Newsom departs from his liberal image with controversial wins at the Capitol

In a subtle departure from his national image as a liberal advocate, Gov. Gavin Newsom successfully urged state legislatures in the final weeks of the legislative year to endorse a stringent set of policies that defied progressive ideals and could ultimately expand its appeal beyond California.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the state Capitol heeded his call to expand operations at Diablo Canyon, reversing an agreement environmental groups reached six years ago to shut down California’s last remaining nuclear plant for safety reasons.

The governor won support for his plan to court-ordered treatment for homeless Californians struggling with mental illness and addiction, amid outcry from powerful civil rights organizations.

Newsom vetoed legislation to allow attended drug injection sites in pilot program cities and has been criticized for saying his decision was politically motivated amid speculation about his prospects as a potential presidential candidate.

“He’s making very deep and nuanced political calculations in all of these decisions that take into account where he wants to go next,” said Mary Creasman, executive director of California Environmental Voters. “That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about these issues. I think he does. He is making political calculations on how to move the climate needle while protecting some of the political interests.”

Newsom successfully lobbied the Legislature to approve a forgivable $1.4 billion loan for Pacific Gas & Electric to continue operations at Diablo Canyon through 2030. He said the bill is critical to the state’s ability to avoid power outages during heat waves that have been causing problems for California and presented policy challenges to the governor. Newsom signed the law into law on Friday.

He balanced the controversial demand with a package of climate change bills that Creasman and other environmentalists celebrated.

The marquee policy in Newsom’s climate package, which he announced just weeks before the end of the legislative session, created health and safety buffer zones between homes, schools and public buildings and new oil and gas wells. That squeaked at this session, too, after years of lawmakers trying — and failing — to pass those restrictions without his intervention. Other more controversial legislation has dealt with carbon capture technologies, which some environmental organizations argue will only sustain oil production.

“It was 100% strategic,” Creasman said. “It’s strategic because he wants the headlines to be about climate change and not these other things he’s doing, which I understand. But he does both. The authentic story is both. There was some really phenomenal stuff and there was some really tough stuff.”

Newsom was pushing for climate legislation amid a clash with the oil industry that drew national attention. As part of a campaign to challenge Republican governors and make himself a resonating voice for Democratic voters across the country, Newsom ran ads in Florida contrasting that state’s restrictive policies on abortion rights and education with California’s more liberal positions.

Western States Petroleum responded with its own ads in Florida warning of the cost of Newsom’s climate policies.

Creasman said it’s wise to be seen as a climate leader when Newsom has national ambitions. Although the term “climate change” has been politicized, voters across the country want the government to do more to mitigate rising drought, wildfires, pollution and extreme heat. It’s also the only issue Newsom will give a global spotlight on, she said.

Since his solid defeat of the Republican-led recall attempt last September, Newsom advisers have said his decisions are less politically motivated and instead reflect the confidence he feels to govern with more nuance. The strong support he received from voters gave him freedom to deviate from a strictly progressive agenda that many in his party expect of him.

In an interview with The Times in July, Newsom said his first term had flown by and that he wanted to make the most of the remaining time.

“If I’m privileged to serve a second term, within six months you guys will write my obituary and who’s the next person to come up behind me,” Newsom said. “I know how limited my time is and I just don’t want to regret it. I don’t want to look back and join a group of ex-governors who say, “I would, could, should.” I won’t do that.”

Robin Swanson, a Democratic political strategist, said Newsom also practices “pragmatic politics.”

She compared his legislative approach to that of former Governor Jerry Brown. When Brown returned to the governorship for his third term in 2011, he was a more experienced politician with less adherence to a rigid political ideology.

“I think that’s part of his growth as governor,” Swanson said. “When you’re running a state of 40 million people, you have to do what matters and works in that moment, whether that’s 100% consistent with what you would be doing in a perfect world. These solutions are often a bit more in the middle, more down the road.”

Newsom disappointed many of his allies last month when he vetoed Senate Bill 57, a law that would allow Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland to set up supervised pilot injection site programs. Moderate Democrats and Republicans, who described the bill as state authorization for the use of deadly drugs, welcomed the decision. They urged Newsom to put more resources into treatment and rehabilitation programs instead.

But advocates and addiction specialists said the veto would result in more deaths amid an opioid overdose crisis.

Mike Herald, director of political advocacy for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said the governor’s rejection of the bill was disappointing because it was like the kind of bold action he was seeking first in the country.

The Herald also suggested that hitting the middle is nothing new for Newsom. As borough leader and then mayor of San Francisco, Newsom championed Care Not Cash, a policy to cut welfare payments to single homeless adults and instead spend the funds on emergency shelters, housing, and services.

“I’m just not as surprised as some if he’s more conservative on certain issues,” Herald said.

Newsom also faced strong opposition from civil rights groups for his Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Court proposal, a sweeping plan to provide court-ordered treatment to thousands of Californians suffering from a mix of serious mental illness, homelessness and addiction.

A coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights California and the Western Center on Law and Poverty – groups that Democrats in the Capitol often ally with – spent the legislature condemning the proposal as an inhumane attempt to criminalize homelessness and people undress their personal freedoms. The legislature overwhelmingly approved it, and Republicans and Democrats celebrated its passage.

“It goes against really progressive ideals,” said Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s disability rights program. “It’s a throwback to an era where we punish people for being poor and we punish people for having mental illness.”

Homelessness and crime were among the top three concerns of California registered voters in a poll conducted this spring by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, and Newsom is aware of the potential political commitments he faces if he votes does not address these issues.

Despite criticism from the left, if Newsom runs for re-election in November, not much, if anything, is expected from California Liberals. A recent poll showed Newsom leading his challenger, state Sen. Brian Dahle (R-Bieber), by more than a 2-1 margin. Many of the conservative Republican’s political positions, including his opposition to abortion rights and government mandates for COVID-19 vaccinations and restrictions, have been denounced by Democrats.

Lawmakers from Newsom and the Democratic Party scored big victories on gun control legislation this year, an issue embraced by the left after a spate of mass shootings shocked the nation this spring and summer.

Newsom and lawmakers pledged swift action on more than a dozen gun control bills, including one modeled on Texas’ abortion law that would allow individuals to sue anyone who imports, sells or distributes illegal firearms in California. Almost all measures have been passed and Newsom has already signed the majority.

But Newsom failed to win enough state lawmakers to pass a covert transmission proposal. He made national headlines in June when he introduced the legislation alongside California Atty. General Rob Bonta and Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) in response to the US Supreme Court’s ruling against restrictive open-carry laws in New York, California and other blue states.

Senate Bill 918 would have designated dozens of locations as “sensitive,” meaning carrying firearms is prohibited, and added new eligibility criteria to determine whether applicants pose a danger to themselves or others. The proposal was down by two votes early Thursday morning after several moderate Democrats either abstained or voted against the measure.

“He wants to be a player in national democratic politics,” said Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “He also has to attend to the day-to-day business of governing California. And both keep him busy.”

Newsom certainly remembers what happened to the last blue governor to win the Democratic presidential nomination, Pitney said. Michael Dukakis took positions that looked good in Massachusetts but left him vulnerable to GOP attacks in the 1988 presidential campaign. Newsom departs from his liberal image with controversial wins at the Capitol

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