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In Style And Substance, Gavin Newsom Goes His Own Way

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown favored poster board charts for his budget...

Credit: Andrew Nixon, Ben Adler/Capital Public Radio

Above: Former California Gov. Jerry Brown favored poster board charts for his budget presentations, while new Gov. Gavin Newsom chose a PowerPoint slideshow for his first budget presentation.

One month ago today, Gavin Newsom succeeded Jerry Brown as California governor. And anyone doubting the start of a new era in the California governor’s office need only watch Newsom’s January state budget presentation.

“I, unlike the previous administration, may spend a little bit more time on this than you want,” Newsom said, sporting his trademark grin. “So just warning you, full disclosure: This is something I really enjoy!”

Newsom then talked about his budget for the next two hours.

That’s right — two hours. An hour-long presentation followed by an hour of questions.

And while Brown would propose his budgets in the state Capitol’s media room, with giant blue poster board charts, Newsom invited a couple hundred people to a much larger auditorium, with Powerpoint slides that he said “will punctuate some of the fundamental points we want to advance.”

Both men are Bay Area Democrats. And both come from politically connected families. But in style — and in substance — Gavin Newsom is proving to be a very different California governor than Jerry Brown.

At least, the second Governor Jerry Brown.

“That’s not management. That’s helter-skelter.”

It wasn’t just how the two governors presented their spending plans. It was how they wanted to spend money as well.

“Jerry Brown proposed a budget and he only wanted a few things,” Senate President pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) noted at a recent Public Policy Institute of California event. “Gavin’s thrown everything out there.”

Dan Newman, a senior campaign aide to both governors, said that’s a fundamental difference between the two men.

Brown “was more willing to let certain subjects wait for another day or another governor,” Newman said, while Newsom “tends to swing at every pitch. He is genetically unable to say, something is too hard or too politically fraught.”

And so Newsom packed ideas from his campaign’s 30 policy teams into his very first budget.

“I know it’s rote and cliché to say it’s a reflection of our values,” he said near the start of his two-hour budget presentation, “but it is a reflection of our values.”

In contrast, Brown bristled at a question in our Capital Public Radio exit interview last December when I asked him about issues he chose to avoid.

“The basis of your questioning is that I should be on every topic all the time,” Brown said. “And that's not management. That's helter-skelter.”

“As different as their respective hair styles”

“They’re about as different as their respective hair styles,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who used to write speeches for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

Brown is 80 and bald. Newsom is 51 and has a full head of slicked-back hair. And, Whalen said, Newsom is more “visibly energetic.”

“I’m not suggesting in the least that Jerry Brown sat in his office and did nothing but play Fortnite,” Whalen said. “He was a very busy governor — but doing a lot of things behind the scenes.”

Or, as Brown quipped to the Sacramento Press Club last December: “One of the things I’ve worked hard to avoid is overexposure.”

Photo credit: Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Brown and Newsom’s hair styles are as different as their speaking styles.

Newsom, Whalen pointed out, has already held public events throughout the state. The governor met with unpaid TSA workers at the Sacramento airport, held a housing roundtable in San Jose, took his cabinet on a road trip to the Central Valley to discuss clean drinking water, and flew down to San Diego last week to discuss the border crisis.

“He enjoys being in front of the cameras,” Whalen said. “He enjoys being visible. And that’s going to be his style.”

Indeed, a moment at his San Diego news conference last week exemplified Newsom’s comfort in front of a crowd.

In the middle of his remarks, the room suddenly went dark. Instead of ending the event, he turned the moment to his advantage.

“When the lights go out in other parts of the country,” Newsom said, pausing to savor the moment as the crowd chuckled, “here in California, we turn them back on.”

USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe agreed that Brown’s governing style was more “under the radar” than Newsom’s.

“He does his thing, he’s thoughtful about it, but you don’t get a press release from him every two seconds,” Bebitch Jeffe said. “Gavin Newsom fits more the profile of the modern politician. He’s out there. He’s aggressive. He’s reaching out to the ‘people,’ if you will.”

Latin proverbs vs. “Bay Area cool-speak"

Another difference between California’s 39th and 40th governors: They speak very differently — although neither of them sound particularly like “normal people.”

Brown had his Latin proverbs and his obscure literary and historical references.

Newsom has his own verbal tics. To Whalan, they’re “sort of Bay Area cool-speak” and “the kind of thing that most Californians don’t necessarily understand.”

“Broad strokes of land use fiscalization,” Newsom said amid a campaign interview with Capital Public Radio last fall. “Quite LIT-rally, not figuratively,” he said at another point — punctuating, as he often does, the first syllable of “literally.” And later: “I'm basically giving a sense of the sincerity to which we have laid out detailed prescriptive ideas.”

Some voters are noticing the differences. At last month’s presidential campaign kickoff rally for California Sen. Kamala Harris, Shay Rogers of Alameda saw another distinction between two men she voted for and believes share the same core values.

“I just think that Gavin is just a little bit younger, a little bit not as ‘old boys club,’” she said. “Jerry Brown still had a little bit of that in him. I don’t really see it much in Gavin.”

“They tend to do what they want to do”

Looking for similarities? Start with their intelligence, said Dan Newman, the campaign strategist.

“In a room, they are both absurdly, clearly well-read and just obnoxiously prepared,” he said. “They’re almost always the most informed proverbial smartest person in virtually any room on any policy subject, but also on politics — which is great, but can also be frustrating for those of us who like to pretend to be important.”

Both listen and ask questions, Newman added, “but then they tend to do what they want to do.”

But the most intriguing similarity might be to compare Newsom to Brown during his first governorship, in the 1970s and 80s.

“He’s grasping, as Jerry Brown 1.0 did — and Jerry Brown 2.0 did not do — he’s grasping big issues,” Bebitch Jeffe said of Newsom. “He has a very heavy, broad agenda.”

Brown governed differently his second time around, saying he’d learned to be more focused.

Newsom is well aware of that — yet appears unafraid to go his own way.

“Jerry Brown was the right person at the right time,” Newsom said on the campaign trail last fall. “We’re at a different time in our state’s history, different time in our nation’s history. And I think we’re very well equipped to take the baton and build on that legacy.”

Which points to another character trait that both governors share: confidence.

Logo for Cal Dream project The California Dream Project is a statewide collaboration focused on issues of economic opportunity, quality-of-life, and the future of the California Dream. Partner organizations include CALmatters, Capital Public Radio, KPBS, KPCC, and KQED.

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