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‘I’m not that kooky’: Josh Newman trades bear suit for sport coat as new senator

Why Josh Newman bought a blimp to run for Senate

Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, explains why he used unconventional tactics in his underdog campaign for the 29th Senate District.
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Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, explains why he used unconventional tactics in his underdog campaign for the 29th Senate District.

Josh Newman’s office shows all the signs of a lawmaker in transition on his first day at the Capitol: Bare walls. Stacked boxes. A stream of well-wishers.

The bear suit in the corner, however, is unusual.

The interim staff helping Newman move put it there as both a joke and a testament to the Fullerton Democrat’s underdog victory just a week ago in the traditionally Republican 29th Senate District. After first appearing in a Youtube ad in which a buoyant grizzly bear waves a campaign sign on a street corner, the costume now sits stuffed with newspapers on a chair in the reception area, like a lobbyist awaiting his meeting about a very important bill.

“I’m not sure that will stay here,” Newman said. The staff have been informed by the sergeant-at-arms that no one is allowed to wear it in the building.

Besides, Newman is hoping to distance himself a bit from the unconventional tactics that he worries may have given Sacramento the wrong idea about him and how he beat a sitting Republican assemblywoman, Ling Ling Chang of Diamond Bar, for this seat encompassing parts of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

He’s worn the bear suit “exactly three times,” he said, primarily to test that it wasn’t too hot for the campaign staff that sported it at events across the district. “I’m not that kooky.”

The bigger question now facing Newman, and his caucus, is what becomes of the two-thirds supermajority that Senate Democrats clinched last Monday when his race was finally called after weeks of counting. The margin was fewer than 2,500 votes.

Democrats first achieved the milestone, which could allow them to pass taxes without Republican support, in 2012, but quickly lost it without accomplishing much. Among the ideas being bandied about this session are a transportation funding package that would raise the gas tax to pay for road repairs and extending the cap-and-trade program with enough votes to protect it from an ongoing lawsuit arguing it’s an illegal tax.

Newman is coy about what he might be willing to support. He emphasizes that he’s a “centrist Democrat,” focused on his constituents in a politically moderate region.

After his swearing-in Monday, surrounded by Republicans at his predecessor Sen. Bob Huff’s desk, Newman introduced his first bill: reauthorizing California’s “district of choice” program that allows parents to enroll their children in neighboring school districts. Huff carried the measure last year, but it died in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Not everyone could do what he’s done and declare a candidacy for the state Senate when you’re a political unknown. That’s Josh.

Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council

For someone entering his first term in public office – his only previous campaign, for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors 22 years ago, ended in defeat – Newman is awfully good already at speaking politician-ese.

“I’m absolutely open to participating fully in any process that addresses a fundamental need in California,” he said. “Where you start is never where you finish, and my hope is that I’ll be part of that iterative process that gets any priority turned into legislation.”

After studying history at Yale University and enlisting in the U.S. Army after graduation, Newman, 52, briefly worked in San Francisco politics in the early ’90s. Stints in public relations, film, internet media and mobile technology companies followed, and he ran a wine bar in downtown Los Angeles for a time.

Most recently, Newman has served as the executive director of ArmedForce2Workforce, a nonprofit aimed at helping veterans transition from the military to private sector careers that he founded in 2012. He said getting involved with Orange County Democratic politics and as an advocate on veterans issues over the past four years compelled him to run for the Senate.

His success was aided by changing demographics, particularly in Orange County, which a Democratic presidential candidate won this year for the first time in eight decades.

In 2012, when Huff cruised to re-election in SD 29, Republicans held a voter registration advantage of more than 4 percentage points over Democrats. By this November, it had swung to a nearly 2-point advantage for Democrats.

After initially showing reluctance to help Newman, the California Democratic Party, which backed his rival Sukhee Kang in the primary, also stepped in with a late surge of campaign cash.

In the final three months of the campaign, the state and county parties gave Newman $2.2 million, more than 90 percent of what he raised during that time. The remainder came primarily from fellow senators and organized labor.

It was enough to overcome Chang’s fundraising advantage, as well nearly $2.5 million in outside spending by oil companies, PG&E, Realtors, dentists, doctors and other business groups to elect Chang. Independent spending on Newman’s behalf by organized labor totaled only a tenth of that amount.

JobsPAC, an independent expenditure affiliated with the California Chamber of Commerce, spent more than $387,000 to support Chang and oppose Newman, the third-most in the race. Marty Wilson, who oversees the committee, said they were “huge fans” of Chang and wanted to “prevent a two-thirds takeover” by legislative Democrats because of the potential to raise taxes, change campaign finance laws and put measures on the ballot.

“All along we believed the best chances of that happening were in the Senate,” Wilson said. “We obviously fell short. There’s always next year.”

2,498 Number of votes that Newman won by

Then there was Newman’s wholly unique approach to campaigning, which included “Seinfeld”-referencing “Hello, Newman” yard signs, a remote-controlled “Newman for State Senate” blimp, 50,000 drink coasters left on car windshields across the district and the bear suit.

Newman said those were all “a means to a very conventional end” and doesn’t believe they were determinative in his win.

However many votes the tactics may or may not have scored Newman, they certainly garnered attention.

Andrew Rodriguez, a city councilman in Walnut, said his high school interns were looking for a new campaign to work on after his own election in April and reached out to Newman because of his yard signs. He followed, eventually recording a robocall for Newman and walking precincts with him, where he said many residents commented on how “brilliant” the “Hello, Newman” logo was.

“It’s a great opening line and introduction to his constituency,” Rodriguez said. “He definitely branded himself and he definitely made himself stick out.”

The blimp emerged from what was originally an idea for blimp-shaped yard signs, according to Cynthia Aguirre, a “Jill of all trades” volunteer on Newman’s campaign. Though she was hesitant about it at first, she had to concede that his “ability to market himself” was impressive once “everybody knew who the Josh Newman guy was with his blimp.”

“How else could we possibly reach as many people with limited funding in a way that will get their attention?” she said. “He came up with a positive outcome on a problem that he had.”

Aguirre said it’s indicative of the kind of creativity and business savvy that Newman could bring to California’s larger problems. She first met him about two years when they both joined the Democrats of North Orange County club and was immediately impressed by how he stepped up to help with an outreach drive she wanted to organize, compiling a database of local city officials who might be interested in the club’s proposals on economic development issues in the area and getting other members involved to start writing letters.

“His energy, if we could bottle it up and sell it, we would be millionaires,” Aguirre said.

His energy, if we could bottle it up and sell it, we would be millionaires.

Cynthia Aguirre, campaign volunteer

Newman’s background also became a source of controversy during the campaign.

Television ads and mailers from his opponents attempted to paint Newman as a “creep” by highlighting two embarrassing incidents from his brief tenure as an aide to former San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan in the early ’90s.

The first was a letter Newman sent inviting a woman to a hockey game. Written on official letterhead and signed using an automated mayoral signature machine, it purported to be from Jordan, asking the woman out on Newman’s behalf.

After congratulating the woman on the success of Joe Boxer, the then-relatively new San Francisco-based apparel company she worked for, the letter repeatedly mentioned “underpants” (“what a funny word – you don’t hear many people using the word ‘underpants’ these days”).

The letter was first leaked to the press in 1993, after Newman alleged that the office of his former boss was mismanaging funds.

Later that year, Newman turned in several boxes of documents left over from his work on Jordan’s 1991 mayoral campaign that included some confidential police files.

After questions were raised about why Jordan, the city’s former police chief, had sensitive law enforcement documents in his possession, he asked the attorney to investigate how Newman had obtained the files and why he had kept them in his home for two years.

The campaign ads stated that Newman “stole the Mayor’s letterhead” and “stole confidential police records.” Three weeks before the election, Newman sent a cease-and-desist letter to Chang, claiming the spots were defamatory because he had never been charged with any crimes related to either incident.

If she’d worked at, like, John’s Lawnmower Parts Company, I never would have had this problem.

Josh Newman

Chang declined an interview request for this story.

Newman defends the note as a “good-natured prank” for a friend, who took him up on the offer to attend the hockey game and later hung it up on her desk at work.

“There was nothing lewd or even flirtatious about it,” he said. “If she’d worked at, like, John’s Lawnmower Parts Company, I never would have had this problem.”

He added that he never knew the police files were in the box of Jordan campaign materials he took home until a reporter asked to look through it. It was not a disgruntled former staffer seeking revenge on the mayor, he said, just “unfortunate circumstances.”

Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council and Jordan’s chief of staff at the time, said he did not remember either incident being as significant as the campaign ads made it seem. Jordan was a controversial mayor and people were constantly looking for mistakes, he said, so “there were bigger fish to fry.”

“The way things were in the administration, there was a lot of change and a lot of consternation,” Wunderman said. “This wasn’t limited in any way to Josh Newman. It was a lot of people in that office, who were dissatisfied in one way or another with how things had gone and thought they could have gone differently.”

Wunderman said he most remembered Newman for his big ideas. He said he couldn’t wait to see the “different perspective” Newman would bring to the Legislature.

“Not everyone could do what he’s done and declare a candidacy for the state Senate when you’re a political unknown,” he said. “That’s Josh.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff