Removing Gavin Newsom will not solve California’s problems all at once. He exemplifies those problems, and he has done more to compound than any prior Governor. So the Recall will stop further damage. But to have lasting meaning, the mandate from this extraordinary act of popular sovereignty must be channeled into fundamental changes to our political institutions and political culture.
The opposite of Gavin Newsom’s self-promotional governorship is one of humility. This means humility not only in the conduct of the state’s chief executive, but in the role of the government itself. It means remembering that every action we take has legitimacy only by the consent of the people we represent. Concretely, that means a more open and deliberative approach to governance. It means restoring power to local institutions that know their communities best.
Humility also means focusing earnestly on the core functions of government. I call this a “Back to Basics” approach. Miriam Pawel wrote in the New York Times that California needs “leadership more focused on nonglamorous but essential government functions. A strategy that looked to score runs by hitting single after single, rather than always swinging for elusive home runs. So far that leadership has been in short supply.” As one example, that would mean fewer projects like the high-speed rail, instead attending to our core infrastructure: roads, highways, and bridges that are uncongested and drivable; dams, reservoirs, and levies that are robust and reliable; power plants, grids, and transmission lines that are safe and affordable; forests, parks, and open spaces that are healthy and breathable.
The Rule of Law
The opposite of Gavin Newsom’s lawless governorship is one that respects the rule of law. That means recognizing that written words are binding on those in positions of power. From this comes the most basic form of freedom—freedom from the arbitrary dominion and control of another. It’s what gives life to the idea that we as citizens are not mere subjects of state power but authors of our own political future.
Respecting the rule of law means recognizing both the California and U.S. Constitutions as constraints on what the Governor, the Legislature, or any official can do. It means restoring a proper separation of powers, where the Governor’s job is to implement laws passed by the Legislature. Churning out orders with the stroke of a pen is certainly easier than a legislative process. But our Founders made a deliberate choice that exercising the powers of government should not be easy. As the ultimate safeguard of liberty, they defined those powers as limited, distributed, checked, and balanced—precisely the opposite of California these last 15 months.
The Public Interest
The opposite of Gavin Newsom’s corrupt governorship is one that serves the public interest. This requires defusing the power of the “Third House” lobbyists who largely control the first two houses, the Assembly and Senate, as well as this Governor in particular. The Third House—consisting of lobbyists for union conglomerates, industry associations, and major companies—accounts for the vast majority of political funding in California. For many Legislators, how to vote on a bill comes down to nothing more than which interests are for or against it. With the Governor and legislators focused so intently on appeasing lobbyists within a few square blocks of the Capitol, relatively little attention is left for 40 million people throughout the state who have to live with legislative outcomes.
Changing this dynamic can be difficult to do through campaign finance laws, but it is achievable through a cultural change at the Capitol. That was my goal in becoming the first 100 percent citizen- backed California Legislator by declining all contributions from the Third House. Ultimately, accepting Third House contributions needs to be stigmatized, and that can start with political leaders, like a new governor, refusing to support any candidate of either party who accepts them.
The opposite of Gavin Newsom’s unscientific governorship is one that is informed by facts and data and accountable for its outcomes. Just as Newsom’s political interests led him to dismiss sound science in responding to COVID-19, so it is that facts, data, and evidence often count for little when it comes to policy decisions at our Capitol. Indeed, policymaking often proceeds in a willfully ignorant manner.
Homelessness is an especially unfortunate example. In 2019, 1,039 homeless people died on the streets of Los Angeles, and the state’s overall homeless population was growing faster than the rest of the country combined. At the same time, we spent $2.7 billion more to address the problem over a two-year period. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst warned more funds would “quickly dissipate” because there was no strategy, yet in early 2020 Newsom wanted to add $1.4 billion in additional spending. I proposed a full audit of where funding was going and what outcomes were being achieved, so that our spending would be informed by data about what would best help Californians transition out of homelessness or avoid it altogether. I was one vote away from getting the audit approved when Newsom pressured three legislators to “abstain.”
The opposite of Gavin Newsom’s incompetent governorship is one based on customer service. This means a new paradigm for the provision of government services that is modern, performance-based, and geared towards helping Californians. Countless businesses every day carry out the sort of tasks that befuddle the likes of the DMV and EDD. The priorities of these agencies must be completely realigned.
With the human capital and technology we have available to us, there is no reason Californians should have to put up with substandard service. The Legislature and Governor can work together on a total overhaul of the state bureaucracy: focusing its mission, modernizing its technology, and bringing in new talent with clear performance benchmarks for every agency of government.
The opposite of Gavin Newsom’s hypocritical governorship is one where the actions of our elected officials are transparent to the public. This starts with eliminating perks like the secret DMV office, so lawmakers have to feel the effects of their own policy decisions. It means rooting out the many undemocratic practices at our Capitol, like the denial of public access or rules where a bill can be killed without a vote so that legislators can claim they didn’t oppose it.
It also means insisting on policy to match the rhetoric of equity and social justice. In that regard, what is needed perhaps most of all is comprehensive education reform. A true commitment to equity would involve looking to what has worked in other states to reduce achievement gaps and propel student achievement. The same goes for the cost of living in California, especially housing, which gets worse every year as a result of deliberate policy choices even as lawmakers claim they are addressing the problem.
The opposite of Gavin Newsom’s partisan governorship is one based on bringing people together. This means focusing on governing California and not letting the currents of national politics distract us from the enormous challenges we face. It means an agenda that is non-ideological, rooted in principles of good government, and aimed at solving our state’s fundamental problems— that’s what the Back to Basics approach is about. It means setting a new tone for our public life where we have spirited and robust debates to hash out our differences, but where that debate rests on a foundation of common values and shared purpose.
The opposite of Gavin Newsom’s neglectful governorship is one that is mindful of our responsibilities. That California had for years de-prioritized pandemic preparedness before 2020 is emblematic of a broader tendency towards shortsighted decision-making. The long-term consequences pile up, until they are not long-term anymore.
As one example, California’s massively underfunded public pension system is not just a theoretical problem; increased payments to CalPERS and CalSTRS are eating into the budgets of school districts, cities, and counties. As another example, no reforms were made to California’s unstable tax structure, despite urgent warnings from Jerry Brown and others, and it led to a historic deficit in 2020. Satisfying immediate political demands has been the way of the Capitol for too long. California needs a new model of political leadership based on durable stewardship of the public interest.