Gavin Newsom’s Santa Cruz address shows he’s all in for the 2018 governor’s race
“What world are we living in?”
That was a gregarious Gavin Newsom’s repeated question for Monterey Bay leaders last week. Guests at a summit on the economy and other issues were treated to a fascinating look into the possible future of California—with Newsom, the keynote speaker, front and center.
In his remarks at the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership’s “State of the Region” conference at Chaminade Resort, Newsom, California’s lieutenant governor, encouraged listeners to embrace the world of rapidly advancing technology. He pushed the crowd of politicians and business people to think critically about the daunting challenges that this new economic landscape poses. All the while, Newsom kept the room roaring with laughter with asides and self-effacing jabs at his own expense.
The election is still three years away, but Newsom, who served as San Francisco mayor from 2004 to 2011, is running hard to be the state’s next governor, having announced his candidacy in February.
“There’s nothing unusual about someone running for governor this far in advance,” says Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Unruh Institute of Politics. “What is unusual is making the announcement official so early.”
The more typical approach, Schnur mentions, is to begin “exploring” a run for office, like former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is doing right now as he travels through the Central Valley, listening to people’s stories. Analysts assume that Villaraigosa will jump into the race, too, but he has been keeping relatively quiet, unlike the lieutenant governor.
“Give him credit,” Schnur says of Newsom’s decision to announce this year. “He didn’t want to spend the next two years playing semantic games. He decided this is something he’s prepared to do, and he’s been very straightforward about it.”
Other possible candidates for governor include former state controller Steve Westly, current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and state treasurer John Chiang. Schnur calls Newsom “the early frontrunner” and adds that Bay Area candidates often fare better than Los Angeles ones in statewide elections because they get better voter turnout.
Depending on the results come election day 2018, Newsom could either become a trendsetter or an example of what not to do.
“In politics, like in most areas of life, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery,” Schnur says. “If Gavin Newsom gets elected, announcing early will become a strategy. If he doesn’t, then not so much.”
In his speech at the Santa Cruz conference, he quoted Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Greek philosopher Plutarch, Airbnb founder Brian Chesky, a few authors, and a couple of his friends. The sixth-generation San Franciscan even has a bit of a southern drawl—sounding more these days like Matthew McConaughey than a Bay Area native.
“I am literally up and down this state,” Newsom told the crowd of almost 300. “I was milking cows in Hanford. You know someone is running for governor when they’re milking cows in Hanford.”
The hotly contested Proposition F, which Newsom opposed, had been defeated just the day before, and Newsom invoked it early in his speech. The initiative aimed to crack down on vacation rentals in San Francisco, many of them through sites like Airbnb.com, which is headquartered there. It would have limited short-term rentals to 75 days a year and beefed up enforcement. Newsom said its defeat shows that voters are ready to embrace a different kind of economy.
“As we’ve gone from something old to something new, there’s a recognition that the industrial economy has run out of gas. It’s an atrophy. It’s stalled,” Newsom said.
Newsom’s argument was that in the information age, California leaders need to foster the emerging tech economy, instead of trying to slow it down.
To further that point, the former San Francisco supervisor invoked the reason he decided to run for mayor over a decade ago: his desire to reform the taxi industry—which, he admits, didn’t go exactly as planned. “It was a complete failure. What I did—I did what politicians do. I put together a task force to improve things. It bought me some time,” he says.
When cab fares continued skyrocketing and still no one could get a cab, Newsom decided to form a commission. When that didn’t work, he merged his task force into the commission to form “a super commission.”
“I was being rewarded the whole time,” he added. “It was amazing! People said, ‘Thank you for caring about this. Thank you for trying.’”
Then, Newsom mused, a young entrepreneur came along with a revolutionary cell phone application called Uber. Soon after the ridesharing app’s launch, taxi fares plummeted. In one year, he said, Uber did more to fix the problem than he had done in 15 years.
Although Newsom’s overall message to Santa Cruz was positive, he did express anxieties about income inequalities and the future job market in a world where work can be replaced by machines or shipped overseas.
He wondered, for instance, what’s going to happen when UPS drivers and truck drivers are replaced by self-driving vehicles. Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane pressed him on that point, when he asked how to fight income inequality in this changing economy.
“The tech genie’s out of the bottle,” said Newsom, adding that he has served on six different panels in the last six months, each of them trying to answer this exact question.
Newsom said we’re living in a “401 K world,” one that’s no longer defined by benefits, but instead by contributions and portfolios. Next, he launched into a riveting story about his ride inside a self-driving Audi weeks earlier, getting up to 108 miles per hour on Sears Point Raceway, a wildly curving road in Sonoma County.
Then he looked back toward Lane.
“Now, you asked this question that I can’t answer, so this is me completely misdirecting the answer,” Newsom said, to more chuckles. “I’m making it appear I’m smart, when in fact I don’t know anything. We have spent the past few months trying to answer this question, and it scares the hell out of me. The best folks we can find, they’re not able to answer this question. That’s how alarming it is. Someone said, ‘You know, we’re living in a world with no ceilings anymore and no walls, meaning limitless possibility. But also no floor.’”
WIN SOME, NEWSOM If Gavin Newsom is elected governor in 2018, his strategy of announcing his candidacy early could catch on. PHOTO: CHARLIE NGUYEN