In the early 1990s, Governor Pete Wilson had barely taken office before he confronted a rush of disasters, both natural and manmade — drought, earthquakes, and crop freezes, plus race riots, deep recession, and a massive budget deficit.
“We’ve had every Biblical plague except locusts,” Wilson quipped at the time.
By contrast, rookie chief executive Gavin Newsom waltzed into the governor’s suite on January 8 amid a booming economy, a huge fiscal surplus, and a Legislature overwhelmingly populated by Democrats united in opposition to the race-baiting and xenophobia emanating from the White House.
In his first days, Newsom won widespread media acclaim for an inaugural address rooted in progressive values and anti-Trumpism, followed by a virtuoso presentation of his first budget proposal, which combines new, liberal spending programs with economies dear to conservatives.
Then his second week arrived.
With pundits’ plaudits still ringing in his ears (“Unique and impressive,” extolled the routinely grumpy George Skelton of the L.A. Times), Newsom suddenly faced a trio of urgent and complex policy and political predicaments that will demonstrate if he can handle the unexpected dilemmas of his new job as easily as the ceremonial fun stuff:
Pacific Gas and Electric Co., California’s largest utility company, announced plans to declare bankruptcy amid plunging stock prices and looming legal liability for catastrophic wildfires in which its equipment is suspected as a cause. Newsom said his first priority would be to keep the power on for millions of customers, but his coming appointments to two agencies that regulate the monopoly, as well as his stance as PG&E lobbyists look to Sacramento for a bail-out, will require a delicate balancing act between consumer and corporate interests in the high-stakes issue.
Teachers in the huge Los Angeles School District went on strike on January 14, bringing to the nation’s most liberal state a work stoppage campaign for higher wages and better working conditions that in the past year rolled through a series of Republican red states. Although Newsom said he won’t get involved in direct negotiations, at least for now, the powerful California Teachers Association is one of his strongest political backers and will expect him to aid the teachers — even beyond his budget proposals’ billions in new education funding to buttress their pension plans, money which proved insufficient to head off the strike.
Trump, embroiled in the longest U.S. government shutdown in history over his demand for financing a border wall with Mexico, threatened to hijack billions in federal dollars earmarked for crucial flood-control infrastructure in California to build his vanity project, while leaving similar funding intact in states that voted for him. Newsom, having positioned himself rhetorically as the leader of the Trump resistance in California, now must shape an effective strategy for overseeing a response to the president with real-world consequences.
“I love this stuff,” Newsom said during his budget launch, during which he displayed an impressive understanding and knowledge of arcane and complicated policy details.
Let’s hope so.
How’s he doin’? PolitiFact, a non-partisan fact-checking outfit, funded by the nonprofit Poynter Institute school for journalism, is publishing a new “Newsom-Meter” to help "track the progress of 12 of Newsom’s most significant campaign promises over the next four years,” according to the site.
During the campaign, the former San Francisco mayor and lieutenant governor frequently boasted of his agenda of “audacious” goals, and now the news organization says it will hold him accountable for what he promised in interviews, speeches, and on his website about education, the environment, health care, homelessness, and housing.
Many of these promises were listed on his campaign site under the headline of “As Governor, Gavin Will,” but, to the surprise of no one, the new guy is already backpedaling on some of them.
“Oh, I never promised; I said it’s my goal,” he said, when asked in a recent interview about his, um, promise to ensure that 3.5 million new housing units are built by 2025. “And goals are nothing more than dreams with deadlines.”
A version of this post appears in this week's Santa Barbara Independent.