With governor bid over, Newsom can focus on legacy

Almost every politician of note has at least one significant loss in their career, and the key question isn’t whether they will keep running but whether they will keep adapting.

For former President Bill Clinton, it took a humbling rebuke of his first term as Arkansas governor to learn that the grand gesture is not always best. For former Vice President Al Gore, it was the realization that he had finally found a calling greater than himself. And for state Attorney General Jerry Brown, it’s been the almost comical discovery that time allows people to reinvent themselves — or at least find enough new offices to remain busy.

So it will be interesting to see how Mayor Gavin Newsom responds to the first setback in his public career and whether he will use his next year in office to make the kind of imprint his early supporters thought he could, or instead continue to fritter away his once-considerable political capital.

Newsom, to his credit, did the right thing by pulling out of the Democratic primary for governor, when it was obvious that all the traveling, all the meet-and-greet town halls and all the optimistic spin were all for naught. He could have done his best Sen. John McCain imitation and kept shuffling the deck despite polls that showed there was no way out of certain defeat, changing personnel and trying to raise funds for months.

But after meeting with his top consultants during the past few weeks, Newsom made the kind of personal decision not usually associated with his robo-pol instincts: He realized that he didn’t have the desire to push against all odds, dial for hard-to-get dollars against a better brand name and do so while trying to have a real life with his wife and new baby.

Oh, and then there is that “day job” thing.

“He could have bought more time, but he realized he couldn’t do it all and certainly not do any job quite right,” one campaign insider told me. “I’m sure in some ways it’s a relief because even though it’s a step back, he gets to be more of a human being and spend time with his wife and his 5-week-old daughter.”

His voluminous critics have been out with sharpened knives since he decided to run for governor a year ago, and there’s little doubt from the games being played at City Hall by supervisors that Newsom truly was distracted from his role as mayor since he was only engaged when there was no choice.

But now he has more than a year to salvage his second term by showing the kind of sharp strategies that formed Care Not Cash and were largely successful in triangulating his most vocal but fringe opponents during two mayoral campaigns.

I talked with Newsom often about the governor’s race in the past few months and his frustration was palpable. Here he was, running against arguably the best-known politician in California — but running alone, since Brown has played a shadow game by raising millions in campaign funds without officially declaring his candidacy.

And the worst part for Newsom is that Brown’s strategy worked, since the former governor’s lead in the polls and in fundraising actually grew the harder Newsom campaigned. And while the mayor formed clear positions on almost all the leading issues facing California and its next governor, Brown has yet to say anything about prison reform, or changes to Proposition 13 tax inequities, or a proposed constitutional convention.

Yet for the voters, or at least those surveyed in public opinion polls, it didn’t seem to matter, and Newsom’s choice was to just get on the phone and try and match Brown’s fundraising level in the next few months.

Talk about a campaign buzz kill.

When I asked Newsom a while back how he was enjoying his new home, he said he was still living out of boxes. Almost all his free time was spent on the road, either at town halls in California or on money-raising trips to the East Coast.

But ask any parent and they will tell you that having a child is a life-changing experience, whether you’re an editor, a CEO, a history professor or a politician. And the idea of continuing to run on empty for another three months or possibly spend nights at home for the first time in a year must have had an undeniable appeal.

He made a real choice and only the most cynical among us would criticize the decision.

The only remaining question is what he does next. Those who have soured on Newsom have done so primarily because they don’t believe he has dealt with the most important tasks at hand, something as simple as paving the streets or as difficult as disarming the most unruly activists in town.

He’s shown he has the ability. Now he has the time.

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