Gavin Newsom is Not a Progressive

California’s governor is being touted as a successor to the Biden throne. Though he’s often imagined as a beacon of progress, his feckless record shows otherwise.

With 2024 fast approaching, the Democratic Party is in stasis. With little resistance, the Party brass plans to coronate Joe Biden for a run at a second term even though he is an 81-year-old man experiencing obvious cognitive decline and is abysmally unpopular even among Democrat partisans. Alarmingly, the Democrats seem to have spent the last four years twiddling their thumbs rather than plumbing the party ranks for an inspiring new leader. 

The name most often bandied about to helm the party post-Biden has been California Governor Gavin Newsom. Though he has enthusiastically pledged to help haul Biden across the finish line in 2024, rejecting calls from some in the party to grab the wheel himself, Newsom is clearly getting his hair perfectly slicked for a run of his own in 2028. He is appearing for more and more cable news interviews, buying billboards across the country calling out red-state policies on guns and abortion, and planning to face off with 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis in a televised debate.

Newsom is often framed as one of America’s most prominent progressives. The act that made his political career was his decision in 2004, as mayor of San Francisco, to defy state law and issue the first same-sex marriage licenses in the United States. The move infuriated the Democratic establishment, which had long treated gay marriage as a third rail. But Newsom’s decision ultimately presaged the seismic shift in attitudes among Democratic politicians over the last two decades. 

That image of Newsom has persisted. As he led a “March for Democracy” on the two-year anniversary of the 2021 Capitol insurrection, the nonprofit news site Cal Matters called him the “leader of liberal America.” Others, meanwhile, imagine Newsom as the Commissar of Commie-fornia. “All hail Emperor Newsom, the woke dictator fiddling with one pointless PC policy at a time while crime-ravaged California burns,” reads the headline of a Piers Morgan opinion column in The Daily Mail. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote in a Fox News op-ed in 2021 that “it’s clear why there’s an effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom. California has become the property of the far-left Democratic machine.” Newsom’s 2021 recall opponent, conservative radio host Larry Elder, wrote in The Orange County Register: “Compared to ‘democratic socialist’ [Bernie] Sanders, is California Gov. Gavin Newsom, on policy, really any different?” It’s a view that goes beyond conservative media, too: The Los Angeles Times, for example, called him California’s “Most liberal governor ever.” But this view of Newsom is a gross simplification of how he actually governs.

It’s understandable why he has such a reputation. “His term started out strong,” wrote left-wing critic Branko Marcetic back in 2021. Marcetic pointed to policies like his moratorium on the death penalty, ban on private prisons and immigrant detention camps, expansion of the minimum wage to freelancers, increasing the state’s paid family leave requirement, and expanding the Child Tax Credit program. These were solid gains to be sure, but they were a far cry from the promises Newsom made on the campaign trail:

“Guaranteed health care for all. A ‘Marshall Plan’ for affordable housing. A master plan for aging with dignity. A middle-class workforce strategy. A cradle-to-college promise for the next generation. An all-hands approach to ending child poverty.”

In fact, when it comes to legislation that would bring California closer to the vision articulated by Newsom, he has often stood as an impediment rather than an advocate. Throughout his time as governor, he has held back legislation that would have addressed the housing crisis, improved healthcare coverage, and expanded the rights of labor unions. And even in the realm of social liberalism, where he previously acted as a trailblazer, he has left quite a bit to be desired. Look no further than the stack of bills he vetoed last month.

 In October, Newsom vetoed two housing bills that could have gone a long way toward solving the state’s homelessness and housing affordability crises. One of these was the Social Housing Act, introduced by Assemblyman Alex Lee earlier in the year, which would have resulted in the creation of new homes that rent for no more than 30 percent of a tenant’s total income. California’s stock of affordable units is already more than a million short of what is needed according to the California Housing Partnership. Meanwhile, the number of existing affordable units—both subsidized and “naturally occurring” (aka private)—is dwindling, in part due to acquisitions by private equity firms like Blackstone and other for-profit entities, which have been gobbling up properties and raising rents nationwide. Newsom also vetoed a pilot program that would have created transitional housing in San Diego for LGBTQ youth who had been kicked out of their homes by unsupportive parents.1 

Newsom justified squashing both housing bills as an unfortunate necessity in order to cope with a nearly $32 billion deficit brought about by a decline in state revenues after several years of budget surpluses. In many of the vetoes, he emphasized that bills proposed by the state legislature “would add nearly $19 billion of unaccounted costs” to the state budget and argued that the state needed to eschew new spending to avoid making cuts elsewhere. But Newsom has swatted down housing proposals like this even when California was in the black. He vetoed a similar affordable housing proposal in 2019, saying:

“There are a lot of things I want to do but there are certain fiscal constraints that preclude us from doing it. So I think you will see a number of bills where I wish we were in a position to support those bills, but the economic conditions do not necessarily support those bills. Those are the toughest ones for me.” 

This was despite the fact that the state would end the year flush with more than $6 billion in unspent revenue. 

Even in leaner times, Newsom’s excuse becomes harder to swallow when you look at all the revenue California misses out on as a result of generous tax breaks that benefit corporations and the wealthy. According to a report by the California Budget & Policy Center, California loses $70 billion each year—about a third of its total state budget—as a result of personal and corporate tax breaks. The two biggest of these breaks are the charitable contribution and mortgage interest deduction, which each give the vast majority of their respective benefits to Californians making $100,000 per year or more. Doing away with either of these tax breaks would possibly be more than enough to pay for the capital costs of the social housing program, which is estimated by appropriations staff to be in the “low billions.”  However, when California Democrats proposed a much more modest tax increase2 earlier this year that would have clawed back some of the state’s forfeited tax revenues, Newsom vetoed that plan as well. 

Newsom used the state budget to justify killing many other proposed public benefits as well. He struck down three healthcare expansions: one that would have expanded perinatal care coverage under the state Medicaid plan, another that would have capped insulin co-payments at $35, and another that would have required all health insurers in the state to cover hearing aids for people under age 21. He shot down a bill that would have increased juror pay for low-income residents from $15 to $100 per day in more counties (the plan already exists in some).  

Newsom also campaigned on establishing a single-payer healthcare system in California, which would be the first of its kind in America. “I’m tired of politicians saying they support single-payer but that it’s too soon, too expensive or someone else’s problem,” he said as he bid for the support of California’s largest nurses’ union. Instead, after years of balking, he signed a law that, according to Roll Call, requires the California Health and Human Services Agency “to submit an interim report by January 2025, a federal waiver framework by June 2025 and a final framework for state leaders by November 2025”—all of which sounds like a great big nothingburger. Keep in mind that Newsom likely has the votes to pass a single-payer system into law right now if he wanted to. Instead, he passed a law saying “We’ll look into it in a few years.” Clearly, he’s engaged in a slimy, but sophisticated, balancing act that allows him to remain in the good graces of both progressives and his corporate donors. (The California Democratic Party, incidentally, received a $1 million contribution from Blue Shield in 2021 as Newsom faced down a recall threat). He’s promising that big, bold steps will come eventually without actually delivering anything but words. 

Newsom also vetoed numerous bills supported by California’s currently vibrant labor movement, many of which would have had no impact on the state budget. He rejected a Teamsters-supported law banning driverless trucks. He vetoed a bill that would have leveled the playing field in contract negotiations by allowing for striking workers to collect unemployment insurance—had Newsom allowed this bill to pass, it would have taken away a critical point of leverage that allows bosses to remain obstinate and wait out striking workers until they can no longer afford to feed themselves. He vetoed bills that would have banned employers from retaliating against employees for honoring picket lines. Following Kroger’s $24.6 billion acquisition of Albertsons (which arguably constitutes a monopoly), Newsom vetoed a law that would have required the companies to give a week’s worth of severance for each year they’d served to the approximately 5,750 employees expected to be laid off. He vetoed a law that would have expanded OSHA protections to domestic laborers who do not currently qualify for them, another that would have required the California State University system to provide paid family leave to its employees, and another that would have expanded worker’s compensation benefits for “certain nurses, psychiatric technicians, and various medical and social services specialists.”

And though Newsom is framing himself as a leading liberal crusader in the culture wars—making appearances at Planned Parenthood events, passing a law banning book bans (which have passed in many red states), and pushing for a 28th amendment to the Constitution to restrict gun ownership, for instance—he also vetoed many bills that would have improved reproductive freedom and civil rights. He nixed a bill that would have placed free condoms in schools and prevented retailers from refusing to sell them to young people. Making condoms available to high schoolers has long been recommended by doctors and likely would have helped stem the rash of sexually transmitted infections among 15- to 24-year-olds, who account for more than half of infections in California. In a familiar move, Newsom also used the budget deficit to justify killing the condom access bill. 

But the tight budget can’t explain why he also vetoed a bill that would have outlawed caste discrimination. Newsom called the bill “unnecessary,” though many of California’s South Asian residents describe caste discrimination within their communities as a persistent problem, and some engaged in a month-long hunger strike outside the state Capitol in hopes that it would be addressed. The budget also can’t explain why Newsom vetoed a law that would have required judges to take parents’ affirmation of their children’s gender identity into account when ruling in custody cases, an increasingly important protection as a manufactured panic over transgender children becomes a more common subject of right-wing propaganda. And the budget can’t explain why he vetoed a bill that would have decriminalized the possession of certain psychedelics, including psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, and DMT, even though they have been decriminalized in Oregon and Colorado and have been found to improve the mental health of veterans, who have been at the forefront of legalization efforts. Despite fears that legal psychedelics would increase crime, this has not been the case in Colorado or Oregon, and some studies have found that mushroom use correlates with a reduction in the likelihood of criminal behavior. 

But while Newsom’s vetoes are likely part of his attempt to make himself appear more moderate in anticipation of a presidential election, he has also always been someone who takes these kinds of positions. These vetoes were hardly his first thumb in the eye of the labor movement. In 2019, Newsom drew the ire of unions that had supported him when he backed off his previous support for single-payer healthcare and vetoed laws that would have increased pay for employees on public works projects and required higher wages for construction workers who build charter schools. And this year, as California experienced one of the most active summers of labor organizing in recent memory, Newsom stayed mum, refusing to endorse the massive strikes undertaken by Kaiser Permanente workers, screenwriters, and actors.3 

He did not take a side in 2020 when Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart spent more than $224 million to help pass Proposition 22, a ballot measure that allowed them to reclassify their employees as independent contractors, which has led to depressed driver wages and fewer benefits. And after the recent death of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Newsom nominated as her replacement Laphonza Butler, a former lawyer for Uber who advised the company as it fought the right of its employees to organize.

And despite his stated commitment to “net zero emissions” and his claim to be a “new sheriff in town” who “brought Big Oil to their knees,” Newsom still approved nearly 1,000 new drilling permits in 2023. The majority of these are within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, parks, and healthcare facilities—areas he’d pledged to protect. He also sided with Republicans and business lobbyists to oppose Proposition 30, a failed measure that would have increased the personal income tax on those making $2 million or more per year by 1.75 percent to pay for electric vehicle programs and help fight wildfires. On the most existential issue of our time—climate—Newsom has hindered even modest proposals.

All of this has to be understood in the context of Newsom as a future presidential candidate who is more fixated on maintaining for the public his image as a progressive—yet fiscally restrained—leader than he is on addressing the needs of his state’s most vulnerable people. This brings us to his actions on the crisis of homelessness.

The prevailing image of Newsom’s California in much of conservative media is dystopian. If you turn on Fox News or flip through the pages of The New York Post, you’re bound to come away with the impression that it’s in a state of anarchy and that masses of beleaguered denizens are departing the state as it’s overrun by gender-bending dope fiends and shoplifters. (Note: the ubiquitous idea that Americans are fleeing California in droves is a highly exaggerated claim). Much of the country imagines Newsom’s imperium as the nexus of the lawless “left coast”: a place where, in the words of Ben Shapiro, “monsters [by which he means homeless people] roam the streets and garbage is strewn everywhere.” 

Newsom often appears desperate to shed this image for the sake of mass appeal. This is particularly evident in his over-the-top efforts to appear tough on the homeless…not by fighting homelessness (a very real problem), but by criminalizing homeless people (the victims of that very real problem). 

Earlier this month, Newsom announced that he’d “cleaned up” San Francisco in anticipation of the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping and other world leaders for a conference in the city. “I know folks say they’re just cleaning up this place because all those fancy leaders are coming into town. That’s true, because it’s true,” he admitted at a press conference. In practice, this meant having San Francisco police clear two homeless encampments per day for weeks leading up to the event, despite there being far too few shelter beds to accommodate all the displaced people. This violated both a 2018 federal ruling and a more recent court injunction that banned the city from conducting these sweeps without providing adequate shelter space.

For much of his career, Newsom has made a public show of supporting—and often appearing in person at—the sweeps of homeless encampments. These kinds of sweeps don’t solve homelessness, but they do make life even harder for people who already have nowhere to go (even the oft-used term “sweeps” to describe the clearing of homeless encampments is quite a tame euphemism for the violence they often entail). For example: in 2021, the Los Angeles Police Department—on the order of then-Mayor Eric Garcetti—descended upon a large encampment in Echo Park to evict the nearly 200 people who’d taken residence in tents there amid the Covid pandemic. Hundreds of riot police destroyed their camp and confiscated property. Meanwhile, nearly 200 people—including peaceful protesters and journalists—were arrested (though none were charged with crimes) while many were beaten and some reporters were shot with rubber bullets. Newsom, meanwhile, suggested the raid was a compassionate decision because it would force homeless people to make better decisions (as if they live in the street by choice—something once claimed by President Reagan). Here’s what Newsom said in applause of the raid:

“You got to be honest, this is not acceptable.…People shouldn’t be living out in the streets and sidewalks…and the notion that until everything is perfect, we can’t do anything [about encampments], I completely reject. I also think it lacks compassion, because so many people’s lives have been changed, despite their obstinance in opposition to these things; it forces a different pathway in decision making.”

Following the clearing of the camp, Mayor Garcetti claimed that the people violently dispersed had all been “housed,” but a report one year later from the After Echo Park Lake research collective found that only 17 of the 183 people kicked out of the encampment had gone on to find housing of any kind. Only four of those people had found permanent housing, while seven of them had died. The rest were either waiting indefinitely in temporary shelters, were back on the streets, or had totally disappeared.

Newsom has also supported San Francisco as it carried out illegal sweeps of homeless encampments, which involved confiscating belongings including cell phones and medication and illegally forcing unhoused people to move without first offering them shelter. (Newsom once even appeared for a photo-op with a broom at a San Francisco encampment sweep…har har har, get it?). When a federal court barred the city from conducting the sweeps, Newsom said he “hope[s] this goes to the Supreme Court…And that’s a hell of a statement coming from a progressive Democrat.” After Tesla CEO Elon Musk called for a boycott of the law firm that helped the Coalition for the Homeless sue the city, Newsom lavished him with praise, saying “On homelessness, [Elon Musk] has touched on a key issue.” 

The previous year, Newsom withheld more than $1 billion in homeless funding from cities until they “cleaned up encampments,” something cities and Newsom’s state government had already been doing for years without success. As Eric Caine wrote last year in The Valley Citizen:

“A failed formula for futility, sweeps are often conducted with great fanfare. The latest efforts — touted with much preening and chest puffing by Newsom himself —  have been by Caltrans along property that borders the state’s highways. The effect of these sweeps is to move homeless people into the very cities Newsom claims are failing on homelessness. The mayors of those cities, taking cues from the governor himself, then sweep the relocated camps, whereupon the campers move back to the Caltrans sites. It’s a circle of futility. Nonetheless, state and local leaders repeat it year after year, in extravagant displays of wasted dollars.”

Newsom is another in a long line of moderate urban Democrats who have utterly failed to address the root causes of homelessness. As Alex Bronzini-Vender pointed out earlier this year in an excellent Current Affairs article about how “Moderates, Not Leftists, Have Created the Crises in Blue Cities”: 

Mayors [like San Francisco’s London Breed] enthusiastically welcomed gentrification to San Francisco, offering generous tax credits and millions of square feet of new office space to tech companies willing to set up shop in the city. Predictably, their high-paid workers can pay far more than existing residents, and—in the absence of proper protections—many found themselves forced out onto the streets. Maybe San Francisco’s homelessness crisis could’ve been avoided if the city’s moderate leaders had heeded the progressive demand to, say, require some portion of luxury development be set aside for affordable housing. The moderates, however, chose to leave housing to the free market, and even today, London Breed needs to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to take even the most incremental steps toward taming San Francisco’s housing market.

Newsom, who has given Breed the green light on her city’s endless war against the homeless, is just as culpable for this faulty approach.

Like Biden, Newsom too often stands in the way of progress. His obsession with appearing moderate leads him to reject policies that go against his stated principles as a “progressive Democrat.” Just like Biden has made a show of cruelty at the border to assuage criticisms that he is soft on immigration, Newsom appears eager to show the broader public, whom he’ll have to persuade if he wants to be president, that he is tough on the scourge of homelessness and won’t cave to those greedy unions and shrieking environmentalists in spite of his effete liberal image. This is not just immoral and unbecoming of a self-described “progressive” but also demonstrates a flimsiness of conviction. We should want a leader who listens to public criticism but doesn’t compromise his convictions to appeal to everyone. Newsom’s history shows us not a recipe for successful governance but a recipe for the same sort of fecklessness that has been one of the defining features—and failures—of Biden’s presidency.

  1. According to the California Coalition for Youth, gay and transgender kids are overrepresented within the homeless youth population—nationwide, 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ. 

  2. According to CalMatters this bill “would [have paused] the net operating loss deduction, which allows businesses to carry forward their losses to future tax years, whenever there is a ‘budget emergency,’ raising about $5 billion annually—though only temporarily, because companies could claim those credits again once the emergency ended. The Senate Democrats’ plan would also increase the tax rate by more than 2 percentage points on taxable corporate income above $1.5 million, bringing in an additional $6 billion or more per year from the 2,500 largest companies operating in California. This would be partially offset by lowering the tax rates by more than 2 percentage points on those first $1.5 million in profits, benefitting smaller businesses.” 

  3. While Newsom often mirrors Biden in his rebuffs to his left flank, Biden can at least be credited as a pretty consistent advocate for labor unions: becoming the first president to appear on a picket line and appointing arguably the most pro-union National Labor Relations Board in recent memory. Newsom is very clearly inferior on this particular issue. 

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