his own party’s attempt to preserve its critical provisions in their state. Despite blocking new fracking approvals, calling for the legislature to pass a fracking ban, and doing things like setting a 2035 phaseout of gas-powered vehicles or ordering officials to “accelerate” climate strategies “across the board,” Newsom has quietly done the bidding of the fossil fuel industry, dragging his feet on acting to create buffers between oil and gas wells and residential areas while his appointees undermine crucial deadlines for phasing out emissions.

Maybe most scandalous, under Newsom, the state approved 190 percent more drilling permits in the first six months of 2020 than under his first six months in office, as well as forty-eight new fracking permits after claiming to halt further fracking—after already approving twice as many in his first six months as his predecessor had in the same point of his administration. As Steve Horn reported for Capital & Main, some of those fracking permits happened to go to a company represented by lobbyists who were Newsom’s friends and former advisers. One of them, in fact, was dining with Newsom when he infamously violated his own pandemic rules.

Newsom, in other words, has loudly pretended to combat climate change while quietly helping to perpetuate the very crisis that now plunges his state into chaos every year, killing hundreds in his state and reducing an entire town to ash. Worse, while claiming to ramp up efforts to combat deadly wildfires, a joint investigation by CapRadio and NPR this year found Newsom lied about a key aspect of his policy to make it seem like he was doing more than he was: the number of acres targeted with fire prevention work (only 11,399 compared to the 90,000 that were claimed). The investigation found that, not only had the number of acres dropped every year he was governor, but he’d cut the state’s wildfire prevention budget by $150 million.

It’s hard to imagine something lower than this, and yet incredibly, Newsom found a way to sink to it. After utility provider Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), a state monopoly and a generous donor since Newsom’s San Francisco days, was responsible for eighty-four deaths just days after his 2018 win, he worked behind the scenes to financially protect the company. No wonder more than a hundred of California’s elected officials backed putting the company under public ownership. Playing to the mood, Newsom hit the company for the “corporate greed” that caused power outages and the homicidal wildfires, and loudly threatened a state takeover. But he’s yet to follow through, despite its malfeasance, and despite the fact that nationalizing the electric grid is critical for not just navigating the treacherous waters of climate change but ending such predatory and deadly practices.

As the climate crisis intensifies in the years to come, and more Californians are killed and greater parts of the state rendered uninhabitable, this might prove the most shameful part of Newsom’s legacy — unless he uses the lifeline he’s just been granted to turn things around.

The More Things Change

Fittingly, California under Newsom is functioning exactly as he’s sold it: as a bellwether of the post-Trump Democratic Party. Like the Democrats at the federal level, Newsom has been more ambitious than he would have been during the Obama years, but is still fundamentally incapable of following through on the bolder promises that political space has opened up for him to make, and which the facts on the ground demand, partly a result of his reluctance to take on the big-money interests that make up a key part of his governing coalition.

The big question is what lessons Newsom will take from this. Having used the specter of Trump to beat back the recall convincingly, and thus insulate himself from a future primary challenge, will he continue to coast, until either the next crisis again forces his hand, or until he’s able to move up and pass the hot potato to someone else? Or will he use this mandate to ramp up his ambitions and really try to fulfill the promises he made to voters?

Perhaps the better question is, how far are Californians willing to go to make him do what he says — or to punish him if he doesn’t?