Dan Walters

Two top California Democrats feud over who owns gun control issue

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León speaks before the state budget vote on June 15, 2016 at the California Capitol.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León speaks before the state budget vote on June 15, 2016 at the California Capitol. jvillegas@sacbee.com

California’s most entertaining political duel this year doesn’t involve anyone vying in the November election.

Rather, it’s the jousting between two prominent Democrats, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, over ownership of a trendy political issue – expanding the state’s already dense regulations on guns.

De León was probably first to stake a claim on the issue, and he clearly resents Newsom’s November gun control ballot measure – so much so that de León has tried to pressure his rival into dropping it in favor of a package of legislative bills.

Newsom, of course, is not about to cede ownership. He wants to claim the governorship in two years and wants his gun measure, and another on legalizing marijuana, to give him a profile that his powerless office doesn’t provide.

There’s been some public sniping between the two, while aides to both have waged another version of the feud in electronic venues.

The clash escalated during in late June, just before the Legislature departed on its monthlong summer recess. With de León leading the band, the Legislature pushed 11 gun control measures to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, one of which, personally authored by de León, took direct aim at Newsom’s measure by changing its provisions.

De León then went on a Los Angeles television show to proclaim Newsom’s measure “irrelevant.”

“Any individuals who want to further their own political interests, that’s their own business,” de León said. “But we have taken care of business, and as far as I am concerned any ballot measure in the fall is irrelevant.”

Dan Newman, a Newsom spokesman, attacked de León for being “sickeningly cynical.” Astonishingly, de León’s response was, “I’m not into political gamesmanship.”

Brown might be slyly egging them on, because he signed de León’s bill but vetoed another that also conflicted with Newsom’s measure, saying, “While I appreciate the author’s intent in striving to enhance public safety, I feel that the objective is better attained by having the measure appear before the voters only once.”

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said drily, “voters will have a chance to go even further in November, if they choose, with the lieutenant governor’s initiative.”

So what’s going on here other than an obvious clash of egos between two politicians with much in common, including overweening obsession with their public images?

Newsom’s ambition is obvious; he wants to succeed Brown as governor two years hence.

Term limits will also end de León’s legislative career in 2018, and he’s very tight with billionaire Tom Steyer, who appears to be positioning himself to run for something, perhaps governor. Many Capitol oddsmakers believe that de León would like to form a ticket with Steyer.

It will be interesting to see how the feud evolves. As lieutenant governor, Newsom is technically the president of the Senate and could march into its chambers and begin presiding. And were Newsom to be elected governor and de León lieutenant governor in 2018, the stage would be set for more drama.