Table Talk | Spring 2023 Issue

Gavin Newson: California’s governor on the state of the state

Newsom defends California's work on homelessness, immigration and guns -- and his power to effect change

By Jim Newton

GAVIN NEWSOM IS A FIXTURE of California. Born in San Francisco, he got his start in the wine business before finding his way into politics. He served as mayor of his hometown in the early 2000s and sealed his place in its history when he recognized gay marriage in 2004, long before it was protected by state or federal law. Instantly transformed into a national political figure, Newsom embarked on an upward political march, and he today serves as California’s 40th governor.

Rare is the California governor who does not dream of the White House, and Newsom shows every sign of warming to the idea. Having weathered a recall at home, he easily won re-election, and he has delighted in tweaking rival governors, notably of Texas and Florida, as they eye one another for a possible contest.

That would present a personal competition, of course — pitting Ron DeSantis’ humorless snarl against Newsom’s wavy hair and distracting polish — but also one of competing values. Texas and Florida vie for standard-bearer of conservative America, while California stands as the undisputed leader of the left — a nation within the larger American nation. Newsom is all too happy to act as champion of that cause, one that allows him to promote his own brand and his state’s at the same time.

Newsom recently met with Blueprint editor-in-chief Jim Newton in the governor’s office overlooking the state Capitol. Newsom, dressed in jeans and a sweater over an untucked shirt, was both casual and painstaking. He was forceful in his defense of California, strategic in his challenge to rival governors and unapologetic about his use of the powers at his disposal.


BLUEPRINT: How should California be perceived? I know that for you and many others, California is the noble leader of a set of values that the country ought to emulate, but there are also those who see it as a kind of woke hellscape that the country ought to avoid. How do you respond to them?

GAVIN NEWSOM: Well, you are nothing but a mirror of your consistent thoughts. Whatever you focus on, you find more of. Fox focuses on everything that’s wrong, and it finds plenty — with the Wall Street Journal parroting it, and the entire anger machine, from the surround-sound that you get with the New York Post and all things Murdoch Inc. … For their ideological promotion to succeed, we have to fail. It’s profoundly important that we fail in their eyes. They have taken that to the next level in terms of their promotion of our weaknesses. …

It’s a difficult dynamic for us, but this is a point of pride for me. I’m a future ex-governor in a couple of years. I’ve got no more elections here. But I deeply care. My soul, my core is with this state. I’ve been very animated by this question. I’ve been out there, trying to proactively defend this state, going into other states to make the point about how special this place is and how resilient we are.

BP: OK, so let me ask about some of the specifics that contribute to this tension. For starters, why do so many people leave California?

GN: There were 18 states that saw a reduction in population [in 2022]. So that’s No. 1. You saw a 3X population reduction in places like New York, which lost .9% of population versus .3% here. We were the 10th on that list of those 18 states. You saw more Floridians, per capita, coming to California than Californians going to Florida.

We also know that people are fleeing to higher tax states. It’s not for tax purposes.

BP: Right. A lot of people go to Oregon, which doesn’t seem like an ideological statement.

GN: And a lot of people go to Texas. Texas slams you. Texas tax rates are substantially higher than California’s. The vast majority of these states tax you substantially. So it’s not taxes. You think it is because Fox tells you that. And then you realize, “Wait a second, I’m not Elon Musk.” For Elon Musk, it’s cheaper because he’s that 1%. It’s one of the most regressive — Florida and Texas, I think, are two and three, the most regressive tax states in the country. [Note: Washington state has America’s most regressive tax system, followed by Texas and then Florida.] So it’s not about working folks.

But the cost of living is, I think, the principal driver. And housing supply and balance has been our original sin. That goes very directly to the issue of affordability and homelessness. …

Trump’s immigration policies also played an outsized role. We have always been able to get first-round draft choices from around the rest of the world. And we have seen not just lower birth rates than we have seen in the past, but we have also seen our immigration numbers decline. That’s also had an impact. So a combination of those factors, and a relentlessness, truly a relentlessness, on the other side of demeaning and trying to diminish this state.

It’s very difficult if you’re, well, if you’re my father-in-law, to have any good feelings about this state, except in nostalgic terms — “I remember when …” — when you’re constantly being fed everything that’s wrong. It manifests in a very damaging way.

BP: I am old enough to remember the theory that you could either have environmental protection or job growth but not both — that you had to choose. I assume California’s record suggests otherwise?

GN: It’s not even interesting anymore. California had 7.8% GDP growth in 2021. Prior to the pandemic, over a five-year period, according to Bloomberg — this is not me, this is Bloomberg — we were the fastest-growing jurisdiction of all Western democracies. How can that possibly be? According to Fox, it can’t be. Everyone’s left. The place is cracked up.

We outperformed every other jurisdiction, except for China. And Bloomberg just did another analysis that we are poised to become the fourth-largest economy in the world, overtaking Germany. So we’re moving up the ranks.

We outperformed the nation during COVID, during the contraction. We contracted less than Florida and Texas and less than the national average. We outperformed in terms of rebound and growth — outperformed the nation, Florida and Texas in 2021. And we outperformed them again in 2022.

We’re the tentpole in American job recovery in terms of job growth and creation. I think it was 32,300 jobs in February, and we recorded our lowest unemployment in recorded history — not in 50 years — in January.

This is a remarkably resilient state. It’s a remarkably abundant state. And it compares extraordinarily favorably to those peer states.

But the issue — and I keep coming back to it — that defines more issues than any other issue of affordability is housing. And that’s why we’ve been so animated in this. I’ve signed 20 CEQA reform bills. [CEQA is the California Environmental Quality Act, which establishes rules for reviewing and approving construction projects.] We still have more work to do. Last year, we had landmark housing legislation — I mean, breakthrough — working with building and construction trades, not just the environmental community.

So we’ve proved the paradigm. We have six times more “green collar” jobs than fossil fuel jobs. One of our top exports is electric vehicles. We have 55 headquartered manufacturing [electric vehicle companies]. Elon Musk had to come back to the state of California. By the way, he took no jobs with him when he announced he was leaving. In fact, he grew, by his own estimate, by 40% their headcount in California. … And then he did his

[Tesla] world headquarters and R & D [research and development] here, because there’s just no other place.

BP: And I must say, it’s just exasperating to think that we have to judge the quality of our lives based on where Elon Musk decides to put his headquarters.

GN: I can assure you, it’s the last thing he wanted to do, but he needed to do it. And it only reinforces our leadership.

It is the regulations that created Tesla. It was the regulatory environment that created the policy acceleration to this low-carbon, green growth transition. And you can thank [then-Gov.] Ronald Reagan in 1967 for giving us that authority, and the Air Resources Board, and, of course, [President Richard] Nixon with the codification of that in the Clean Air Act. …

That’s the authority that allows us to dominate economically … and prove the paradigm that it’s not the tyranny of “or.” It’s the genius of “and.”

BP: You’ve anticipated this question, but let me ask it anyway: Is it your responsibility as governor to make housing more affordable in this state?

GN: Well, the question implies: What is the role of government? I’m not the mayor of California, as I have to keep reminding myself. … In some ways, I wish I were, so I could drive some of the accountability that I’m looking for.

You think about leadership in this area, and in some ways it’s climate control. It’s to create the conditions, establish the framework, the rules of engagement, so to speak, a framework of support and accountability at the same time. That’s the approach we’re taking on the housing. I think that is the job of the state — to remove as many barriers as possible, [and] still maintaining localism as a foundational principle, that it’s bottom-up, not top-down. One size does not fit all. …

We have a $15.3 billion homeless budget, from $500 million to $15.3 billion, and we’ve put unprecedented money into housing acceleration — infill grants — to support communities large and small. And we’re driving accountability to the next level. It’s a carrot-and-stick approach. I think all of that is our responsibility.

And changing some of the zoning and the absurd labyrinth of rules and regulations that get in the way, that slow down progress. The biggest threat to green energy and the environment is CEQA, the rules we’ve established. I’m not anti-CEQA, but it’s abused. When you’re using CEQA to stop a bike plan from going forward, that’s abuse.

BP: It’s certainly not what it set out to do.

GN: Look, we can’t build the housing. There’s some lazy naivete that says, “You only put up $1.75 billion in your infill grants this year.” We’re not building the housing. It’s creating conditions where private investment can come in and at scale.

BP: Earl Warren used to say that he considered it his responsibility to provide homes for 10,000 new arrivals every week in California during the state’s rapid growth in the 1940s and early 1950s. People hear that and misunderstand it to mean that the state needed to build 10,000 units every week. But you’re not in the housing construction business.

GN: No. We jump-start. We create a framework and flexibility. And localism is determinative. But you have to have the ambition, and you have to have the policies to accelerate that ambition.

We have more work to do on CEQA reforms, more work to do in terms of creating more certainty in the process so we can invite more capital investment, and at the same time find that balance on being creative around density bonuses and in addressing the legitimate anxiety concerns [about] what’s happening in the wild land-urban interface and the proliferation of housing. … That’s impacting some of our issues around forest fires, insurance … and issues around what’s appropriate in a world that’s hotter and drier. …

BP: As you look at L.A. specifically and the homeless situation there, I have to assume that you don’t define success as every single person being housed. But how do you define the goal there? What does Mayor Karen Bass have to deliver for you to feel that she has succeeded?

GN: Success is not a place or a definition. It’s a direction. … We will be measured by what we do or don’t do with what’s going on in the streets, the encampments. “It’s the encampments, stupid.” We have to deal with the encampment issue, which is overwhelmingly a drug issue now with fentanyl, with the new strains we’re seeing of meth. And it’s exacerbated by the behavioral health issues.

It gets to the zeitgeist of this state feeling unsafe.

When I got here, there was no homeless strategy. There was certainly no encampment strategy. There were no requirements for accountability. There was no money. Jerry [Brown] was compelled [by the mayors of the state’s largest cities] to provide roughly a half-a-billion-dollar contribution to the effort. … But that was it. That was the first application of state accountability in this space, a willingness to partner with cities and counties.

[Newsom describes what he calls a successful, $50 million pilot project to target encampments and require accountability to ensure that homeless people were not just being swept out of encampments to other areas.] We backed that up with literally a $1.1 billion — it’s bigger than that now — campaign called Clean California to partner with the cities and counties to take back the spaces.

So: encampments. You have to see it. … If we don’t demonstrably see reduction, not only will we have failed in the minds of the public, but we won’t have the political capacity to continue to make these kinds of investments. And shame on all of us. We own this.

BP: Immigration. You mentioned it already. Obviously, you can contrast California’s position with those states that are corralling immigrants and sending them to the vice president’s house or to Martha’s Vineyard. The stunt politics of that are not happening here.

GN: We’re not kidnapping migrants, for instance.

BP: Exactly. But is there a risk of being too welcoming, of being protective, in the sense that you may encourage people to come to this country illegally who shouldn’t, who ought to wait in line, ought to obey the law?

GN: You play with the cards you’re dealt. It’s a lived reality, not an academic one.

If people want to get rid of sanctuary policy, there’s a pretty simple pathway to do that: Create a pathway to citizenship. Focus on comprehensive reforms. And that’s the federal government’s responsibility. But in the absence of federal leadership, you deal with the cards that are dealt — at the local level and at the state level.

It’s what Jerry [Brown, Newsom’s predecessor] did. It’s what I did as mayor. It’s what previous mayors did. It’s the work we did to keep people healthier, safer, and more educated. And by the way, I say “healthier, safer, and more educated” because I’m parroting Rudy Giuliani.

BP: Don’t let that become a habit.

GN: Let’s go with the gold standard. Rudy Giuliani himself, when he was mayor of New York, said his sanctuary policies kept people healthier, kept people safer, and kept people more educated. That school crossing guard wasn’t coordinating with ICE when that kid was getting into school. The doctor who was giving that flu shot wasn’t coordinating with ICE to keep people healthier and to address communicable diseases. When folks were seeing crimes, they were more likely to report them when they weren’t worried about law enforcement turning them over.

BP: That’s the basis of Special Order 40 [an LAPD order, issued by Chief Daryl Gates, that prohibits Los Angeles police officers from making stops solely on the basis of suspicions about immigration status].

GN: The data is out there on all that. I get why people are upset about this, and they have a right to be. But they shouldn’t be upset with state and local governments and elected officials who are trying to keep people healthier, safer, and more educated. They should focus their ire where it belongs, and that’s [with] the federal government, the inability for them to get out of their own way. They’re as dumb as they want to be.

I believe in the border. I just was down at the border. … I was with the Border Patrol, and we have 144 National Guards, men and women. We’re adding 16 more to do the X-ray machines, to address the fentanyl crisis, to supplement some of the staffing needs that border protection has. I’m not an ideologue on this stuff. I believe in an orderly border process. I believe in comprehensive immigration reform.

But … I’m sitting there, watching these kids with no shoelaces dumped in the middle of the streets and on sidewalks, and folks driving around in circles, ready to traffic these kids. That’s the reality. And that’s the federal role. So you throw people on a Greyhound at 1 in the morning, or you can invest in a thoughtful process. …

Meanwhile, the No. 1 complaint you hear from Big AG [Agriculture] everywhere is that they don’t have enough people.

I get the critique. I share it. But you’re pointing the finger in the wrong direction.

BP: I remember when Proposition 187 was being debated years ago, the idea that people somehow believed it would be good for society generally to deny vaccinations to people who were in the country illegally was just baffling. Forget the cold meanness of that. How about the self-interest?

GN: Look, immigration is part of our formula for success. We’ve had a formula since the ‘50s and ‘60s. … We didn’t get here by accident, didn’t become the fourth-largest economy in the world by accident. Foundationally, it was built around being able to get the best and the brightest from around the globe. Our innovation, our entrepreneurialism is defined by immigrants, valley to valley, Silicon Valley to Central Valley. No state has more to lose or more to gain on this issue.

BP: Guns. We have a lot of strict gun policies in this state, and yet we still have a lot of shootings. Has this state found the right way to regulate guns?

GN: The data is in. This is not a subjective point, it’s an objective one. Gun safety saves lives. The data is overwhelming. California’s leadership in this space is demonstrable. We’ve never suggested, never suggested that this state — a population the size of 21 states combined — will not have, in terms of numerics, tragedies such as we experienced, back to back, a few months ago. No one is suggesting that.

But on a per capita basis, when you look at what we’ve done since the Stockton shooting [a 1989 shooting at the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton that left five children dead and more than 30 wounded], which really initiated some of the nation’s leading gun safety laws, it’s overwhelming. It’s not even comparable.

Last I checked, we had a murder rate something like 67% … of a state like Texas [Note: In 2022, California’s rate of gun deaths, which includes murder as well as accidental deaths, was 8.5 per 100,000 residents: Texas’ was 14.2 per 100,000. California’s gun death rate, then, is about 60% of the rate in Texas. The most violent American states, in terms of gun deaths, were Mississippi, Louisiana, Wyoming, and Missouri, all with relatively lax gun safety laws.]

We are the nation’s leader in this space. … We’ve always proved the paradigm.

BP: California, as you’ve already alluded, has long taken the position that it can and should use its economic and budgetary power to advance its values, whether it’s the catalytic converter, or farm practices, or animal welfare, or climate change. …

GN: We always forget. It started here. The catalytic converter.

BP: So now we see DeSantis crack down on Disney and use his economic power to punish Disney for opposing Florida’s rules on LGBT issues, at the same time that you’re using California’s power to crack down on Walgreens. [in March, Newsom refused to renew a contract with Walgreens after it announced that it would not supply abortion drugs in some states.] Why is it objectionable for DeSantis to punish Disney but not objectionable for you to punish Walgreens? Is there a principled distinction?

GN: I’d one-up you.


GN: What about when I modeled, verbatim, a right of private action for bounties on guns after the abortion bill out of Texas? I said at the time, and I’ll repeat it, that it was authorized by the Supreme Court, and if these are the rules of engagement, then we will not unilaterally disarm. In the context of that decision, I said that if they’re going to use their authority — pursuant to the complicity of the U.S. Supreme Court — to put women’s lives at risk, I will use it to save people’s lives here in the state of California.

I would extend that to the more contemporary issue of Walgreens. These guys are getting rewarded for bad behavior. … I’ve been calling that out a little bit. Walgreens, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t express values and promote them and not act on them. They unilaterally withdrew, before there was even adjudication of the facts in those states. They said [they would] not be providing these life-saving drugs in some cases, drugs that are legal to prescribe in this country. … I wanted to express ourselves.

But the question is a fair question. I’ve been very candid about it [using the state’s economic power]. … I’ve struggled with, “Do I participate? Do I play into this? Do I stand on the sideline and continue to watch them run the tables?” I just think they’re winning.

BP: Well, that’s part of what drives this, right? It’s all well and good to take the high ground, but sometimes you get your ass kicked.

GN: That’s my point. They keep winning, and I’m terrified by it. … We’re getting to the edge here, across the board, in terms of how far these folks are willing to go. DeSantis is kidnapping kids out of his own state. … It’s so insane, and yet it’s so normalized now. What I’m trying to do is say, “Hey, hold on. …”

California has a unique responsibility at this moment. They can kick me out if they don’t like my approach. …

It’s time to defend ourselves a little more muscularly. …

BP: It does feel a little bit like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

GN: The right is ruthless. Their zest for demonization and othering is profound and pronounced. We’ve been at it for years, too. You brought up Proposition 187, and we’ve had xenophobia and the Briggs initiative [a 1978 California ballot measure that sought to prohibit gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools]. …

BP: We’ve had our share.

GN: But that was like black-and-white-movie days. I thought we were done with this stuff. These guys, what they’re doing to the trans community. Fox [is going on] about how the trans community is full of homicidal murderers, and that’s the real lesson of Nashville [where a shooting at the Covenant School on March 27 killed three students and three staff members] and how the Catholic community is being oppressed, and no Christians are safe.

I mean, come on! I can’t take it.

So, expect more of that [pushback] from me. I’m not saying that with pride. I’m very conscious of the critique, and I accept it. I wear the critique.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author, teacher and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of four critically acclaimed books of biography and history, including "Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown." He teaches in Communication Studies and Public Policy at UCLA.

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