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As Gavin Newsom’s Political Star Rises, Some Californians Are Wary of His ‘New Persona’


Gavin Newsom won’t be on the ballot in 2024, though lately, he’s been acting a lot like he is. In the lead-up to his prime-time debate on Thursday with Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, Newsom, 56, has been busy campaigning over the last few months. He has travelled to several red states, where he also paid for billboards and television advertisements. He has challenged not just DeSantis, but a number of Republican governors including Greg Abbott of Texas. He launched a “Campaign for Democracy’’ political action committee. He met with Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Xi Jinping in China.

But as his political star rises, his constituents are growing increasingly sceptical. The governor, who sailed through an election after thwarting a recall effort, has recently seen his approval rating sink to an all-time low. His vetoes of bills that would have expanded labour protections and rights alienated powerful unions. And his rejection of laws to outlaw caste discrimination, decriminalise psychedelics and consider gender affirmation in child custody cases has confused advocates who thought they could count on his support.

poll by UC Berkeley’s institute of governmental studies, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, found that 49% of registered voters in California disapproved of their governor. And 43% opposed him “taking on a more prominent role in national politics” via TV appearances and travel.

“He’s taking on a new persona,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley-IGS poll. “He’s now broadening his overall political profile, and not all Californians are on board with that. They’d rather stick to the job that he was elected to do.”

Newsom challenged DeSantis to a debate more than a year ago – while he was on the verge of re-election, and speculation about his presidential aspirations was already spinning full-force. DeSantis accepted in August, as polls continued to show him trailing Donald Trump by double digits in the Republican primaries.

The debate is unusual and is the culmination of longstanding rivalry between DeSantis, a fervently rightwing culture warrior with a flagging bid for the presidency, and Newsom – who says he is certainly, definitely not running for president.

Newsom is a surrogate for Joe Biden in the 2024 election. But his appearance on Thursday will further fuel speculation about his presidential ambitions. And with reason.

The governors have been long engaged in a rivalry fueled by their diametrically opposed visions for the country, and evenly matched political ambitions. Newsom has slammed DeSantis over Florida’s school book bans, crackdowns on immigrants and the restriction of abortion rights and trans rights. After Florida flew asylum seekers to Sacramento, seemingly in order to make a statement about Democratic immigration policies, Newsom called him “small, pathetic man” and appeared to threaten kidnapping charges.

Sean Hannity, who will be moderating the debate, said he sees the governors’ televised face-off as one between “two heavyweights in the political arena”. In an interview with Politico, he said they will “talk about substantive, real issues and governing philosophies that affect everyone’s lives”.

But the two politicians will also have other pressures and agendas. As DeSantis’s team pushes to revive his prospects amid lagging poll numbers ahead of the Iowa caucus in January, this will be an opportunity for him to show voters how he would fare against a Democrat – one who could run for president in 2028, or even sooner should polls or concerns about age push Biden out of running.

Newsom’s team, meanwhile, has indicated that this is a chance for him to elevate Biden and Democrats. Indeed, if and when Newsom does consider the presidency, he will also have to face off against Kamala Harris – Newsom’s peer in California politics – as well as other young Democrats with rising profiles, such as the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

But to political observers, it is clear that the governor is auditioning for the possibility. “There’s no other reason for him to be debating Ron DeSantis,” said Gar Culbert, a professor of political science at Cal State Los Angeles. “He appears to be testing the waters and putting his name out there. He wants to be a person of national prominence.”

A career politician who rose from the San Francisco parking and traffic commission to the governor’s office, Newsom has thus far faced few truly competitive political challenges. In order to win a national office, he will for the first time have to court a national base, including the moderate and swing voters that represent his best chance at the White House.

And perhaps to that end, allies, critics and many a political consultant have speculated that the liberal, San Francisco governor has increasingly attempted to counterbalance California progressivism with nationally appealing moderation. Last year, Newsom backtracked on his support for supervised injection sites to prevent overdose deaths – leading political observers and advocates to speculate that he did so to avoid the ire of Republicans and moderates. This year, he sided with conservatives over unions in the case of key worker protections, and echoed Republican opponents in his veto of a measure outlawing caste discrimination, calling it “unnecessary”.

Citing budget constraints, he also thwarted attempts to allow workers to receive unemployment benefits, spurning powerful union and labour allies who helped him win the governor’s seat in 2018.

“Gavin Newsom doesn’t benefit from pleasing the voters in the state of California,” said Culbert. “Because that is not the constituency that gets him his next job.”

The governor also had to engage in some complex political maneuvering when faced with the obligation to fill a Senate seat left open after the death of the former US Senator Dianne Feinstein. Newsom had promised to appoint a Black woman, and many progressives had counted on him choosing representative Barbara Lee, who was already running for the seat. Instead, Newsom chose the Democratic strategist and former labour leader, Laphonza Butler, avoiding siding with Lee over her main Democratic rivals Adam Schiff and Katie Porter. The move drew criticism from Lee’s supporters, but avoided alienating former speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats who had backed Schiff or Porter.

“Newsom is in the prime of his political career,” said Sonja Diaz, director of UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Institute. “Governor of California likely isn’t the end of his story.” And right now, as a surrogate for Joe Biden, while he retains a national and international audience as governor of the most populous US state with the largest economy, is his time to build his resume and national profile, she said.

But Diaz said that in the meantime, he had an important role to play in national politics – as a fundraiser for Biden and other Democrats and as a foil to prominent Republican governors like DeSantis and Abbott, who have seized a national platform to galvanise “California has an outsized role in the political zeitgeist of this country,” she said. “And Newsom is utilising that perch to articulate his vision for America.”

Source: The Guardian

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