Today Gavin Newsom announced his intention to run for governor in 2018. He cast himself as someone who would carry on Jerry Brown’s legacy:
Today, Californians are blessed with the remarkable leadership of Governor Jerry Brown, who in the face of long odds has led our state to firm fiscal footing and brought us to the enviable position of dreaming – and achieving – big dreams again.
Even so, long-term challenges remain daunting – we must continue to grow our economy and create private-sector jobs, we must invest in public education and keep college affordable, we must address the widening inequalities that separate our communities and we must maintain California’s historic leadership in meeting the climate challenge.
Those are nice words. But Newsom has consistently failed to demonstrate in practice that he actually believes this. His flip-flop on high speed rail is perhaps the best example of his unreliability on job creation, meeting the climate challenge, and his opposition to Governor Brown’s remarkable leadership in dreaming big again.
In 2009, during his first, abortive campaign for governor, Newsom embraced high speed rail. He toured France’s TGV and spoke enthusiastically about how HSR would help San Francisco. He brought up HSR, unprompted, in a town hall meeting in Alameda County. At the California Democratic Party convention that year, he told me that he was strongly supportive of HSR – even looking forward to presiding over the opening of the route:
Newsom specifically mentioned high speed rail in his answer – that when he was younger he took a trip to Europe and rode their high speed trains, but when he came back “all we had was Caltrain.” Newsom was a strong supporter of last fall’s Proposition 1A, and has been one of the leading forces behind getting the Transbay Terminal done. Newsom wants to build HSR as governor of California – if he won two terms he might be able to preside over the opening of the LA-SF route in 2018.
In 2014, however, panicking at reports that the project was in trouble, Newsom went on a right-wing talk radio show and flip-flopped:
“I would take the dollars and redirect it to other, more pressing infrastructure needs,” Newsom said during an appearance on the Seattle-based Ben Shapiro Show on AM 770 KTTH…
“I am not the only Democrat that feels this way,” Newsom said during his radio appearance. “I gotta tell you, I am one of the few that just said it publicly. Most are now saying it privately.”
But that wasn’t true. Sacramento Democrats voted just a few months later to give 25% of the cap-and-trade revenue to the high speed rail project, a crucial vote of confidence in HSR. Polls showed a majority of voters support HSR. Neel Kashkari thought he could use the “crazy train” as a way to defeat Jerry Brown. Instead, Brown won by 20 points. Controller Betty Yee switched her position and came out in favor of HSR on the campaign trail last fall, a sign that being pro-HSR is actually a winning political position in California.
Newsom’s flip flop on HSR wasn’t just bad policy, it was terrible politics. It showed that he is a craven politician whose word cannot be trusted, someone who will abandon important efforts to reduce CO2 emissions at the first sign of trouble. It also shows he is not actually in touch with the thinking of California Democrats.
Newsom’s new opposition to HSR didn’t undermine the project. But it did undermine his standing among California progressives and transit advocates, many of whom have reacted coolly or with outright hostility to today’s announcement. Newsom’s HSR flip flop is going to make it much harder for him to convince California Democrats to support him in his bid to succeed Jerry Brown. If Californians want someone focused on jobs, on fighting climate change, and on dreaming big again, they’re going to have to look elsewhere. Gavin Newsom isn’t that person.