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Passing The Torch, California Gov. Jerry Brown Tells Newsom, 'Don't Screw It Up'

California Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom emerge from the Governor's office to talk with reporters after meeting at the Capitol. Newsom will be sworn into office Monday Jan. 7, 2019.
Rich Pedroncelli
California Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom emerge from the Governor's office to talk with reporters after meeting at the Capitol. Newsom will be sworn into office Monday Jan. 7, 2019.

Depending on how you interpreted Gavin Newsom's campaign slogan "Courage For a Change," he either has more courage than Jerry Brown — his campaign says that's not what they meant — or that Newsom has the courage needed to bring about big changes.

For a man who often struggled to win Brown's praise or even his attention, it's an attempt to promise fresh ideas and perhaps a willingness to embrace issues the outgoing governor left for others, such as single-payer health care.

Either way, Newsom could be challenged by a possible economic downturn and a newly emboldened California Legislature with massive majorities in both houses.

"If you're looking for timidity, I'm not your person," Newsom said before the election. "If you're looking for someone to be bold and courageous, lean into issues, change the order of things, I'm committing myself to that cause as the next governor."

Newsom takes office Monday, bringing to the state capital a very different style and set of priorities. Journalists often referred to Gov. Jerry Brown as "the adult in the room" when he huddled with legislators to close their differences. It was not a label legislators much cared for.

"I would resent it, too, if I was the Legislature," Brown told KQED, insisting henever said that. The governor said he expected legislators would push back against the next governor in ways they did not with him.

When he became governor in 2011, Brown said legislators were willing to embrace a cooperative approach partially because the economy was bad. He added that he appreciated how lawmakers worked with him to solve problems and to compromise when necessary.

"As things get easier, then people get more restive, and I think there is a desire for the Legislature to assert [itself]," Brown said. "Gavin will have his challenges, but he's older now than I was when I left the first time," he said, referring to the end of his second term in 1983. Brown said Newsom's age and experience will serve him well.

Over the years, Newsom has shown a tendency to get out in front of issues.

In February 2004, he had been mayor of San Francisco for about a month when he made a bold — some would say reckless — decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For weeks on end, hundreds of couples from all over the state and nation lined up to get married.

The California Supreme Court soon put a stop to the weddings, but four years later, it ruled 4-3 that preventing same-sex couples from marrying violated the state constitution. It helped pave the way for a U.S. Supreme Court decision 10 years later legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

To his growing number of supporters, it also signaled Newsom's willingness to push the envelope.

"I think he's a risk taker, and I think he's a true intellectual believer in the notion that you can fail fast as long as you're moving forward," says Joyce Newstat, Newsom's policy director in the early part of his mayoralty.

A risk taker

Newsom's penchant for taking risks may have its roots in his childhood. He was not a particularly good student and was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia. Figuring out how to compensate for that learning disability was a gift, he says.

"You know, nothing was rote, nothing was linear. I had to work around things, work differently, see the world differently," Newsom told KQED. "It allowed me to think outside the box. I've always been willing to take risks because you have to because you're never going to thrive in the more traditional sense."

Whether it was outside the box thinking, political courage or just trying to keep his name in the headlines while he was lieutenant governor, Newsom helped lay the groundwork for a statewide ballot measure legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

"I think Gavin Newsom has demonstrated a really deep understanding of where the zeitgeist is going," says technology forecaster and Stanford University professor, Paul Saffo. He sees Newsom as fitting in well with the attitude of innovators in Silicon Valley.

Saffo says Newsom seems to share what he calls their disrespect for authority. "The entrepreneurs' creed is that it's always easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission."

That tendency in Newsom was not always appreciated. After his first marriage fell apart, he had an affair with a top aide's wife. Some felt he often seemed bored being mayor; spending too much time thinking about his political future including a run for governor a decade ago.

"I'm relieved that he didn't become governor earlier," Paul Saffo says, adding that Newsom's eight years watching political master Jerry Brown will give him a better sense of when to lead and when to follow. "I suspect going into this governorship he's gonna understand that timing better than ever.

Passing the torch

At age 51, Gavin Newsom is 30 years younger than the outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown and totally different in style and temperament.

"This transition is really a passing of the torch, not just of one governor to another but from one generation to another," says former California Gov. Gray Davis. "It's great that they have different styles. It's almost by necessity you have to govern for the times."

Newsom is taking over a state whose economy is the fifth largest in the world, and he has ambitions to match. California has the nation's highest rate of childhood poverty, which Newsom wants to address. He also wants to reform the health care system and provide government-subsidized child care.

But he can't do it alone. He'll need help from people like Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

Rendon and Newsom haven't always seen eye to eye. Asked about Newsom's ambitious agenda, Rendon says that compared to Brown — who focused on climate change, fiscal stability and criminal justice reform — the new governor has a wider range of policy interests.

"Which I guess makes a lot of sense at the beginning of an administration," Rendon says.

Rendon declined to compare Newsom to Brown, saying only that "they're both exceptionally thoughtful leaders."

As Brown prepares to exit, he's leaving the state flush with cash, including a rainy day fund of $14 billion. Brown's parting piece of advice for Newsom? "Don't screw it up."

Copyright 2021 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

Scott Shafer