During his first 100 days as California’s 40th governor, Gavin Newsom has grabbed a lot of headlines.
In some cases, the substance of Newsom’s announcements has yet to match the sizzle.
He canceled California’s high-speed rail project. Except, he didn’t. A closer look in the days that followed revealed that Newsom didn’t really change too much.
He pulled the California National Guard off the Mexico border. Well, almost. He left about a third of the troops at the border to fight drug smuggling.
He cut the Delta Tunnels water project in half, from two to one, which former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration was already floating.
And he placed a moratorium on the death penalty, even though California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006.
In an interview this week with Capital Public Radio, Newsom said he’s sparking “overdue healthy conversations that add a little bit more nuance and specificity.”
The governor said it would’ve been easier to dodge some of those controversial issues. Instead, he argued, he’s trying to be more transparent — even bold.
“If there's any point I'm trying to make, [it’s] that we're not unwilling to lean in to some of these vexing issues,” he said.
Some of his former colleagues at San Francisco City Hall say that’s exactly what Newsom did when he was mayor.
“It’s similar in the splashy part,” says Tom Ammiano, a former San Francisco supervisor and state assemblyman.
Ammiano said Newsom was splashy both when he delivered on his promises, like when he issued same-sex marriage licenses, and when he didn’t follow through, like — in Ammiano’s opinion — Newsom’s efforts to address homelessness.
So, now that Newsom is governor, “Is there going to be follow-up?” Ammiano asked. “Will he be able to withstand the pressures to change, modify or lighten up? Which he did a lot as mayor – [he] would promise one thing and then in the end not be supportive of it.”
Newsom’s allies from his time as mayor acknowledge his “big splash” style. But they argue that even if his initial actions are incremental, he often gets there in the end.
And after all, the governor only hit his 100-day mark on Tuesday.
“Listen, Gavin is a flashy guy,” said former Supervisor Angela Alioto, who endorsed Newsom in the 2003 mayoral runoff after losing to him in the primary.
“I mean, it’s hard to get around that. He’s not dull. He’ll never be dull,” Alioto said. “But the question is, as an elected official of the people, does he live up to what he says? And I believe he always has.”
Of course, Newsom — who’s also known to dive deep into policy and spent two hours unveiling his first budget proposal in January — is hardly the first Californian to govern by splash.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger leveraged his Hollywood stardom to great effect, although he left office with low approval ratings after alienating liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike.
“I see that passion and zeal for being the leader of the pack, and certainly that’s similar to Gov. Schwarzenegger,” said Schwarzenegger’s first press secretary, Margita Thompson, who noted Newsom and her old boss both sought to play on the world stage. “But — and this is something I just feel in my gut — from a stylistic perspective, [Newsom] just seems more cautious.”
Maybe, Thompson said, that’s because of a little thing called the U.S. Constitution: Schwarzenegger couldn’t run for president.
But it likely won’t be the big splashes that make or break Newsom’s governorship. It’ll be whether he can convince voters that he followed through on his promises.
This story is part of our California Dream collaboration. You can listen to Ben’s interview this week with Gov. Newsom about wildfire liability, immigration and much more here.
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