Et tu, Gavin?
I don’t remember the first time I talked to Gavin Newsom about high speed rail. It might have been at the California Democratic Party convention in San José in 2008. Or Netroots Nation in Austin, Texas that same year. We definitely talked about it at the CDP convention in Sacramento in 2009. Gavin was running for governor and held a meeting of bloggers and activists. I asked him about HSR, and he said he strongly backed it. He told the story of his trip to Europe after graduating college, he rode the bullet trains there and then got back to California and wondered why we didn’t have them here. That was similar to my own experience, and so I was glad to see that for Gavin, support for HSR was not just about politics but about an experience of seeing how well it worked overseas and wanting it for California too.
That meeting wound up making it into Gavin’s TV ads for his 2010 campaign for Lieutenant Governor. In the ad titled “Innovator” you can see him chatting intently and expertly, with some blogger dude seated to his left and holding a MacBook in his lap, looking on as Gavin talks about something insightful. That dude was me:
(And that’s David Dayen, author of this Politico article on HSR, seated to my left taking notes.)
I was pleased to be featured in Gavin’s ads, even though I was there only because of the glowing Apple logo. I knew he wasn’t perfect and had a hell of a lot of critics, many of whom had been former allies or employees. But based in part on his backing for HSR, I thought he was a good up and coming statewide politician. Especially given that his opponent that year was the odious Abel Maldonado, I was happy to see Gavin win the seat.
Unfortunately, Gavin’s politics are not nearly as consistent as I’d hoped. In recent weeks Republicans have been stepping up their attacks on California HSR, calling for the money to be spent on roads, just as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker did in 2011. Republican candidate for governor Neel Kashkari has been attacking Jerry Brown over HSR, also calling for an end to what Kashkari calls the “crazy train” and for the money to be sent elsewhere.
Today, Gavin Newsom sided with the GOP conspirators. On a right-wing talk radio show, he abandoned his previous support for HSR and endorsed the Republican attack on the project:
“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.”
I’ll just interject for a moment and say I don’t believe him when he says this. There are certainly some Democrats who are saying this, yes. But not “most.” I’ve heard from enough people in Sacramento to know that Gavin is overstating the case dramatically here.
Over the last few years, Newsom’s public position on the state-spanning bullet train has gradually shifted. In 2011, he pronounced himself “extraordinarily excited” about the undertaking.
“I personally have been supportive of the high-speed rail project since my time as mayor of the city and county of San Francisco,” Newsom said, going on to tout the project’s job-generating capacity and its role in moving goods and people around the state.
By 2013 he appeared distinctly less enthusiastic. During a talk at the Milken Institute Global Conference last May, Newsom said that “more and more legitimate questions are being raised” about the rail project.
“I think we have to be sober about this,” he added.
Why? Does Gavin now oppose reducing CO2 emissions? Does he oppose creating thousands of jobs in the Central Valley? Does he not want better passenger rail connections to San Francisco?
My guess is that this is not really about the merits of the project itself. After all, the HSR project remains a sound concept, with the problems coming from a Tea Party in Congress that is refusing to add more federal funding in order to spawn new hurdles for a project they despise.
No, this is more about Newsom himself. Since taking office he and Governor Jerry Brown have not exactly seen eye to eye. Jerry doesn’t think much of Gavin, and Gavin chafes in an office with no power, no role, and no public profile. Reports indicate that the two have not met face-to-face since 2010. At last month’s State of the State address Gavin gave an extended speech of his own rather than sticking to his introduction of Governor Brown. Brown responded mockingly in his own remarks.
So surely Newsom is taking the chance to poke Brown in the eye by coming out against the HSR project. It will definitely get Newsom some much-desired media attention. But it will cause consternation among California Democrats who will be rightly angry that Newsom is undermining his governor and the party by siding with Republicans on a high profile issue.
The question is what actual impact Newsom’s statement will have, aside from a short stroking of his notoriously fragile ego. Newsom has no political base, is not well respected among Democrats around the state or in the Legislature. But the media will likely trumpet this as another blow to a supposedly troubled project, a story the media have liked to create in recent years.
Ultimately California HSR’s fate will be decided between legislative leaders and Governor Brown. If anything Newsom’s words will make Brown more determined to stick with HSR and get it through its current rough waters.
The real question facing California Democrats is whether they are problem solvers and leaders, or whether they are quitters like Gavin Newsom. If they’re problem solvers and leaders, they’ll find ways to ensure that HSR gets built. Other major infrastructure projects had their challenges too, they all do, including the Golden Gate Bridge. Leadership isn’t cutting and running, it’s doing what it takes to get things done.
Or Democrats could decide to quit on HSR. But if they do, they’ll be sending a message to the Tea Party that it is open season on California, that they can destroy anything Sacramento does simply by denying it funding in Congress.
Whether you like it or not, HSR is a central part of California’s future. Gavin talks about change and innovation. HSR is a perfect example of both of those things – and of the challenges that change and innovation often face. For the sake of the state’s economic and environmental future, let’s hope that it’s Governor Brown’s leadership that wins out this year, rather than Gavin Newsom’s craven cold feet.