Gavin Newson in Washington
Gov. Gavin Newsom at the White House with the Washington Monument in the background. Image from Governor’s Office video

As “The Candidate,” the quintessential political movie, closes, a young Bill McKay (Robert Redford) has just won one of California’s U.S. Senate seats and rather stunned, he takes his campaign manager (Peter Boyle) aside and asks him a question: “What do we do now?”

The same question could be posed to Gavin Newsom, who has handily won his second — and last — term as California’s governor.

What does he do now?

Would he simply serve out his second term, expanding his crusade for a carbon-free economy and implementing his experimental approaches to California’s social ills? They include “community schools” to make neighborhood school centers for health and welfare services, “Care Court” to compel the seriously mentally ill to accept treatment, and “CalAIM” to transform the state’s medical care system for the poor into a “whole person” program

Newsom has pledged to complete his second term, insisting he has “subzero interest” in running for the presidency, even if Joe Biden doesn’t seek another term in 2024. However, Newsom has also devoted much of his time and some of his hefty campaign treasury in recent months to building a national image, saying he wants to set an example for his party of aggressive opposition to Republicans.

Despite Newsom’s frequent denials of presidential ambitions, the national political media and many Democratic Party figures assume that he’s laying the groundwork for a White House campaign, either in 2024 or 2028, two years after his governorship ends.

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that having spent nearly half his life patiently climbing the political ladder — from San Francisco city commission appointee in 1996 to a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors, then seven years as mayor, eight years in obscurity as lieutenant governor and finally the governorship in 2018 — Newsom would simply resume managing his wine and restaurant business.

It’s also difficult to imagine that he would settle for some lesser political role, such as a congressman or cabinet appointee. He has a massive ego and a penchant for pursuing “big hairy audacious goals” such as the aforementioned experimental overhauls of education, mental health and medical care services — albeit with a spotty record of success to date. And that attitude requires high office.

Retiring from politics after finishing his term or seeking the presidency are two options, but there’s also a potential third — running for the U.S. Senate in 2024 should Dianne Feinstein retire after holding her seat for 32 years, or segeuing into the seat if Feinstein gives it up earlier.

Two of the options — running for president or the Senate in 2024 — obviously depend on whether Biden, who turns 80 this month, and/or an 89-year-old Feinstein are ready to retire, and their decisions may hinge on how this year’s congressional and senatorial elections turn out once all of the votes are counted.

If Republicans take either the House or the Senate, or both, their retirements would become more likely. Democratic activists could blame Biden’s low popularity for the losses and insist that he step aside for a younger and more commanding figure, and Feinstein, already under fire from progressives, would not want to be relegated to the Senate minority after so many years in the majority.

The question that a cinematic politician posed 50 years ago — what do we do now? — would become a hard reality for Newsom should Biden and/or Feinstein opt out.

In politics, as in high-level sports, timing is everything. Jerry Brown, Newsom’s quasi-uncle and predecessor as governor, blew his chances of becoming president with three badly timed White House campaigns.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.



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Ellen Bullock