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Commentary

Dan Walters: Gavin Newsom’s first term: Reality bites

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Last weekend, Gavin Newsom released the first video ad of his campaign for a second term as California’s governor.

Dan Walters, CALmatters Commentary

Dan Walters writes for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

It is, therefore, an appropriate moment to look at what he said he wanted to accomplish as governor during his 2018 campaign and how it has turned out.

A two-word summary would be “reality bites.”

Candidate Newsom, touting a book entitled “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,” embraced its central point that visionary leaders should seek “big, hairy audacious goals.”

“I’d rather be accused of (having) those audacious stretch goals than be accused of timidity,” he said at one point.

True to that philosophy, Newsom told voters he wanted to do big things, such as creating a single-payer health system, solving the state’s chronic shortage of housing and completely converting California to renewable energy.

During his 2018 campaign, the state Senate passed a single-payer bill and Newsom enthusiastically endorsed it, saying there was “no reason to wait around.”

“I’m tired of politicians saying they support single-payer but that it’s too soon, too expensive or someone else’s problem,” Newsom said.

The 2018 bill stalled in the Assembly but when another bill cleared the Senate and was pending in the Assembly this year, Newsom made no effort to get it passed and it died without a vote.

A commission Newsom appointed to study single-payer’s feasibility has issued a report that lays out options but offers no clear path to implementation. Essentially, single-payer is no more likely today than it was four years ago.

Instead, Newsom’s budgets have incrementally extended Medi-Cal coverage to uninsured residents, including undocumented immigrants, but in the long term, that coverage depends on the state’s notoriously volatile revenues.

As he was running for governor, Gavin Newsom pledged to “lead the effort to develop the 3.5 million new housing units we need by 2025 because our solutions must be as bold as the problem is big.”

The pledge would have required increasing production to 500,000 units a year, but actual construction has been, at best, about 20% of that figure. Newsom downplayed his pledge to “a stretch goal,” telling the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a stubborn issue. You can’t snap your fingers and build hundreds of thousands, millions of housing units overnight.”

And so it has gone — Newsom edging away from “big hairy audacious goals” one-by-one when they proved impossible to achieve in the real world.

Two recent positions on high-profile environmental issues also illustrate how reality has tempered his governorship.

One reality is that California is afflicted by severe drought and, due to climate change, may face permanent shortages of water. One very controversial option is tapping the limitless supply of ocean water and stripping out its salt.

Recently, the state Coastal Commission recommended that the state’s second desalination plant not be built, but Newsom reiterated his support. “We need more tools in the damn tool kit,” Newsom told the Bay Area News Group editorial board.

That, at least, was a consistent position, but he modified his stance on another real world issue — whether California’s only remaining nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, should be shuttered as now scheduled.

The San Luis Obispo County plant generates at least 6% of the state’s electrical energy and closure could leave California, whose power supply is already marginal, in the dark.

Newsom had supported decommissioning Diablo Canyon but told the Los Angeles Times editorial board last week that California will apply for federal funds aimed at keeping threatened nuclear plants in production, saying, “We would be remiss not to put that on the table as an option.”

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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