Newsom’s No Good, Very Bad Late Summer

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)

How do you know when a politician is having a bad stretch? When he’s coming down in favor of measles outbreaks and utility bailouts, and against community newspapers.

That’s where Gov. Gavin Newsom finds himself at the end of the legislative session. 

First, he has foolishly demanded last-minute changes in a well-crafted pro-vaccine bill that state lawmakers passed in the face of harassment and death threats. That has begged questions about Newsom’s honesty—since he previously made a deal with the bill’s author—and more so about his judgment, since we’re in the middle of a measles outbreak (and since he’s met with anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr).

Then, in backing AB 5, he effectively embraced legislation that could put newspapers out of business. That, at least, is what many newspapers are saying in highly convincing opinion pieces. Newspapers are already in trouble for a host of reasons; AB 5 would essentially blow up the system of contractors that delivers newspapers. 

And finally, a hedge fund campaign against a recent Newsom-negotiated package on PG&E and wildfires is drawing attention, and some political blood. The campaign argues, in overly simplistic terms, that the state bailed out the utility. That’s certainly one way to look at it, but even that look is incomplete. PG&E and the utilities are a huge complicated mess, connected to other big state challenges, from climate change to housing. But Newsom hasn’t made clear to Californians what exactly he’s doing.

One thing that all these political problems have in common is that they point to a Newsom’s communications failure: he doesn’t have a clear message about California for Californians. He has a great national message as a counter to President Trump—people know that and understand it. But what larger story is he telling to California. In the campaign, it felt like he was pushing for deep reform and progressive principles. In office, he’s avoided major reforms (despite having record-high legislative supermajorities!) and is consumed by details—and he’s getting some significant details wrong.

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