For California’s new governor, big mistakes will lead to greatness

Gavin Newsom on homelessness: “This issue is out of control in the state.”

Democrats have a lot of work to do on affordability and homelessness said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
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Democrats have a lot of work to do on affordability and homelessness said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“I’m only an hour from Sacramento, so Gavin, do not screw up.” — Gov. Jerry Brown, November 2018

Gavin, screw up. Please.

Make mistakes. Big ones. Because your state needs more screw-ups.

Over the last eight years, Jerry Brown made a fetish out of his own caution. He focused relentlessly on balancing the budget, and otherwise did as little as possible. When he did take the initiative, it was to undo things, like unwinding redevelopment agencies and the school accountability system, and shrinking big projects (high-speed rail and the Delta tunnels) in order to save them.

He took perverse pride in inaction; it was proof he was realistic and wouldn’t be drawn into unwinnable battles. But Brown’s small-bore policymaking left many of California’s biggest problems to fester.


The state’s housing shortage grew into a crisis. Poverty, particularly among children, became more entrenched. The state’s basic systems—from road infrastructure to courts—grew more clogged. Rapidly-rising costs for pensions consumed new tax revenues.

When pressed on why he didn’t do more, Brown’s answer was that many problems can’t be fixed. He said fixing the state’s housing predicament would be too hard. He pooh-poohed the goal of reducing the student achievement gap between rich and poor. He refused to tackle California’s obvious structural problems in taxation and governance, telling The Atlantic, “That’d be tough. You work in the real world.”

Joe Mathews (1).JPG
Joe Mathews Courtesy Photo

Through inaction, Brown created a quandary for his successor:

Gavin, can you screw up the courage to tackle our biggest challenges?

We don’t yet know the answer to that question. Newsom ran on the slogan, “Courage for a Change” and audacious goals for guaranteed health care, housing, and education. But lately, he’s made Brown-style noises about not wanting to do much, so he, too, can avoid mistakes.

Newsom, if he pursues his campaign agenda forcefully, is certain to be dogged by failure. To quote the billionaire screw-up Elon Musk, “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

Creating a new system of educational and health supports for early childhood will involve changes to existing programs that may screw up some people’s lives, and it will create a host of potentially-failure-inducing challenges—including funding for such programs, and the training of their staffs. Every step of creating a system that guarantees higher-quality care for everyone is likely to produce giant mistakes, given the existing system’s complexity.

Newsom’s determination to produce 3.5 million homes to ease the housing crisis will require tricky shifts in state and local laws that are all but certain to cause screw-ups. And his stated desire to change the Byzantine tax system in California can’t help but have nasty unintended consequences.

California Gov. Jerry Brown introduces Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to the media in front of the bear statue in the State Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.

After the quiet Brown years, every noisy screw-up will draw negative media coverage. Indeed, the best way to judge Newsom might be by perception. If he’s being pilloried for mistakes, that will mean he’s taking on big stuff. If things are quiet, he’s pulling a Brown and avoiding the hardest problems.

The good news is that Newsom will have many allies. While the media narrative of California’s comeback revolves around the 80-year-old governor, this decade’s real story is of California communities pulling themselves out of the Great Recession, without much help from their budget-conscious state.

The outgoing governor’s inaction has created a pent-up hunger for action. A cautious governor would temper that hunger. But California needs a leader who will feed it with plans, and engage people in the messy work of enacting them.

The new governor’s advisors, a conventional lot, may warn him against this riskier path. In response, Newsom should invoke the wisdom of the Oracle of Montecito, Oprah Winfrey: “Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.”

Dare to be great, Gavin.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.
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