Left Coasting: Deputy Dogging

Gavin Newsom goes sub-gubernatorial in California

by Rosalea Barker

As March begins, and with less than two weeks to go before candidates have to file their nomination papers for the June primary elections in California, there’s a whole lotta shake-up going on. Since I last wrote about the race for Governor back in November, Republican Tom Campbell has moved into the race for US Senate instead, and Democrat Jerry Brown’s campaign is emailing its list with the news that Brown will announce his candidacy ‘very, very soon.’

Meanwhile, the young whippersnapper that Brown forced out of the race, Gavin Newsom, has seemingly gone back on his own statement that his wife, baby, and mayoral duties are his highest priority by filing a Statement of Intention to run for the position of Lieutenant Governor— thereby prompting one longtime California political commentator, John Wildermuth, to opine that perhaps Newsom needs to get some serious help for his addiction to politics.

The idea of someone being ‘addicted’ to politics is about as daft as the idea that a chartered accountant is ‘addicted’ to bookkeeping. Politicianing in the United States is a career choice, with preparation beginning in high school when students volunteer on some prominent politician’s campaign, and continuing through college. With any luck, they’ll get noticed by someone who is already in tight with either of the major firms that employ candidates, and be given some small role to try out on. In Newsom’s case, he was appointed to the San Francisco Parking and Traffic Commission by then Mayor Willie Brown, who is a major, major player in Democratic politics in the state, having been Assembly Speaker from 1981 to 1995 and laying claim to having raised about $75 million to help elect and reelect state Democrats.

When a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors came vacant in 1997, Mayor Brown appointed Newsom to it. Six years later, Brown termed out as Mayor and his protégé ran for that office, beating Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez by only 11,000 votes in a run-off election. (Although local body elections are “non-partisan” under State law, everyone knows the party affiliation of those who are running, and the practice of political parties asking their supporters to vote the party’s entire slate of candidates means that a paper clip could run for office down-ballot and get elected if the party endorsed it.)

Newsom will be termed out himself at the end of this year, hence his casting around for another political role. Or is he? Maybe he’s just following the orders of the Democratic Firm to jump into races where they want to see a different candidate win. The love-me-or-hate-me relationship that Newsom has with campaign staff, along with his ability to provide a catchy soundbite, make him the darling of the media. With a candidate as dry as Jerry Brown being out-messaged in spades by the leading candidate among the Republicans, Meg Whitman, what else could the Democrats do but throw in the Sacrificial Gav to get some attention?

Heck, they even threw Bill Clinton into the mix, knowing full well the commentariat would come up with some sinister subplot to keep people talking about the Democratic candidates instead of the Republican ones.

As for the actual race for Lieutenant Governor…Republicans pretty much had the media quotient for that monopolized, because the post is currently vacant and Governor Schwarzenegger’s attempts to fill it were guaranteed to meet with resistance. When the confirmation vote for Schwarzenegger’s nominee, Abel Maldonado, was neither a majority of the Assembly against nor a majoriity for confirmation, the Governor managed to turn it into a saga by withdrawing his nomination and then resubmitting it.

What could the Democrats do but bring on the Sacrificial Gav, so that attention switched away from the Republicans to the Democratic contenders for the candidacy? Throw in the fact that Newsom’s former campaign strategist in his bid for Governor now works for the other Democratic candidate for Lite Gov, Janice Hahn, and is telling tales out of school, and you have a recipe for another pot-boiler that will keep Democrats on the front pages for weeks to come.

So what exactly does a Lieutenant Governor do? According to Hahn’s recently released campaign video, Newsom doesn’t know. Hahn also claims that she will be the first female Lite Gov in the State, which is strictly true, I suppose, if you ignore the fact that the Acting Lieutenant-Governor—appointed by Schwarzenegger when the incumbent Lite Gov won a seat in the US House—is not only a woman, but the first Filipino-American to hold that post, Mona F. Pasquil. As Acting Lieutenant Governor, she can’t take on the role of Governor in his absence—the Attorney General does that instead. Which must be a sweet gig for AG Jerry Brown, given his time as Governor.

Back in the 1970s, when Governor Brown—aka Moonbeam—was often absent from the state, Lite Guv (Republican) Mike Curb took the opportunity to promote an agenda that was not to Moonbeam’s liking. The resulting stoush ended up in the State Supreme Court, which ruled that “when the governor is out of state, the lieutenant governor is free to exercise all powers of the chief executive,” according to the 1979 news clipping on Curb’s website. You might better know Curb as a music producer and song writer—working with artists from the Osmonds to Moonbeam’s old girlfriend Linda Ronstadt, to LeAnn Rimes.

But generally, Lieutenant Governors are extremely low-profile, despite the responsibilities they have chairing various commissions that oversee California’s economic development and its land and waterways, along with “ocean protection”. Up until the mid-70s, they seem to have mostly resigned or died in office. One of the longest-serving Lite Govs was Leo McCarthy, who was born in Auckland, New Zealand, of Irish immigrant parents. They left NZ for San Francisco when Leo was still a toddler, perhaps because of some shady business dealings his father’s partner got into. McCarthy died in 2007, but his Center for Public Service and the Common Good lives on at San Francisco University.

Public service and the common good—now there’s an idea for a career!