Back at his hotel after touring a busy cathedral Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom sought to explain why he traveled to El Salvador just three months after taking the oath of office as California governor.
“How do you understand California without understanding all the diverse cultures that make it the most diverse state in the world’s most diverse democracy?” he told reporters who had gone with him to the tomb of civil rights leader St. Oscar Romero. “It’s fundamental, it seems to me, to governing a state. That’s why I’m here in my first months, not at the end of my term.”
Newsom said he chose El Salvador for his first international trip because the state’s relationship with Central America is key to California’s future. Nearly 680,000 Salvadoran immigrants live in California, he notes.
Republicans say he’s more interested in his own future as a presidential candidate.
“Gavin Newsom should spend less time raising his national profile and more time in California serving the people who elected him,” said Matt Fleming, spokesman for the California Republican Party. “With millions of Californians living in poverty and millions more crushed by a skyrocketing cost of living and a worsening housing crisis, we need someone focused on our state.”
Others, including members of the single largest ethnic group in California, are happy he is there.
Many Latinos are pleased he picked El Salvador for his first international trip over a larger, wealthy country, said Cecilia Menjivar, a professor of sociology at University of California Los Angeles.
“It shows concern for immigration, for immigrant populations,” she said. “I think not only the Salvadoran population, but the immigrant population, the Latino population are very appreciative.”
The trip also builds the Democratic governor’s reputation outside California, putting him in prominent opposition to President Trump. The Republican president recently announced he intends to cut aid from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala because he says the countries aren’t doing enough to stop residents from seeking asylum in the U.S.
“In many ways, he’s getting what he wants,” Newsom said in a more-than 45-minute media interview, arguing that Trump benefits politically when he can inflame fears about migrants. “It’s a crisis that we are exacerbating and we are making worse by our actions, we meaning the United States. By cutting off aid, you are making things worse down here.”
Newsom visited the tomb Sunday accompanied by his wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, the only Salvadoran immigrant in the California Legislature. As reporters around him jostled for camera angles, Gov. Gavin Newsom knelt to pray beside the tomb of St. Oscar Romero, then stood and wrote a message in a guest book beside the sarcophagus.
The governor said he remembers expressing political opinions about Romero and the civil war in El Salvador at the kitchen table when he was a kid growing up in San Francisco.
“It shaped my childhood, understanding the civil war here,” he said.
Romero, an archbishop, was gunned down while praying at a hospital chapel in 1980 after speaking out against El Salvador’s military dictatorship as the country descended into civil war. Thousands of Salvadorans traveled to the Vatican in October to see Pope Francis canonize Romero, who has long been unofficially regarded as a saint in El Salvador and a champion of the poor. He’s revered as a civil rights leader and liberal hero in the Central American country, much like Martin Luther King Jr. is in the United States.
It isn’t the first time Newsom has signaled he intends to be a political player beyond his home state. He’s given nationally televised interviews on topics from his opposition to Republican immigration policy to his suspension of California’s death penalty. In the first days of his term, he ran Facebook ads in swing states promoting universal health care, and has continued to run ads on the social network promoting his policies outside California.
He’s also positioned himself as a thorn in the side of the president, often drawing Trump into sparring matches on Twitter and in the media, particularly over immigration. Newsom says Trump’s policies are actually increasing the number of Central American migrants fleeing gang violence and poverty, issues U.S. aid is supposed to alleviate.
Last week, Newsom berated Trump after the president said Congress should scrap the U.S. asylum system, provoking a pointed response from the president.
“Gov. Newsom, honestly, is living in a different world, and it’s a very dangerous world he’s living in, and if he keeps living there, lots of problems for the people of California,” Trump said at a news conference during a trip to California last week. “They don’t want that. They want to be secure, they want to be safe.”
Newsom is popular in California, where fewer than 25 percent of voters are registered as Republican. A recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California gauged Newsom’s approval rating at 45 percent.
Modern-day California governors often travel internationally, usually on trips designed to strengthen the state’s international business relationships.
But Newsom’s trip, which he’s styled as a “fact-finding” mission to understand what’s prompting Salvadorans to leave their home country, is unusual, said Jaime Regalado, a political science professor emeritus at California State University, Los Angeles.
“It’s unprecedented,” Regalado said. “It’s bold politically because nobody had really figured on this being his first trip out of the country.”
Reaction to his trip will likely be divided along party lines, Regalado said.
“It will just confirm for many Republicans and many conservatives in the nation that this is the left coast state, and it has a left coast governor that is out of touch with their constituencies,” he said. “But that’s not his base, anyway, so he’s not going to lose any sleep.”
Newsom has said he won’t run for president in 2020 and has endorsed fellow Californian Kamala Harris. But the 51-year-old governor will have other opportunities to run. And the El Salvador trip will likely help him attract attention from Democrats across the country, Regalado said.
“This kind of breaks the mold, but many Democrats and many voters are ready to see someone who breaks the mold,” Regalado said. “I think it’s probably going to benefit him in the long run.”
Back in California, the trip is already receiving positive reviews from Salvadorans like Martha Arevalo, executive director of the Carecen Los Angeles, an organization that helps Central American immigrants.
“It’s refreshing, and I think that it shows bold leadership,” she said. “It’s a governor who cares about immigrant communities.”
In El Salvador, he’s seen as a powerful ally. San Salvador Mayor Ernesto Muyshondt says he thinks Newsom can use his influence to advocate for the U.S. aid El Salvador needs.
“He’s a very influential person, not (just) in California, but the whole country,” Muyshondt told reporters after meeting Newsom. “I think if he gets a good feel of our country, our challenges and opportunities, he can be a good spokesman.”