Few California governors have entered office with a more ambitious agenda than Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose ascension to the job one year ago was marked by a sense of urgency, an insistence that the times demanded a leader who would multitask in a way his predecessors had not.
As his first year draws to a close, the 52-year-old Democrat can point to a string of high-profile victories in service of a progressive agenda and fortifying California’s political resistance to President Trump. But those achievements are only part of the story. Less known outside of Sacramento is that Newsom has struggled with what some critics believe is an undisciplined and impatient governing style. And even many of those who agree with the governor worry the turbulence could disrupt his ability to fix the state’s most pressing issues: the homeless crisis, access to affordable healthcare and the increasingly unattainable “California Dream.”
The Times spoke with more than two dozen people at the state Capitol who were intimately involved in many of the issues, including legislators and their aides, advocates and lobbyists. While many commended the governor for taking on difficult issues, some who strongly supported his 2018 campaign for governor and his pro-government approach to solving the state’s problems also offered critiques. Some of those allies asked for anonymity to speak freely about the governor, fearing repercussions should they be named.
To some extent, turmoil is typical of any new administration. But those close to the governor’s office said the learning curve felt steeper this year because most of Newsom’s staff was new to Sacramento — some were holdovers from his gubernatorial campaign with limited or no state government experience and others had never worked for him before.
Some in the Capitol felt frustrated that the administration’s flubs, at times, overshadowed important legislative achievements.
Newsom held a news conference in May to announce that his budget would eliminate the state sales tax on diapers and menstrual products but failed to mention to the public and the lawmakers behind the legislation that the reprieve would last just two years.
On a Friday in late August, the governor and legislative leaders announced a deal to cap rent increases statewide — a historic move that bucked the powerful Realtors’ lobby in a feel-good moment for lawmakers who had spent years working to address the issue. But the celebration was short-lived: The following Tuesday, Newsom publicly backed out of an agreement to sign a bill to limit vaccination exemptions for schoolchildren minutes after the legislation passed through the Assembly, inspiring deep frustrations in the Legislature. (He later signed a modified version of the legislation.)
“For a year in, it still has a chaotic, ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing’ kind of feel to it,” said a top legislative staffer, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about working with the governor’s administration.
But there were missteps. The Newsom administration opened itself up to criticism for over hyping announcements, an effort some in the Capitol speculate was motivated by an unspoken desire to pad the governor’s resume for a future presidential campaign. Newsom has denied any White House ambitions.
“The blunders came by wanting press hits so badly to show that he’s leading on the national stage,” said a top legislative staffer who asked for anonymity to speak freely about governor.