Gavin Newsom, the California lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor who’s been out of the national spotlight for almost a decade, is weeks away from almost certainly being elected his state’s next governor. These days, though, he’s spending a lot of his time backing other candidates, in closer races. As for his own race, he said in an empty room of an Oakland house where he’d just helped the mayor rally volunteers for her reelection bid on a recent gorgeous Sunday morning, “No one cares! I need to be Gillum, or something. Or Beto.”
Newsom, however, doesn’t need the attention that’s currently being lavished on the Democratic nominees for Florida governor (Andrew Gillum) and Texas senator (Beto O’Rourke), and he wouldn’t get it even if he openly wanted it nowadays. “If I went into a room of strangers,” he said, “I would almost guarantee you nine-in-ten would find what’s going on in congressional races more interesting.” Millennial Oaklanders made phone calls for their mayor, Libby Schaaf, on the patio outside, steering clear of the man who’s managed in recent years to be both one of California’s most famous politicians and stuck in the shadow of Governor Jerry Brown for eight years.
Newsom’s position, however, is about to radically change.
Taking over the country’s biggest state — the massive home not only to the Donald Trump resistance, but to a liberal, diverse populace that many Democrats believe represents the country’s future — Newsom is extremely likely to suddenly become one of the most prominent Trump antagonists on Earth. He will govern a territory that’s been locked in a legal and political war with the president for two years now, a state that sometimes acts like it’s own parallel nation. He will be handed a potent kingmaker role as Democrats search for their next presidential nominee. At the same time, since he isn’t planning to run in a 2020 race that will drag many of his party’s leading lights into the political muck, he will be able to define himself — with the help of his new platform — as one of the left’s most aggressive and highest-profile experimenters and implementers. He’ll be the one progressives hope to see trying trying to bring single-payer health care to a population of 40 million instead of waging hand-to-hand combat against dozens of rivals in a crowded field of presidential aspirants.
Which is all to say that Newsom — who’s never been shy about his political ambitions, even musing about the presidency early in his career — has a chance to claim a uniquely influential role near the top of the Democratic Party over the final two years of Trump’s first term. But rather than a leadership position on Capitol Hill, his part might instead look more like the leader of a powerful, progressive external adversary to the White House — a semi-foreign head of state floating conveniently outside the daily D.C. mess.
To get to that place though, Newsom will need to convince the restive, authenticity-demanding Democratic base to listen to a guy who’s jumped in and out of headlines for nearly two decades now, who looks more like a politician than any actor who’s ever played one in a movie. A guy who also got his late-’90s start in politics as a centrist. And he’ll need to finesse that profile while navigating an extremely thorny governing challenge in a huge state facing a looming economic downturn and homelessness crisis — as well as addressing serious questions about how he plans to implement some of his more ambitious proposals, including a state-wide single-payer system.
“California has an outsized importance in the debate because California is big enough, and important enough, to write a counternarrative,” said David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist and former adviser to Barack Obama. “If you’re the guy writing the counternarrative, and you choose to be, you could be a major figure in the national debate. And, needless to say, it’s not bad politics in California to play that role.”
If Newsom, 51, does step up to the opportunity, it would likely be the culmination of a methodical but uneven climb up the ladder for a man who Newsweek named, after his election as mayor in 2003, one of five stars of the party, along with Obama, then a state senator.
It’s an opportunity he’s had a lot of time to think about. And when he talks about the state of the country, it sure sounds like he’s planning — or hoping— to use his tenure to try to create a model of leadership for progressives elsewhere.
“You have your formal role, and you use your moral authority,” he said.
Newsom’s been an expert in using his platform for that kind of projection in the past. He first achieved national prominence in 2004 when, as mayor, he began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples even when his party, and state law, opposed the move. Now, “I do feel a deep responsibility in this moment. I’m not satisfied with my own party, I’m not satisfied with our alternative vision,” he told me. “I don’t know what it is. I haven’t heard it clearly enunciated. I know what we’re up against, and understandably that’s the framework that’s there — the narrative, the Zeitgeist — and we’re certainly unified in that. We meet the moment, and I think that will provide a framework for success through November 6.” (Newsom leads his Republican opponent, businessman John Cox, by double digits in public polling; the primary was widely seen as the real contest.)
“But beyond that, I’m concerned,” he continued, underscoring his state’s potential influence in the national conversation moving forward. “As California, we truly are a nation-state, with a population larger than 163 nations.”
It helps Newsom’s case that the Trump administration agrees with that assessment. The most prominent manifestation of the clash between Washington and Sacramento is the Jeff Sessions Justice Department’s lawsuit over California’s protections for undocumented immigrants, but the fight has gone both ways: the state has filed at least 44 suits against Trump’s government, covering environmental, immigration, and health policy. The constant back-and-forth has empowered local pols to seriously burnish their national profiles — at least half a dozen Californians, led by Senator Kamala Harris and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, are now considering potential runs for president. Three others — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Representatives Maxine Waters and Adam Schiff — are among the national GOP’s biggest enemies, if campaign ads and presidential tweets are a reliable gauge.
He also knows the eyes of the political world will soon be on California thanks to the state’s plan to hold its presidential primary in March — up from June — in 2020, in a bid to increase its influence in the process. That change will almost certainly force the candidates to spend more time on the West Coast, likely courting Newsom and promoting his policies if they want to be on his good side. That could qualify him to play a key role in the primary — while presenting his initiatives on a national stage. “All of a sudden you’re going to come out here, and you’re going to curry favor,” he said. “Over the next year, you better come out and understand what makes this place work. And I think that will allow California to play a much bigger role than most believe, or perceive, at this time.”
When Newsom is out on the trail — especially when he hits the well-rehearsed part of his stump speech, where his deep intonations start to sound almost Southern — he can seem like he’s both campaigning for whichever local candidate is standing next to him, and against Trump.
Newsom stood in his uniform — slicked-back hair, light blue button-up with rolled up sleeves, navy suit pants, shiny black shoes — that breezy Sunday next to Schaaf in her campaign headquarters. The text of his endorsement of the mayor was written out on a poster behind them. It mentioned both Sessions and Trump, lauding her for standing up to them. He listened as Schaaf described him as someone “who is proud to stand up for our values and to absolutely resist the hateful rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C. — the racism, the sexism, the xenophobia coming out of that White House.”
When it was his turn, he almost immediately mentioned Trump, too. “What makes California great — and it is in stark contrast to the rhetoric of the White House, and in Washington, D.C., coming from Donald Trump — what makes us great: at our best, we don’t tolerate that diversity, we celebrate that diversity.” He turned to the notably detailed California policy section of his address, running through education proposals and underscoring the importance of early childhood care (there’s a reason everyone who’s ever worked with him describes him, over and over, as a policy wonk). And then, again, he turned his attention east, sounding increasingly like a man with at least one eye on his national profile. He ripped through a list of Cabinet secretaries he can’t stand, and then described himself as “a guy who cares deeply about Oakland, deeply about the Bay Area, deeply about this state, deeply about this country, and every community that we represent throughout the United States.” The soon-to-be-governor kept going, his words growing loftier while the mayor’s kombucha-carrying, sneaker-wearing volunteers awaited instructions on their script for that morning’s canvas.
Newsom has long lived just outside the inner circle of national politics, making his march toward Sacramento feel decades-long. As early as 1998, he found himself in political trouble for suggesting that one day he might run for president. He was on San Francisco’s board of supervisors at the time, only his second job in government after he started as an appointed parking and traffic commissioner in 1996. After Newsom’s same-sex marriage maneuver earned him a national name, a New Yorker profile in 2004 quoted both Pelosi and investor Gordon Getty envisioning the White House in his future, too.
Newsom’s skeptics have long pointed to his close ties to his city’s elites as evidence that he got an unfair boost, even before he became San Francisco’s youngest mayor in decades. (Members of the billionaire Getty clan are close family friends: Newsom’s father at one point managed their family trust, and helped deliver the ransom money for John Paul Getty III in 1973. Gordon Getty later helped Newsom get his early companies, starting with a wine store, off the ground.) Others point to his personal past as a liability if he intends to play a real national role — he is remembered in some quarters for having an affair with the wife of his campaign manager while he, himself, was going through a divorce. Newsom announced, at the time, that he would seek alcohol abuse treatment. (His ex-wife Kimberly Guilfoyle is now better known as the until recently Fox News host who now works at a pro-Trump super-PAC and dates Donald Trump Jr.) Newsom is remarried and campaigns regularly with his wife and children. He looks slick, but can come across as slightly manufactured. At one point, when I asked for his impressions on Brown’s positioning himself as a “shadow president” on environmental issues, Newsom responded: “I love that. I love that. I mean, I love leadership! I’m inspired by leadership!”
He and Brown, famously, are not particularly close. The pair briefly ran against each other for the governor gig in 2009, but Newsom dropped down to take the lieutenant job when it became clear he was lagging behind Brown, who’s been a force in the country’s left-wing politics for decades, including three failed presidential runs. That relationship has remained distant in office, especially after Newsom tried introducing an economic plan early on and Brown dismissed it. A fair assessment of the latest Brown tenure (he was also governor from 1974–1982) would now describe it as transformational, from his leadership on climate policy to turning around the state’s economy, which makes Newsom’s ambition to be nationally resonant especially delicate. “Any conversation about California has to recognize the job Jerry Brown did. It’s sort of like watching the Niners after Joe Montana retired. Well, we had a pretty good quarterback after that, Steve Young, but it’s like, ‘Really?’ I don’t think people understand what a job Jerry did,” said Tom Steyer, the San Francisco–based billionaire hedge fund manager turned environmentalist and impeachment activist who, himself, has considered running for statewide office in recent years, and who is now contemplating a 2020 presidential run. “When he came in we were bankrupt. We were dysfunctional. Everything was upside down.”
When he takes over, Newsom is likely only going to have so much room for experimentation. As Brown told reporters in January, referring to the state’s budget, “The next governor is going to be on the cliff. What’s out there is darkness, uncertainty, decline, and recession. Good luck, baby.”
Newsom hasn’t explicitly distanced himself from Brown, but he has suggested he intends to be more involved in the legislative process than his predecessor, and he recently broke from Brown on a pair of hot-button topics: he backed a bill requiring the state’s public universities to offer abortion pills on their campuses, which Brown vetoed, and said he was open to a pilot program for safe injections for drug users. “Though our slogan in this campaign is ‘Courage for a Change,’ it’s not an indictment of Brown or the status quo. It kind of marks a moment,” he insisted to me. “It’s going to take a little more courage to resist Trump, to resist Trumpism, to obviously be a proactive alternative to Trump.”
Newsom is now widely seen as having played the political game well, or ruthlessly, enough to have claimed one of the vanishingly few high-profile statewide seats coveted by many ambitious local pols of his generation. He started running for governor in early 2015, just after Brown’s election to a fourth term, around the time the first Republican candidates for president were revealing their intentions to run for president in 2016, an absurdly early start that let him muscle potentially strong challengers aside. When he spoke to Democratic volunteers in the Castro neighborhood the Monday after appearing for Schaaf, he did it just feet from a massive blown-up copy of a recent issue of Time featuring Pelosi, and he was introduced by the leader’s daughter and granddaughter. In June 2016, Newsom introduced Hillary Clinton the night she clinched the Democratic nomination for president, at her rally in Long Beach.
But the national Democratic Party into which Newsom now steps is a far cry from where it was when he first tried running for governor. Then, Obama was firmly in charge. Now, Democrats are about to dive into a yearlong wrestling match between dozens of their most famous figures to determine their next standard-bearer, not only at the presidential level but possibly in the House of Representatives, as well. Newsom, meanwhile, will likely assume one of the country’s most prominent executive roles far from that fray. He sees that as a chance to pull his party toward his — and California’s— way of doing things, and he told me he is now explicitly talking about how to accomplish that when he makes plans with allies in the state legislature.
In his formulation, he said in Oakland, that requires proving that the party’s new ideas can work on a large scale, as Brown has done, but also trying to force California Democrats into working on what he calls “a more aggressive economic development framework.”
“I’m a small-business person — 22 businesses, 800 employees, I’m passionate about free enterprise — I think that’s the missing piece for the Democratic Party: to be more oriented in the entrepreneurial spirit,” he explained.
But that kind of language, however vague, sets off alarm bells for activists aligned with Bernie Sanders’s brand of democratic socialism, playing into lingering distrust of where Newsom truly stands on the party’s ideological spectrum. While he has frequently sided with national progressives during his campaign — most prominently in his support for their preferred type of health-care system, in an echo of the universal program he implemented for San Franciscans as mayor — the lack of competition in his race has allowed him to avoid much specificity when it comes to his priorities or proposed plans of action. Newsom now has a reputation locally for being an aggressive proponent of lefty policies, but his politics have also shifted with the rest of the party’s. He was a favorite of the centrist, Bill Clinton–aligned Democratic Leadership Council when he first became mayor, and he’s changed positions on charged issues like bail reform. He now says he wants to eliminate bail, whereas, as a supervisor, he once proposed raising it.
Plus, he likely has little room for error in the sensitive national environment where Democrats are, and will be, trying to win back conservative GOP-held territory.
“If you want to be a national figure, the danger is you play the cards too heavy-handedly. This is a big, diverse country,” warned Axelrod. “You shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that what plays well in Northern California plays well everywhere else.”
That’s one big reason why, from Bangor to Phoenix, the Democrats now running for office now are bending over backward to avoid looking like their campaigns are centered around animus to Trump, keeping their public pronouncements limited, instead, to local and personal issues.
But not here.
“There’s an ongoing debate, that I think has been won, where they want us to stop focusing on Trump. Where all the punditry, all the national pundits, all the quote-unquote smart ones, the columnists, and some of the sophisticated candidates are saying that’s absolutely right,” Newsom said, pausing for a second. Two days earlier, he’d tweeted a video directly addressing Trump, promising, “we’re not backing down.”
“I’m just experiencing something very different here, with respect to California,” he continued. “There’s real anxiety.”