Newsom, who last year fended off a recall election and is running for a second term this year, must navigate a California version of the progressive-moderate divide. On one side are the governor’s progressive allies and organized labor. On the other: moderates and business interests that any chief executive in California needs to stay in power.
Straddling the two isn’t easy and could be costly to Newsom, says Democratic strategist Roger Salazar.
“You don’t want to go over that progressive waterfall. You want to keep going down that stream but you don’t want to go too far and then end up crashing,” said Salazar, who worked for ousted former Gov. Gray Davis. “Most of the states aren’t as progressive as California, so you don’t want to get to the point where you end up alienating people, which ends up hurting your political strength.”
All of that comes amid speculation about Newsom’s presidential ambitions that he has helped stoke with strategic ad buys in Republican states and visits to Washington, even as he continues to insist he has no interest in running for president in 2024. Lawmakers and lobbyists broadly believe that Newsom is making decisions through that lens.
His moves in the coming weeks could give him new progressive policies to brag about to the world. They could also give his enemies an avalanche of ammunition for attack ads. Or both.
Here’s a look at some of the tests Newsom will face:
Should California loosen its laws to allow drug use in certain settings? State Sen. Scott Wiener thinks so. The San Francisco Democrat’s proposal to let some of California’s big cities test supervised injection sites is already on Newsom’s desk. Another Wiener bill that would decriminalize hallucinogens and ecstasy is a couple of votes away.
Newsom declared in 2018 that he was “very open” to government-managed drug use sites as a way to prevent overdose deaths, distinguishing himself from then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoing a similar bill. But Newsom hasn’t yet taken a public position on a recently passed bill that would set up pilot programs in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Some public health experts believe safe injection sites can save lives, and the idea echoes a larger desire to move away from a prosecution-first approach to addiction.
But the bill also opens Newsom to readymade attacks that he enabled drug use, paired with images of urban squalor. The measure barely passed the Legislature as moderate Democrats warned the bill would exacerbate rather than address widespread addiction. “Let’s put the hammer down on folks” who sell fentanyl, said Assemblymember Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove). “You don’t want to do that. You want to play nice.”Republicans have excoriated the bill as well. Sen. Brian Dahle, who is running to unseat Newsom, has warned its passage would lead other states to follow suit.
“He’s promoting that California’s the right way,” Dahle said. “I don’t know what planet he’s on, but I look around California, you’ve got people living on the streets, you’re stepping in human feces and needles.”
Environmentalists have a mixed view of Newsom these days. While he has set some ambitious climate goals, he irked green Democrats by seeking billions for a backup electricity supply that could mean sustaining nuclear and fossil fuel power plants. He further frustrated environmentalists by strenuously opposing a Lyft-funded ballot initiative that would pay for electric vehicles by raising taxes on the rich.
But now he’s ramping up. Newsom recently wrote California’s air quality regulator advocating more ambitious climate action and followed uplast week with rare appearances before Senate and Assembly Democratic caucuses, emphasizing goals like carbon neutrality, separating oil wells from homes and schools, and carbon capture. Some of his top environmental officials met with lawmakers and environmental groups.
“This is pretty rare for Governor Newsom to lay out such bold action and directives to the Legislature, and every conversation I’ve had with legislators has indicated they’re ready to step up,” Environment California State Director Laura Deehan said in an interview.
The question now: What will come of it? Newsom has called for environmental legislation before only to watch it die from the sidelines, and he didn’t intervene to salvage bills that would have accomplished what he’s asked for. A powerful labor-oil alliance has derailed past efforts. Lawmakers are keen to ensure they’re not signing on to a budget item extending a lifeline for polluting electricity sources. Newsom will play a key role in determining what emerges — and a deal could burnish his national reputation and match the White House’s climate breakthrough.
“The governor’s all-in” on climate, spokesman Anthony York said. “He’s going to push.”
Despite Newsom’s reputation outside of California as a free-spending liberal, he’s been sympathetic to business since his days as mayor of San Francisco. That can fuel tension with labor unions that wield significant clout in Sacramento — not to mention Democratic primaries — and that often clash with industry groups.
Two bills, in particular, could test that dynamic. Labor has pushed for fast-food industry standards, and a bill to create an advisory council on wages and working conditions has drawn significant opposition from restaurant and franchise organizations. Last year Newsom vetoed a United Farmworkers bill making it easier for agricultural laborers to vote in union elections — but a similar measure on a path to his desk is drawing fire from major agricultural interests.
“I know Gavin Newsom has been considered very liberal on a lot of issues, usually social issues — when it comes to workers’ issues, he’s been a good Democrat. He hasn’t been a warrior,” California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a former state lawmaker, said in an interview. “The question is, will Gavin Newsom follow the lead of the people of California, who obviously side with farmworkers and fast food workers over big corporations and big farms?”
It’s an idea that seeks to get at the core of workplace inequities: compelling California companies to disclose how much they pay their workers. Supporters believe abill to make that information public, broken down by gender and race, would help ease imbalances in how much women and people of color are paid.
But thelegislation is a top target for business groups who warn it would give companies another reason to avoid operating in California. Those interests have a fair amount of power to kill or dilute legislation — and to persuade governors to veto bills. They have been pushing to keep company names confidential, which the bill’s author called a purpose-defeating non-starter.
Another variable: First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a vocal advocate for women’s equality in the workplace and beyond. The governor has proudly touted his spouse’s work. “In CA, we have some of the strongest pay laws in the nation, but CA women still earn just $.86 on the dollar & that number plummets for women of color,” Siebel Newsom tweeted on Equal Pay Day (her office did not respond to a request for comment).
“We definitely know this is an issue the First Partner cares a lot about,” said state Sen. Monique Limón, who is carrying the bill, but “we know there is very strong opposition, and that opposition is talking to legislators and making sure the governor’s office understands that position.”
Social media companies are facing a political reckoning as policymakers grapple with increasing evidence of its harmful effects on kids. That’s true both in Washington and in Sacramento, where landmark legislation would hold firms that own Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram liable for how their products affect young people.
Industry opposition already led the bill’s authors to drop a provision allowing private lawsuits. But the bill still targets a fundamental business practice — and tests the tech industry’s clout in the capital of Meta and Snap’s home state.
Newsom has not publicly stated his position, but he has built deep ties with Silicon Valley over the years. In 2020, he vetoed legislation that would have imposed parental consent requirements on social media companies, writing it was redundant because of federal law and that it “would not meaningfully expand protections for children.”
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