Newsom Better When Salty

Joe Mathews

Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)


Whatever your politics, Gavin Newsom has a distinguished record as a mayor and policy thinker. But in person, he has often seemed boyish and slick, and too eager to please.

That may be changing. I recently watched video of the gubernatorial frontrunner conducting an extensive question-and-answer session at a Public Policy Institute of California event. And while all the familiar wonkishness was there, the ingratiating demeanor was gone. Instead he was putting things bluntly and offering a take-or-leave-it series of provocations.

Newsom tastes a lot better salty.

The lieutenant governor covered so much ground that I can’t recall it here, but he went from community college graduation rates to pre-natal care (“If you don’t have a prenatal plan, you shouldn’t run for governor”) to the connections between health care costs and tuition costs to the toilet-to-tap water recycling in Orange County.

Newsom was doing a delicate political dance; he praised Gov. Brown personally (there’s strong overlap in polls between the governor’s supporters and Newsom’s) while making an argument for much bigger-picture thinking and policy-making in state government. That’s an implicit criticism of a governor who has mostly played small ball on big problems.

Newsom argued for starting over with a blank page, instead of building on existing systems, in areas from higher education to workforce development to the safety net. He’s right – California’s existing system are too complicated and compromised to serve as a foundation for policymaking given 21st centuries changes.

The one time he slipped into demagoguery was in defending his support of single-payer; he suggested that it was completely dishonest for anyone to argue that single-payer would cost more than our current system (The problem, as he surely knows, is that SB 562 and other single-payer plans put in no real cost controls or efficiencies of other single-payer systems, and there’s reason to doubt that he or other politicians would be willing to pursue single-payer if it means limiting access to health care or the pay of politicians’ supporters in the health care system).

On the other hand, engaging in single-payer demagoguery is now a requirement of running for office in California, at least if you’re a Democrat.

Stylistically, Newsom also gave the audience some good self-loathing – “I’ve failed as a communicator” – when questioners didn’t seem to understand one of his answers. Systemic change is hard to explain, given the way our minds have grown accustomed to one-piece-at-a-time thinking.

Newsom also appears older, and a little curmudgeonly. Which is perfect, because California is getting older and more curmudgeonly.

Bottom line: he looked and sounded like a governor.

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