Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor running to succeed Jerry Brown, was nearly an hour into his town hall meeting late Wednesday when someone asked about protecting the planet.
“I was the guy who brought you the plastic bag ban in San Francisco,” the former mayor told the graying Roseville audience gathered in a community center 100 miles outside his progressive city.
“You thought gay marriage was controversial,” Newsom added to sustained laughter, “we required composting in San Francisco. That was controversial. They had garbage police out there checking in my cans to make sure the egg shells were in the appropriate bin.”
In the foothills of the Sierra, and at a stop last week in Salida, just outside of Modesto, the Democratic front-runner whose national profile was born out of his decision to distribute marriage licenses to same-sex couples offered the clearest indication yet that the tenets of his gubernatorial campaign are rooted in his liberal record.
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Newsom said he gets a kick out of watching Republicans – and some Democrats – contorting themselves “like pretzels” over health care. He favors a government-run program covering everyone.
“At the end of the day, with all due respect, the only way we are going to have high-quality, universal health care that’s affordable, or at least approximates affordability, is Medicare for all,” he said. “Don’t people get this? The deeper question, though, is: Can we do it in California? And, legitimately, that’s an open-ended question. It just is.”
Both Salida and Roseville are considerably redder than the monied and population-rich parts of the state candidates generally mine for votes and campaign contributions. Republicans outnumber Democrats by 9,371 in Roseville; a suburb that Donald Trump carried over Hillary Clinton by nearly 7 percentage points. Modesto has 5,288 more Democrats than Republicans, and Clinton managed to beat Trump by 7.5 points, but the city’s elected representatives are overwhelmingly Republican.
In Salida, Newsom took repeated swipes at Trump while stressing his support for “sanctuary” cities that shield unauthorized immigrants. The city’s sanctuary policy he inherited went back decades, but Newsom reminded the crowd that as mayor he went out of his way to promote it, arguing it was a way to build trust between law enforcement and the community. San Francisco was the first to distribute municipal identification cards to undocumented residents.
“You are looking at the poster child for sanctuary policy,” he said, urging the audience to look up his fiery cable news cameos on Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs.
Newsom said he understands that “sanctuary city” is a “loaded term” and that it polls poorly in much of the state. But he wondered aloud, “What the heck is wrong with the Democratic Party that we don’t have the courage to stand up for it? ... It’s about people. And it’s about a fundamental principle about trust.”
Newsom lauded Democrats in the Legislature for supporting a $52 billion gas tax hike and vehicle registration charge to pay for deteriorating roads.
“That wasn’t politically popular to do,” he said. “But it was the right thing to do. We haven’t raised the gas tax in decades.”
He talked homelessness, offering that no state has more homeless people, “and no state has been more asleep at the wheel” working to support cities and counties coping with the problem.
“This is the issue that defined my tenure as mayor,” Newsom said, nodding to a controversial effort he led to replace cash subsidies for the homeless with housing and support services. “It elevated my critics, but it also enlivened my supporters, because I was not timid about the issue. I leaned into the issue. And it was predicated on this core belief: Shelters solve sleep. Housing solves homelessness.”
Digging deeper into his own résumé as mayor, he said he wants to expand early childhood education and couple it with college-savings accounts. The state bank he’d create to finance infrastructure and provide loans to students and small businesses, Newsom said, may also be able to service the newly legalized marijuana market he helped legitimize.
Newsom promised to soon release the details of a universal health care proposal that’s modeled on the policy adopted when he was mayor. He said his reservations about enacting a single-payer system in California stem mostly from skepticism that the Trump administration would play ball with California.
It would have been unimaginable for a leading candidate to run on such a liberal platform in this state just a few election cycles ago. But the decline of the state Republican Party, changes in the state’s demographics and the Democratic Party’s leftward march make it not only possible but potentially advantageous. Newsom’s positions leave little room to his left in a multi-candidate field of well-known Democrats.
He still risks alienating moderate voters.
The gas tax is regressive and hits working people in their pocketbooks, said Alex Surette, a 25-year-old Democrat from Citrus Heights who attended the foothills event. He said Newsom’s enthusiastic support for gun-control laws also could backfire on him in more rural parts of the state.
“Look at the state Senate recalls that happened in Colorado four years ago when (Gov. John) Hickenlooper signed those laws,” he said. Republicans won a Senate majority for the first time in a decade.
But for now, Newsom appears unmoved.
He offered considerable praise for Brown’s environmental leadership on “low-carbon green growth.” Yet Newsom, unprompted by a questioner, volunteered that “I think he can do a little more on fracking.”