Gavin Newsom Is Not Governing

Leading California is more than a full-time job––and neglecting it to do PR stunts in red states is frivolous and irresponsible.

Close-up picture of Gavin Newsom looking as if he's seraching for words.
David Livingston / Getty

During Gavin Newsom’s campaign to win another term as governor of California last year, I complained that rather than focusing on how to solve the Golden State’s many significant problems, the Democratic incumbent devoted much of his time and attention to heaping scorn on far-flung Republican counterparts, such as Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. He went so far as to rent billboards and buy televised political advertisements in other states.

Voters rewarded Newsom: He won just over 2 million more votes than his GOP opponent, the state legislator Brian Dahle, who had no hope of victory given his lack of name recognition and an electorate where there are twice as many Democrats as Republicans. And now Newsom is governing like he campaigned. Though he remains the most powerful elected official in America’s most populous state, he often acts as if he’s an influencer with no better tool for effecting change than callouts.

He recently raised $10 million to spend not on the poor, or the sick, or the young and full of potential, but rather on the governing elite’s answer to slacktivism: a political action committee.

On March 30, Newsom announced the new PAC, the Campaign for Democracy, in a video posted to his Twitter feed, where he argues that America’s ills are downstream of officials in states that the GOP controls. “The problem in our country right now: authoritarian leaders who are so hell-bent on gaining power and keeping it by whatever means necessary that they’re directly attacking our freedoms in state after state,” he declared. “That’s why I’m launching the Campaign for Democracy. We’re going on the road to take the fight to states where freedom is most under attack.”

Taking “the fight to” authoritarians turns out to mean staging PR events in their jurisdictions. So far this month, Newsom has traveled to Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Florida, criticizing Republicans at every stop. In many instances, his criticisms align with positions I hold or have taken, and I could fill his calendar with visits to other red states that have policies I regard as wrongheaded. But why? Newsom has no political power in those states. He is so sufficiently unpopular among their voters that his presence there is as likely to help as hurt GOP governors. And, most important, his travels are a dereliction of the job he sought and won, because governors have a responsibility to focus on the problems that afflict their own state.

That used to go without saying. Now, however, leaders of organizations as varied as state governments, corporations, universities, museums, and theater companies have convinced themselves that good leadership entails issuing virtuous pronouncements on matters outside their realm of authority, often to denounce ills that have little to do with their job and its actual challenges.

In deep-blue California, zero Republicans hold statewide office, and Democrats enjoy a supermajority in the state legislature and control over almost all of the major cities. Right-wing authoritarians hold almost no power, nor would their defeat in the Deep South solve any of the state’s problems.

And what problems!

As Newsom produces slick videos on location, the Golden State finds itself in a perilous position. The mixed blessing of winter storms that ended drought conditions in much of the state brought so much snow that this spring’s melt ensures flooding (while billions of dollars are needed for repairs and damages already done) and threatens catastrophe––an ill-timed storm or heat wave could melt the snow so fast, water could overwhelm parts of the Central Valley, threatening poor communities of vulnerable farmworkers and millions of dollars of crops. A governor working full-time on that matter alone couldn’t adequately prepare for what may come.

The state’s fiscal outlook is bleak, having quickly swung from a $100 billion surplus to a $22.5 billion deficit. In the longer term, the state is likely to get less much-needed water from the Colorado River.

As if that recent bad news isn’t enough, all of California’s long-standing problems are still around: housing, homelessness, struggling public schools. To be fair, they are thorny problems, and Newsom hasn’t been totally derelict in trying to solve them. In fact, he sometimes even improves on his predecessors with the approach that he supports.

Regardless, however, he hasn’t made nearly enough actual progress on any of them to take his eye off the ball. On housing, for example, the watchdog CalMatters has observed, “It’s difficult for housing advocates to criticize Gov. Gavin Newsom because he’s done more to boost production than any other governor in recent memory—but that’s mostly because the bar is so low.” Under Newsom, the acute statewide housing crisis continues. Homelessness continues to grow, despite years of costly interventions by elected officials. The dysfunctional bullet-train project staggers on. Confidence in public schools is falling statewide, with especially bleak numbers in Los Angeles, where “about 1 in 3 voters give D or F marks to public schools,” the Los Angeles Times reports. The Metro system in Los Angeles is shedding riders amid rampant drug use, soaring robberies, rapes, and aggravated assaults. Oakland has recorded more than 100 homicides annually for three years running. And as I detailed at length in 2021, California still has a miserly approach to opportunity.

These severe problems demand the governor’s full focus and a strategy that unfolds with the understanding that the forces stymieing positive change tend to be left-aligned in California, not right-aligned, for the simple reason that Democrats here wield so much more power than Republicans. Governing well means working against and upsetting at least some factions of Democrats.

The claim that “the problem in our country” is authoritarian Republicans in red states may be a good line if you’re a California Democrat seeking applause from a friendly audience or donations from your political base. But it elides all of the problems that afflict deep-blue jurisdictions.

California urgently needs a governor who focuses on its many problems, not the problems of the Deep South. And nothing any California governor says will tilt the country toward embracing their model of governance more than demonstrating that, rather than rising rents, rising homelessness, rising crime and disorder, and failing schools, their approach improves a state. If Newsom can’t improve on his current performance, he doesn’t deserve a future in politics.