As wildfires scorch California and Pacific Gas & Electric turns off electricity in large swaths of the state to reduce the fire risk, our new progressive governor, Gavin Newsom, is facing the first real crisis in his young administration. "I own this," he said, regarding the fires and related blackouts, but his press conferences have seemed less about a governor who is in control and more about a deer staring at the headlights.
Newsom isn't the first California governor with national aspirations, but he's not garnering comparisons to Hiram Johnson (who became U.S. senator), Earl Warren (later a U.S. Supreme Court justice), Ronald Reagan (the 40th president) or even Jerry Brown (who ran for president). Instead, the media is comparing him to Gray Davis, who was recalled in 2003 during the last round of rolling blackouts. That's not a particularly good thing.
Temperamentally, the charismatic Newsom and bureaucratic Davis are night and day, but there's too much here to ignore. "Shadow of Gray Davis looms over Newsom as outages rock California," is how a Politico headline put it. Newsom won the gubernatorial election by an impressive 24 points, but he faces falling support with one poll showing more people who disapprove (44 percent) than approve (43 percent) of his job performance.
"I've seen this movie before," said Garry South, Davis' former adviser, as quoted in the Politico article. We don't know how the movie will end, of course. Actually, it's more like that interactive episode of "Black Mirror," with the viewer's various choices leading to a variety of alternate—and sometimes bizarre—endings. Newsom's decisions so far have been inconsistent and directionless, but there's still time for a course correction.
He has defended the outages, then blasted PG&E and expressed anger. He has blamed climate change, but he still needs to assure that the lights stay while the entire world figures out how to reduce global temperatures. Newsom isn't inspiring confidence, which is why his imitation of Harry S. Truman's "the buck stops here" has fallen flat.
Say what you will about Jerry Brown, but he never gave us that flailing around feeling even in the midst of a historic drought or during a budget crisis that spilled nearly $30 billion in red ink. He knew where he was going, even though I often shuddered at his road map.
Some conservative activists now are collecting signatures for two separate efforts to recall Newsom. They need well over 2 million signatures to qualify it for the ballot. Given that such signatures can cost several dollars each to collect, that's no small undertaking. It's not an impossibility, perhaps, but wake me up when some billionaires make it their pet cause.
This kind of political venting is not unusual. Most modern California governors have faced at least some recall attempt. "Newsom's fortunes would have to dramatically worsen in order for such a vote to have any real suspense," argues the Hoover Institution's Bill Whalen. I agree.
Recall backers seem overly focused on Newsom's progressive policies, but Californians aren't going to recall a governor because he's so liberal. Voters already knew that when 62 percent of them voted for Newsom in the general election. Frankly, he's as likely to be recalled as Donald Trump is likely to win California's 55 electoral votes in 2020. But that doesn't mean Newsom should flippantly ignore the warning signs percolating around him. I still remember bumping into a Republican "mover and shaker" when Democrat Davis was in political hot water, and we agreed that a recall didn't have that proverbial snowball's chance in hell.
Shortly after that discussion, however, Davis was in the dock, and 135 candidates—including such atypical ones as Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt, former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and publisher Arianna Huffington—were debating the future of California. Davis was recalled by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin. Arnold Schwarzenegger received nearly 49 percent of the concurrent replacement vote, thus topping Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Those were weird times, but the people had spoken.
In the current climate, I'm not sure what California voters might say, other than that they'd like officials to keep the lights on and to control the fires. Whalen suggests that Newsom, who has given his own first year in office rave reviews, "show a little humility." That's a good starting point. If a raging wildfire doesn't remind the governor that he can't control everything, then there's far more trouble ahead.
I would also suggest that Newsom spend more time dealing with the nuts-and-bolts of government and less time preening for the national stage. He should focus on a few fundamentals rather than running after every shiny object. He should recognize that he's governor of the entire state and not just of its progressive elements. He probably won't become the next Gray Davis, but he should heed his own words and start acting like really does "own" this crisis.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.