Capitol Alert

A bobble on vaccines tarnished Gavin Newsom’s first legislative year, Capitol experts say

A measure to regulate vaccine exemptions had just passed the state Assembly when Gov. Gavin Newsom threw lawmakers a curveball.

The bill needed more changes, his office said in a tweet, “so medical providers, parents and public health officials can be certain of the rules of the road once the bill becomes law.”

The problem? Newsom had previously said he would sign the bill, and it was too late to amend it without a separate piece of legislation.

“We were surprised at the late tweet,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told The Sacramento Bee early Saturday morning after the Legislature adjourned for the year. “It was something that we hadn’t seen coming.”

Newsom’s wavering, especially on such a tense topic, will be remembered in the state Capitol as his first year crafting bills with lawmakers comes to a close.

The Democratic governor can cite action on multiple fronts: Police will have new guidelines on when they should fire their weapons. Renters will see new protections against rent spikes. Schools districts will have more control over creation of new charter schools.

But Newsom’s first legislative year is demonstrating he still has some learning to do, which is typical for new governors, said Wesley Hussey, a political science professor at California State University Sacramento.

The back-and-forth over the vaccine bill is a good example, Hussey said.

Most voters don’t pay close enough attention to the Capitol for it to hurt Newsom in the polls, Hussey said. But it likely damaged his reputation with lawmakers he’ll need in the future to keep his campaign promises, many of which will require new laws.

“I think governors have to learn that through doing,” Hussey said. “He has to learn he can’t do things like that, particularly not with a tweet.”

Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman, who served as a top aide to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, agreed the late call for changes could haunt Newsom, especially in light of the chaos the bill caused at the Capitol.

On Friday, anti-vaccine protester dropped a menstrual cup apparently filled with blood from the Senate viewing gallery onto several lawmakers. Senators were forced to relocate to a committee room while the chamber was processed as a crime scene, capping a series of recent altercations between lawmakers and vaccine protesters.

“This has been a really stressful issue and to then get jerked around will leave quite an impression on legislative leadership,” Stutzman said. “There will be some doubt, when the next issue comes along next year and there’s a deal cut, as to whether he’ll honor those commitments.”

Overall, however, Stutzman said Newsom has been effective in striking deals with the Legislature. That was particularly true with the state budget because there was plenty of surplus money to spend on everything from health care to wildfire prevention, Stutzman said.

Newsom said his last-minute ask for changes on the vaccine bill hasn’t hurt his relationship with lawmakers, which he often says is a positive one. He appeared frustrated with reporters at a Monday press conference when they repeatedly asked him to explain what changed his mind about the bill and waved off questions about protesters’ appeals to his wife, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

The governor first voiced doubts about the proposal in June, then said he would sign it after lawmakers agreed to amendments. Newsom flipped his stance again after the Assembly passed the bill earlier this month. Lawmakers ultimately passed a separate bill with some of the changes Newsom sought, and the governor quickly signed both vaccine bills into law.

“I made amendments to administratively strengthen the bill,” Newsom said. “It’s a stronger bill because of what we did, and I’m proud of the fact that I listened to my administration. I listened to folks on all sides of this debate.”

Newsom’s public comments on the bill and his willingness to weigh in on a wide range of proposals moving through the Legislature represent a contrast from his predecessor, Jerry Brown, who publicly involved himself in fewer bills before they reached his desk.

“With Jerry, there was a very clear sense of the things he was interested in. There was a very narrow focus,” Rendon said last month at a Public Policy Institute of California event. “Whereas I think Gov. Newsom cares about a wider range of things.”

That leaves more room for conversation and negotiation with lawmakers, Rendon said, but also less clarity on Newsom’s priorities.

“The constant theme you hear writ large from the Legislature is they often are not certain what the governor’s office wants and often not certain who to talk to,” Stutzman said. “But some of that can be remedied. Some of that can (just) be what happens in the first year.”

In a statement on his first legislative session, Newsom highlighted a broad range of policies he helped shape, including increased spending on fire prevention, expanded health programs and the rent cap bill.

Over the next month, Newsom will decide on hundreds of other bills lawmakers sent him.

He’s already said he’ll veto a top priority of Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins: SB 1, a bill that would have enshrined Obama-era environmental regulations into California law.

“SB 1 is the product of a full year’s worth of work, so clearly I am strongly disappointed on its impending fate,” Atkins said in a statement.

Although Newsom has often worked with the Legislature on environmental issues “we respectfully disagree regarding SB 1,” Atkins wrote. “But, it’s critical that the governor and the legislature continue working together to meet the challenges California faces.”

Newsom has received praise from many Democratic lawmakers for helping them enact other key policy priorities. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, said last month that Newsom was instrumental in passing a bill to update the state’s law on when police can kill suspects.

Weber first tried unsuccessfully to update the standard last year under then-Gov. Brown and credited Newsom’s support as critical to her bill’s passage this year.

Rendon pointed to that new law, along with new spending on early education, as evidence that the Legislature has worked well with the governor.

“I thought overall it was a good year,” Rendon said minutes after lawmakers voted to send the final bill of 2019 to Newsom. “There’s a lot of stuff on his desk. We’ll see what he signs.”

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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