Capitol Alert

Gavin Newsom running marathon race for California governor

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, with his family being sworn in for a second term in January, could be rising alongside Attorney General Kamala Harris, right, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2016.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, with his family being sworn in for a second term in January, could be rising alongside Attorney General Kamala Harris, right, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2016. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Gavin Newsom followed his announcement that he will run for governor in 2018 with a quick burst of fundraising and, last weekend, an email promoting an article about raising boys.

The commentary in Time magazine came from Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, and former first lady Maria Shriver, who produced a film exploring the “harmful words and stereotypes” that boys face growing up.

Newsom encouraged his supporters to “Give it a look” and then to “Join Team Gavin; donate now!”

In the annals of political solicitation, this was not a hard sell. Yet the timing of the lieutenant governor’s effort – more than three years before the primary election in 2018 – suggests California is in for a long and costly slog.

Without putting a figure on it, Newsom called the amount of money candidates for governor must raise “absurd.”

Newsom waited just over three months after his re-election to the lieutenant governorship to announce his run for governor, becoming the first candidate to enter a wide-open race to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown.

In the weeks since, the 47-year-old Democrat has reported raising about $757,000, mostly from his political base in the Bay Area. His benefactors include Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff and Aileen Getty, a longtime family connection. They each contributed $56,400, the maximum allowed. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer gave Newsom $54,400.

Newsom has tapped Northern California donors for money since the late 1990s, first as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and later as the city’s mayor. But in his first statewide campaign – a brief, unsuccessful bid for governor in the run-up to 2010 – Newsom faltered and exited early.

Garry South, a Democratic consultant who worked for Newsom on that campaign, said at the time that Newsom was “undisciplined” about raising money.

Newsom settled for lieutenant governorship, running down-ballot while he watched Brown pummel Republican Meg Whitman in the most expensive gubernatorial race in U.S. history.

Whitman, a billionaire Republican, spent $178.5 million, including $144 million of her own money. Brown spent $36.7 million but was aided by millions of dollars more in outside spending.

“The whole amount of money in all of these elections is obscene,” said Isabel Wade, a longtime parks advocate who was among Newsom’s first donors when he was in local government.

Wade donated $100 to Newsom’s re-election campaign last year.

“I’m always torn between not wanting to give anybody a dime,” she said, “and knowing that if they don’t get money, they won’t have a good showing.”

The lieutenant governorship has not traditionally served as a springboard to the governor’s office, with the exception of Gray Davis, a prodigious fundraiser who won election in 1998.

But the post comes with few duties, abundant free time and a statewide platform from which to raise money. By the end of last year, Newsom had about $3 million left in his re-election account, a sum he can now use in his campaign for governor.

If he can raise as much quarterly as he has mustered since announcing his candidacy, he will enter 2018 with more than $12 million, slightly more than Brown held at the start of 2010.

“It’s really hard to predict in a few years where we’ll need to be, but the reality is ... it’s significant,” Newsom said after visiting a Sacramento school recently to promote reading. “And, you know, it’s absurd, too. I mean, let’s just call it what it is. The amount of money to go on TV in this state ... to communicate your message is extraordinary.”

The election in 2018 is expected to draw heavy interest. In addition to Newsom, potential Democratic candidates include former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and former Controller Steve Westly, a wealthy Silicon Valley investor.

Potential Republican candidates include Ashley Swearengin, the Fresno mayor and failed state controller candidate, and Kevin Faulconer, the mayor of San Diego.

Larry Mazzola Jr., whose U.A. Local 38 in San Francisco contributed $10,000 to Newsom this month, knows the prospect of other labor-friendly candidates entering the race is high. “It’s tough when all the friends start running against each other,” he said.

But for the plumbers and pipefitters union, Mazzola said, Newsom is “our guy.” He sees no significant difference between Newsom and candidates raising money for the presidential election and a U.S. Senate race in 2016.

Of early fundraising, Mazzola said, “It just seems that’s happening with all of these races.”

Newsom’s desire to run for governor has never been in question, and his fundraising lacks pretense typical in Sacramento. Brown did not announce his candidacy for governor until several months before the primary election in 2010, but he began raising substantial sums in 2008 for an account he held as state attorney general.

By the time Brown formally entered the governor’s race, he transferred about $7.7 million from his attorney general account to his gubernatorial campaign.

Last month, Brown told reporters Newsom was “smart to start early.”

“It’s a big state,” he said. “It takes a long time to build up your resources.”

Newsom’s campaign announcement came after Attorney General Kamala Harris announced her candidacy for U.S. Senate in January, right after Barbara Boxer said she would not seek re-election in 2016. Like Harris, Newsom’s early maneuvering could pressure other candidates to begin competing sooner – or dissuade them from entering the race.

“If everybody else knows that Newsom’s in the race and is going to give them a fight, that might nudge some people away,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Like Kamala Harris, he has the advantage of being the first mover.”

Raising money now could also help Newsom lessen the effect of an economic downturn or donor fatigue if competitive races in 2016 leave wealthy Democrats exhausted – and less inclined to contribute – heading into the next election cycle.

Kevin de León, the Senate president pro tem, said Newsom has “planted his flag, and he’s made it very clear that, you know, he’d like to be the governor of California.”

De León added, “I mean, he’s going to do what’s best for Gavin Newsom.”

If there is any downside for Newsom, Pitney said, it is the risk of “people getting sick of him.”

This is a phenomenon Newsom knows.

His friends are already weary of his solicitations, Newsom joked. With three more years of fundraising to go, he fears they may “never invite me to a birthday party again for their kids.”

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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