The campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom shows that even a one-party stronghold like California can be rocked by the nation’s political polarization. (Max Whittaker/The New York Times)

The campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom shows that even a one-party stronghold like California can be rocked by the nation’s political polarization. (Max Whittaker/The New York Times)

Gavin Newsom is much more than the lesser of two evils

By Ezra Klein

New York Times

The prospect of Gov. Larry Elder has jolted California’s Democrats out of their apathy. Polling on the recall has swung from a dead heat in early August to an 8.4 margin for Gavin Newsom in FiveThirtyEight’s tracker. But I want to make an affirmative argument for continuing the Newsom experiment: Something exciting is taking shape in California. The torrent of policy that Newsom and the Democratic Legislature are passing amounts to nothing less than a Green New Deal for the Golden State.

To understand Newsom, both his successes and his failures, you need to see the paradox that defines his career. The knock on him is that he’s all style, no substance — a guy who got where he is by looking like a politician rather than acting like a leader. The truth is just the opposite. Newsom’s style is his problem; his substance is his redemption.

When Newsom was the mayor of San Francisco, his nickname was “Mayor McHottie,” and he came complete with a tabloid-ready personal life and funding from the unimaginably wealthy Getty family. His worst mistakes as governor — like attending a birthday dinner for a lobbyist friend at the luxe French Laundry, unmasked, during the depths of the pandemic — deepen those suspicions. The “Beauty,” one of his recall opponents, who fancies himself “the Beast,” called him in a $5 million ad blitz.

The attacks wound Newsom because what appear to be his strengths are actually his weaknesses. Newsom is handsome in a way that comes off as just a little too coifed, like the actor you’d cast to play a politician in a movie. His personal life and social misjudgments have dogged him for decades. He doesn’t have a knack for memorable sound bites or quick connection. (A sample line from our interview: “It was not without consideration that last year we passed a number of bills to site homeless shelters and supportive housing and Homekey and Roomkey projects with CEQA waivers and as-of-right zoning.”) He’s an eager nerd who presents as a slick jock, and he’s never found a way out of that dissonance.

He’s also been governing amid the worst pandemic in modern history. California has outperformed most states in health outcomes and, particularly, in economic outcomes. “We dominate all Western democracies in the last five years in GDP,” Newsom said. “The GOP loves GDP! Twenty-one percent GDP growth in the last five years. Texas was 12%. And our taxes are lower for the middle class in California than they are in Texas.” Basically every economic indicator you can look at in California is booming, from household income growth to the $80 billion-plus budget surplus. But it’s still been a grueling 18 months of masks, lockdowns, deaths and discord. There’s been little attention to policymaking in Sacramento.

As a result, people don’t realize how much Newsom and the Democratic state Legislature have done. But in the 2 1/2 years since Newsom became governor, they’ve more than doubled the size of California’s earned-income tax credit and Young Child Tax Credit, and added a stimulus just for Californians (though some of the neediest were left out). They expanded paid family leave from six to eight weeks and unpaid leave to 12 weeks. They added 200,000 child care slots and $250 million to retrofit child care centers. They passed legislation giving all public school students two free meals each day, funding summer school and after-school programs for 2 million children and creating a full year of transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds by 2025.

Newsom is “three years ahead of Joe Biden in terms of pro-family policy,” Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, told me. “Any parents or grandparents who back the recall are voting against their own financial interest, I’d say.”

Housing has been harder, in part because you need to do more than just spend money. Ben Metcalf, who led California’s Department of Housing and Community Development for three years under Gov. Jerry Brown and one year under Newsom, recalls that “when Newsom first arrived, I was excited by his vision, but then dismayed by his inability to effectively deliver and get the Legislature to do what he wanted. Brown knew how to wield power. He knew the points of inflection. He had a team of people he could rely on.”

You hear unflattering comparisons with Brown often when you ask around about Newsom. Brown was a more disciplined and experienced leader. He chose his priorities carefully, and he did what he promised. The surplus Newsom is spending is a gift bequeathed by Brown, who persuaded California’s voters to sharply raise taxes on the wealthiest residents. But Brown did little to address the state’s housing affordability crisis and neither did the Legislature.

Nancy Skinner, a state senator who’s been a leader on housing, told me that “our shortage has been decades in the making.” The mantra, she said, was to just leave it to the cities. “For years, the Legislature just urged city governments to be more responsive. We tried to create some incentives. And only in the last five years did we realize this is a statewide crisis and we can’t just leave it to local governments to get it fixed. It took the Legislature a long time to get to the place of realizing the urging and carrots didn’t do it. We have to do the mandates.”

Newsom, to his credit, prioritized housing from the beginning. Early in his term, in 2019, he sued the city of Huntington Beach for allegedly falling short on its housing commitments and threatened to sue dozens more. He made housing the primary focus of his 2020 State of the State speech. But the initial consensus was that he overpromised and underdelivered. There were widespread frustrations that he wasn’t tough enough with the Legislature and his interventions were often ineffective. He remains far behind his goal of building 3.5 million new housing units by 2025.

“I said the 3.5 million houses was a stretch goal,” he protested to me. “I said in trying to achieve it, we’d find what we were capable of!”

To be fair, Newsom couldn’t have predicted that the pandemic, which descended on California just weeks after his big housing speech, was coming. Still, in February, I was furious watching California’s political class, including Newsom, fail and fail again to pass major housing legislation. But when the facts change, so must your mind. The Legislature just passed, and Newsom will sign, a series of housing bills that achieve something I never expected to see in California: the end of single-family zoning. SB9 allows homeowners to divide their properties into two lots and to build two homes on each of those lots. It won’t solve the housing crisis, but it’s a start.

Newsom and other Democrats are also finally appreciating the depth of the anger even liberals feel about homelessness. “People can’t take the tents and open-air drug use,” Newsom said to me. “They can’t. Nor can I. They want the streets cleaned up. They want more housing. They don’t care about task forces or bills. I think that sense of urgency coming out of COVID sharpens our edges. The five- to 10-year plans, no one is interested in that anymore. What’s the five- to 10-month plan?”

In Newsom’s case, it’s using the state’s budget surpluses to drive a $12 billion investment over two years in permanent residences and mental health care for the homeless. How well it works remains to be seen, but no other state is investing in housing at anything like this scale or speed.

What’s most encouraging to me is a broader change you can sense in the politics of this issue. At every level of power in California, the state’s political actors have realized they need to find ways to build. Inaction is no longer a viable option. Even the politicians who oppose development have to pretend to favor it. There’s no illusion that the tent cities can continue, nor that they can be cleared without offering housing to their residents. Politics isn’t just about policy. It’s also about will, coalitions and a sense of consequences. That’s what feels different in California right now. And Newsom deserves some credit for that.

“The reason we began suing cities was to provide air cover,” Newsom told me. “I can’t tell you how many mayors privately thanked me even as they publicly criticized me for those lawsuits. We’re trying to drive a different expectation: We will cover you. You want to scapegoat someone, scapegoat the state. We haven’t had that policy in the past. Localism has been determinative. And that’s part of what’s changing.”

This is why I disagree with those, like economist Tyler Cowen, who argue that a Republican victory in the recall would be a healthy wake-up call for California Democrats, with little downside because Elder would be checked by the Legislature. The political system has already woken up. But the politics of housing are miserable, and there’s much more yet to do. To wreck the governing coalition that is finally making progress would be madness.

“If Gavin were recalled, that’d be disastrous for housing policy in this state,” Brian Hanlon, the president of California YIMBY, a pro-housing group, told me. “The Legislature, I believe, could override Larry Elder’s vetoes on key bills. But all of these hard-fought housing bills that we are not passing with a supermajority cannot survive an Elder veto. All that would die.”

“I also think that if the recall succeeds, in part due to housing, the overall situation in Sacramento would just be chaotic,” Hanlon added later. “It’ll be a lost year as Democrats and the Legislature work to retake the governor’s office in 2022.”

Metcalf, the former head of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, has moved from dismayed to impressed by Newsom’s record on housing. “We’re beginning to see Newsom find the levers to pull,” he said. “We’re seeing him figure out how to get the Legislature to do what he wants. We’re just getting there with Newsom, which would make it very painful to lose him now.”

Every California politician brags that if California were a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest economy. On climate, though, that’s a point of leverage, a way California can try to use its economic might to push the world to decarbonize faster. “There is no peer on California’s climate leadership,” Newsom told me. “We move markets. We move policy globally, not just nationally.”

The first part of Newsom’s climate agenda is a series of executive orders setting aggressive decarbonization targets and standards. They include orders mandating that all new passenger cars sold in the state are zero-emission vehicles by 2035, a pledge to conserve 30% of the state’s land and waters by 2030, and directives to the California Air Resources Board to map out a pathway to carbon neutrality by 2035 and an end to oil extraction by 2045.

California has, in the past, used access to its markets to transform the products that are sold globally — our tight fuel economy standards became the de facto national standard, and our subsidies for electric vehicles laid a foundation for that market to boom. Newsom wants to do that again, but for far more than just cars.

I am, to be honest, skeptical of far-reaching targets and ever more aggressive decarbonization goals. It’s always easier to promise sweeping change in the future. But you can’t build a different future without planning for it now. What matters is whether these orders really do shape public and private decisions in California over the next decade. If Newsom or a like-minded successor remains governor, they have force. But they are instantly vulnerable if he loses office to Elder or anyone else.

The second part of Newsom’s climate agenda is, well, money. The California Comeback Plan that Newsom signed this year put nearly $8 billion toward electric vehicles and climate resilience. Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who tracks state climate policies, said that “spending in the billions on climate is basically unheard of at the state level. No other state is doing anything remotely close to this scale.”

I could keep going, and Newsom certainly did. He’s got a whole health care agenda meant to integrate physical and mental care called CalAIM that he gets extremely animated talking about (“If you could see me, I’m smiling, I’m so excited by this!”). He also has a plan to let the state bargain for prescription drugs on behalf of not just its public insurance programs but also any private insurers that want to join. He’s trying to convert the Valley State Prison into a rehabilitation center modeled on the Norwegian prisons that progressives admire. He’d love to tell you about his immigration ideas.

It’s really a blizzard of plans. Newsom sees what he’s doing as “raising the bar of expectations.” He told me a quote, often attributed to Michelangelo, that he repeats to his staff: “The biggest risk is not that we aim too high and miss it. It’s that we aim too low and reach it.” He admitted they roll their eyes at this. But it is, for him, a strategy. “We’ve stretched the mind and I don’t think it goes back to its original form.”

Perhaps. I’ve spoken to Newsom allies who worry that he’s attempting too much and that it could end with him achieving too little. Every one of these ideas will face serious implementation challenges. Transitional kindergarten, for instance, will require the state to produce 12,000 credentialed pre-K teachers and 20,000 more teacher’s aides in the next four years, according to Fuller. It’s going to require a decade of patient political work on housing to reverse California’s affordability crisis. Newsom’s health care agenda alone would preoccupy a traditional term, but his administration hasn’t done much to communicate its vision. When I asked a leading doctor at the University of California at San Francisco about it, he had no idea what it was.

So there are challenges still to come — many of them. But I’d like to see Newsom and the Democratic Legislature get the chance to face them. If they succeed, they will make California the progressive beacon it’s long claimed to be.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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