California Forum

To succeed as governor, here’s what Gavin Newsom needs to do right now

Over the last four years, Gavin Newsom has campaigned in almost every corner of California. He has raised tens of millions of dollars, outlined dozens of policy goals, given hundreds of speeches and posed for countless selfies.

That was the easy part.

Being a candidate for governor is an exhausting marathon, but the transition from candidate to governor is an eight-week sprint with no margin for error. The decisions he makes in the next two months can either provide a solid foundation for years of successful leadership — or undermine his ability to steer the state toward the goals he has outlined.


The first step is selecting the men and women who will help him implement those goals. Personnel is destiny. Even the most extraordinary chief executive can not make every decision, and even the most brilliant leader benefits from a range of perspectives and opinions.

Ideally, Newsom’s transition director will also serve as his chief of staff. But his finance director, his chief legal officer, appointments secretary and his legislative, cabinet and communications advisers are critically important as well.

The challenge for any governor-elect is to understand that even the short calendar should not force hasty decisions. Newsom’s eight years in statewide office have exposed him to some of the smartest people in California. Now is the time to renew those acquaintances, strengthen those relationships and build a solid management structure to help him govern.

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Dan Schnur

Newsom’s other most important task is to transform his campaign platform into a governing agenda Any new governor comes to office with a lifetime of policy positions, opinions and aspirations. But to lead is to choose, and between his election night victory speech and his early January inaugural address, Newsom must decide which two or three of those policy goals will define his administration.

Developing an internal system allows him to weigh competing priorities once in office is just as important. A governor’s time is his most precious resource and a smooth-running and reliable decision-making process is the only way to effectively manage a complex and unpredictable nation-state.

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Steve Merksamer

The most urgent policy matter that Newsom will face is next year’s budget. Out of fiscal necessity, Gov. Jerry Brown and his advisors have been working on the state’s spending and revenue blueprint for months. So a newly-elected governor doesn’t write his first budget, but merely edits his predecessor’s template. Newsom subtly distanced himself from Brown on several policies during the campaign. He now has barely a month to turn those rhetorical distinctions into budgetary realities.

Newsom will also be the subject of relentless state and national media scrutiny. The tone he sets now will shape the way he is perceived in the months and years ahead. Will he present himself as a unifier, who can begin to mend parochial divisions and ease the resentments and anger in our politics? Or will he spearhead the Trump resistance? Is he the calming influence to tame a restive Legislature, or a partisan warrior who rages against the establishment machine?

Newsom has devoted more than two decades of his life to public service, but he now faces one of the steepest learning curves in American politics. As senior advisers to two former Republican governors, we look forward to his leadership bringing our state into a safe, prosperous and compassionate future. In that transpartisan spirit, we hope that he and his team can benefit from our lessons learned.

Dan Schnur, communications director for former Gov. Pete Wilson, is director of The Sacramento Bee/McClatchy Influencers series and can be contacted at Steve Merksamer, chairman of the transition from Gov. Jerry Brown to Gov. George Deukmejian and chief of staff to Deukmejian, is the senior government law partner at Nielsen Merksamer and can be contacted at


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