Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Boxer’s decision dissipates California’s political fog

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Monday that he won’t run for the Senate next year was clearly a de facto declaration for governor in 2018.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Monday that he won’t run for the Senate next year was clearly a de facto declaration for governor in 2018. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Barbara Boxer’s decision to retire from the U.S. Senate dissipates some of the fog that has been obscuring California’s political landscape.

We are learning not only which ambitious politicians will seek her seat in 2016, but also who may be waiting for another Senate seat, or the governorship, to open up.

We may even learn whom Gov. Jerry Brown wants to succeed him four years hence.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Monday that he won’t run for the Senate next year was clearly a de facto declaration for governor in 2018.

“It’s always better to be candid than coy,” Newsom said in a Facebook post. “While I am humbled by the widespread encouragement of so many and hold in the highest esteem those who serve us in federal office, I know that my head and my heart, my young family’s future, and our unfinished work all remain firmly in the State of California – not Washington, D.C.”

With billionaire Tom Steyer and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa chomping at the bit, Newsom’s statement opened the door for Attorney General Kamala Harris to declare her intentions, and it appeared late Monday that it would be a go.

It’s a bit of an overstatement to say that the Senate seat is Harris’ if she wants it, but not much. Her expected entry makes her the clear frontrunner and puts the pressure on Steyer and Villaraigosa to fish or cut bait.

Clearly she would prefer to be the sole Democratic candidate. Were there to be a slew of Democrats, it would give a single Republican candidate, whoever it might be, a chance, under the top-two primary system, of facing the Democratic frontrunner in a runoff.

It’s even very remotely possible that if enough Democrats run and divide the vote, two Republicans could wind up facing each other. That’s what happened in a strongly Democratic congressional district in 2012.

Back to Harris. Were she to waltz into the Senate, Brown would appoint her successor as attorney general, and his choice would tell us who he wants as his own successor.

Were he to name a nonpolitical caretaker to finish Harris’ term, it would probably indicate he wants Newsom to become the next governor. But they’ve had a somewhat prickly relationship, even though the Brown and Newsom families have been closely intertwined for three generations.

Were Brown to nominate an ambitious politician as attorney general – such as former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg – we could surmise that he was anointing his successor.

And adding even more complexity is that Boxer’s colleague for the last 22 years, Dianne Feinstein, will be 85 years old when her current term ends four years hence and she too, might call it quits.

Were Harris to claim Boxer’s seat and Newsom to become the odds-on favorite for governor, other ambitious Democrats might be scrambling for Feinstein’s seat in 2018.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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