MyDD Interview with Gavin Newsom
by Jonathan Singer, Wed May 20, 2009 at 09:24:05 AM EDT
Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to speak with Gavin Newsom, the Mayor of San Francisco and a candidate for Governor of California in 2010 -- the first in what I hope to be a long series of conversations with candidates running for office during the current cycle (which itself is a continuation of interviews posted on this site over the past four and a half years). The questions for this interview were culled from among those you posted here at MyDD and posted via Twitter @jonathanhsinger.
During our conversation, Mayor Newsom and I spoke about a range of topics, including the current budgetary mess in California, the need for constitutional reform in the state, and Proposition 8. You can listen to the interview or read a rush transcript below, or download the audio as a very large .mp3 file here.
Jonathan Singer: The first question is pretty simple. Is California governable?
Gavin Newsom: Absolutely yes, with a significant provision that we need to dramatically look at reforming the governance in the context of looking at structural reforms and looking, as I have long believed, at opening up a framework around a constitutional convention to address those reforms.
But I do believe that we're at a point that in absence of those reforms it's becoming more difficult to govern the state, but by no means is it unmanageable and ungovernable. I have never accepted that proposition. Incidentally, that's exactly what people said about San Francisco for many, many years and I just don't buy the proposition.
Singer: Does the next Governor in order to succeed to get the mandate - whether it's through a constitutional convention or a referendum of some sort - does the next Governor have to run on that in 2010 to make sure that happens?
Newsom: I think by definition if you believe in it you should run on it. If whatever it is you support, let folks know what you're supporting and be forthright and deliberative about it. But the answer is yes, if you believe in opening up an honest and thoughtful and deliberative debate about civil service reform broadly. About structural reform specifically. About looking at entitlements. And looking at the system of governance, be it the two-thirds requirement on taxes/budget. Looking at issues as difficult as Prop 13, or as challenging as the need to reform Medi-Cal, which I believe is long overdue. Or prison reform. These things need to be discussed in a campaign honestly and forthrightly.
Singer: Now let me ask you, you brought up Proposition 13. From what I understand, Jerry Brown, the Attorney General of the state whom you may have the opportunity to speak with quite a bit during the upcoming campaign, has indicated that his lack of going to the mats against Proposition 13 is a regret of his. Is that something you think should be discussed during the upcoming campaign?
Newsom: I think it is being discussed. I've done a couple dozen town hall meetings. There's not been one town hall meeting where this hasn't come up. So it is being discussed.
I know this is a third rail issue. I've of course been identified and associated with many third rail issues, so I have no problem engaging in these kinds of discussions, because I think they're necessary to discuss and deliberate about.
But it is being discussed. It is part of the narrative already of this campaign. And even if a candidate for Governor wanted to avoid it, I don't think they can.
Now the question is how you respond to the discussion and the debate. And my comments are that if we're going to sincerely look at reforming the governance of this state, everything needs to be on the table. When you start picking and choosing what you're going to take away, then I question the sincerity of that reform agenda.
I have strong opinions that I think it's the wrong time to address the question of residential protection. I think in this economic environment, I think in terms of the significance of that debate could derail and frustrate other reforms. However I do think the issue of a split role needs to be debated honestly and forthrightly, and its consequences need to be aired.
Singer: Just to flesh that out a little bit more, so when you're speaking about residential, you're talking about the provision of Proposition 13 that caps the rate of growth?
Newsom: Yeah. I think that's going to be very difficult to overturn.
Singer: And do you both mean prospectively and retrospectively. That is to say, for new homebuyers it will be as difficult to affect that as it would be to existing homeowners?
Newsom: Yeah. I guess the fundamental point is I think the reality is that's a nonstarter for too many people, that it could get caught up in that being the clarion call of opposition for any discussion about the area where I do think there's more of an openness, and that's around the issue of commercial, discussion about the split role, etc.
One of the gifts of going out, and one of the opportunities of going out and dialoguing with people directly in these town halls is that we're able to flesh out these ideas and have dialogues. And what I'm sensing from Fresno to Placer County - and I was just in Fresno and back in Placer County for town halls, and all over the state, the Southern part of the state - is a growing willingness to enter in the debate on, again, the split role, and a reticence around and a concern generally around the issue of homeowner protection related to Prop 13.
Singer: More broadly, taking a step back, why would anyone, and I guess you in particular, want to become Governor during such a financial mess?
Newsom: I honestly don't think there's a more extraordinary time to want to be Governor of California. I think especially if things go the way they look to be going. I'm going to tell you, I was downstairs at 3:30 today. I was the only person voting downstairs at City Hall. I've never seen anything like it. And it's obvious, I'm stating the obvious, but I truly was shocked. I thought this would be a low turnout, but I had no idea that it would be this low. That being said, I don't know the experience in other parts of the state. We'll see if their experience relates.
Assuming these things go south, that these initiatives do not pass, we're at a point where we simply - all of us, not just Democrats and Republicans and elected officials - all of us as advocates, as stewards, as taxpayers of this state, people who care about it, are now thrust to a point where we are compelled to enter into a very real and sober conversation about this state's future and its capacity to deliver even on its basic promises. And that's an opportunity. I think now we're more open to reform potentially than ever, assuming again things go south tonight. So I think it's an extraordinary time.
Singer: It seems, and you hit on something, that almost regardless of the specific results on the measures, the overall message seems to be one of tuning out, which is interesting considering the very high turnout we saw in November to see such disengagement and unhappiness with the process. How does the next Governor, or how do you get Californians excited about government and thinking that change can come?
Newsom: The people aren't looking for inspiration in Sacramento, just like they didn't find inspiration coming out of Washington, DC. I think it's a very parallel time an experience, in terms of people's consciousness. People are fed up. They're sick and tired of these broken promises of politicians of both political parties, the finger-pointing, the abdication of responsibility, the lack of leadership, the lack of bold new ideas. They don't like these games that are being played. They don't like late night budget negotiations literally in the dead of night. They don't like smoke and mirrors. They don't like deals being that are being cut to get a vote here or there. And I think what President Obama as a candidate inspired was a nation of similar consciousness to say enough of Washington, DC and these games that were being played in Washington.
I think it's very analogous here, fast-forward a year later, in the midst of a gubernatorial election where people are now more acutely than every fed up with those games in their own state, not just in Washington. And what they're looking for is the same kind bold leadership, a willingness not just to identify problems but to solve them regardless of their differences and someone that's willing to take risks. And I think people that are going to argue to play on the margin are not going to succeed, and not just to campaign but succeed in terms of their ability to govern this state. I think we have to be bold, we have to be extraordinarily ambitious, we've gotta be willing to take political risk. I think people are looking for authenticity. People are looking for people who call balls and strikes. They're less ideological. They're much more pragmatic. I do think the opportunity to capture generational perspective in terms of that appetite exists. But that's not just a time of life it's a state of mind. It's not just young people, it's people of all ages that are fed up and that are looking for something fundamentally different.
But the caveat is that unless we have the structural changes, I don't care who your personality is, it's going to be very difficult to navigate out of this. So that's the big difference between Washington, DC and Sacramento. We're going to have to, as well, at the same time address the structural questions, not just promote a different personality as Governor.
Singer: Let me ask you on the question of governance, whether or not constitutional change comes, how do you ensure that you work well with the legislature if elected? It will likely be a Democratic legislature, but that doesn't always ensure success. And how has your experience with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors prepared you for that?
Newsom: I've got to tell you, just ask Willie Brown, who worked as Speaker very effectively with Republican Governors and Republican legislators, and had a very difficult time dealing with his Board of Supervisors. You recall he almost got in a fist-fight with Supervisor Chris Daly, and President of the Board Aaron Peskin, he called him I think "a drunken little dwarf," and the President of the Board called for a restraining order against the Mayor. I say all these things just to underscore that one of the masters of politics, whether you supported him or opposed him people respected his capacity to reach across the political divide, had a very difficult time in local politics in San Francisco.
And I say all that to underscore the point, what more challenging environment to have experienced then this environment? To come from this environment into Sacramento, arguably equally as challenging, is not only familiar but provides from a real life experience a set of opportunities, not just challenges, in navigating through that because I've had to. Yet we've still been able to do universal healthcare. We're still the only city in this state with universal preschool. We are advancing an educational agenda that I really think that is a model for the rest of the state, and our partnerships with our public schools, in spite of our differences ideological and otherwise. And the environmental record I think speaks for itself. And the economic development work we have done. The rainy day reserve. The anti-poverty programs. So we're still able to accomplish things even though we have at times very strained relationships with our legislative branch.
So it's a longwinded way of saying it's a very familiar environment to me, yet we're still able to make progress. So I'm not threatened by the environment in Sacramento because of the experience of the environment politically locally.
Singer: I just want to shift topics a little bit to Proposition 8 and marriage equality more broadly. Some people, as recently as just a few months ago, would have said that your early stance on marriage equality, on gay marriage, made you unelectable, some would say. And some would say that your comment "whether you like it or not" with regards to it would have hurt you. Although it seems as though the mood of the country has changed rapidly, and in California as well, in the last few months with so many states joining in with marriage equality. Do you see your stance as a plus or is it the negative that some people say it is?
Newsom: It's both, right. Good people can disagree. Members of my family, my father was recently quoted in The Sacramento Bee as finally coming around, having expressed concern. You know he was a very progressive judge, but just had a problem with the word, and wished it could just be civil unions. So when I say good people can disagree, I mean that with absolute conviction and sincerity.
That being said, I think what people are looking for is, again, authenticity. They're looking for someone who isn't going to say one thing in private and do another in public. You may not support me all of the time, but you know where I stand on these issues. And I'm not running a campaign for Governor that's based on whatever the focus group determines I should be focused on or whatever the daily tracking poll says. It's just not who I am. I'm not going to be a successful candidate, let alone a successful Governor, being that person.
So to the extent that people will decide that's the only issue that matters to them, and my positions on economic development and healthcare and education and the environment are no longer important because I support marriage equality and believe in the principle that separate is not equal, they have every right to do that. But I don't think, and I mean this based upon not just my instincts but now based on my experience the last six months campaigning, that people are focused on this issue the way they were even seven months ago.
The world has changed dramatically since September of last year. And people are looking for someone to help solve problems. People are more open now than ever to look beyond issues of morality, in terms of marriage equality or issues of choice and issues that have tended to divide us in the past, and are now looking for a hard-headed pragmatist, and want to know, How did you balance your budget without raising taxes? How did your bond rating just go up in San Francisco at the same time the state's dropped below Louisiana? How did you take care of every teacher so that there were no teacher layoffs in your city in this economic climate? How have you managed to invest and grow the biotech and life science sector and the green tech sector and still do healthcare and education advancements, on preschool, etc.?
People are much more curious about those things than I think they are about a position that is well known, my position on same-sex marriage, and I think that you're right that Iowa, Maine, clearly what's happening in New York, New Jersey, what's happened in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and what's happening across this country has begun to thaw people's point of view as well, that maybe this is not the issue we should decide who our next Governor is. Maybe there are other issues that are candidly more important.
Singer: One final question. You've certainly spoken directly to the netroots, literally at Netroots Nation last year we saw you. But if you have a specific message today to progressive bloggers and those on the internet that you can't fit on the 140 characters on Twitter to your very impressive 400,000+ list there, what would that message be to the netroots today?
Newsom: I have strong values, and I'm never going to ever substitute my values for a political career. That I'm going to fight for what I believe in. I'm always open to argument. But there are certain things I can't sacrifice.
And in terms of progressive credentials, looking at this race and looking at the things that I have fought for, the hits I have taken not just on marriage equality but sanctuary city, standing up and defending those policies. And fighting for universal healthcare and delivering on it, and not just talking about it but substantially delivering on it. On dealing with issues of poverty eradication and homelessness and housing and environmental stewardship. That I think people know where I stand on all these issues, and they know what I'll fight for. And I'm the same person, whether I like it or not at times, in public that I am in private, and I'm not going to change to win an office. But I also believe that these values can unite, because I'm meeting people in every county in this state - conservatives, Democrats - they're all talking about the same things.
And I think people should also recognize that these progressive principles and progressive values are becoming increasingly mainstream, and these principles can be achieved in our state. And so I also think there's a pragmatism to this point of view. It's not just an ideal that we're advancing. I think the ability to manifest the reforms in healthcare and education pay huge dividends economically, not just socially, and I think that the time is ripe for this type of approach of governance. So that's in essence what I'd say. It's a lot more than 140 characters.
[THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.]