Republican political consultant Luke Thompson joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss California governor Gavin Newsom's rise to power and viability as a possible presidential candidate.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast, this is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Luke Thompson. Luke is a Republican political consultant. He writes frequently for National Review and co-hosts its Constitutionally Speaking podcast. Today we're going to discuss his terrific essay, “Native Son,” which chronicles California governor Gavin Newsom's rise to power and assesses his viability as a possible presidential candidate. The essay appears in our recent special issue, “Can California be Golden Again?” So Luke, thanks very much for joining us.

Luke Thompson: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian Anderson: So Newsom, as you note, frequently plays up his humble roots. In his second inaugural address earlier this year, he described himself as a “child of divorce and dyslexia,” and he's claimed that his earliest memories are of his parents fighting over money. So this may be true, but it's certainly not, as you document, the whole story. In fact, Newsom's father's family has been entrenched in San Francisco politics for generations and intertwined with the city's wealthiest, most powerful families. So I wonder if you could give a brief overview of the Newsom family's rise to prominence in California politics and how its ties with San Francisco's elite provided, as you put it in your essay, a launchpad for Newsom's political career.

Luke Thompson: Sure, happy to. I guess the short version is, Newsom's great-grandfather immigrated to California from Ireland. His grandfather got a job in Democratic machine politics before the Second World War and really was an important player during the Truman administration in dispensing patronage jobs. That Newsom, Newsom number two, did two things that I think are really important for people to understand. The first is, as the California machine got broken up by reforming liberals nationally, Estes Kefauver and within California by some local figures, the party began to move away from a machine and toward more of an ideological party. It was Newsom's grandfather that made that transition, remarkably deftly.

He also sent his son to a well-heeled Jesuit prep school in San Francisco, where his son became intimate friends, close through their entire lives, with Gordon Getty, who is the younger son, not the youngest, but one of the sons of then the wealthiest man in the world, J. Paul Getty, who of course was the scion, or was the man who ran the Getty Oil sort of octopus, if you will, this giant sprawling international energy behemoth.

And it's Newsom's father Bill who sort of consolidates the family's position in the social elite. At the same time, he continues on his father's tradition of being a major player within Democratic politics in the sort of rough-and-tumble of Democratic politics.

And so while it's certainly true that when Gavin Newsom was very young, his father's income was relatively low compared to what he was accustomed to, he had just been part of a rather notorious bankruptcy of a technology company that involved the Gettys and then-Governor Ronald Reagan's appointment secretary as well as a former member of the SS who had been smuggled out of Europe as part of Operation Paperclip, and had sort of recapitulated himself as a German resistance member, which he was not. That's one of the many interesting digressions about Bill Newsom's life.

So it's a very strange piece of California history. It's Otto von Bolschwing is his name. I think probably I might be bastardizing that, but been an officer in the SS, had then sort of gotten himself exfiltrated seemingly by the CIA as part of the sort of Nazi collecting operation, presenting himself as an engineer and a German resistance figure when in fact what he'd been is more or less just a bog-standard SS officer. But he, Bolschwing, had done a lot of work, you might call it money laundering, you might call it taking control of the Western European banking system.

After the war, he had a lot of relationships with Western European finance. And so he was picked up by the company TCI that Bill Newsom had been the general counsel for as sort of initially a consultant, and then was eventually made CEO and Newsom and Bolschwing went to Western Europe to sell TCI's technology, which was a secure imaging technology, to interests in Western Europe, many of whom it seems Bolschwing knew from his time in the SS.

There's no evidence that Newsom knew about Bolschwing’s background at the time, but he's just one of these fascinating and colorful characters that comes in and out of Bill Newsom's life. And I think after TCI falls apart because of a stock trading scandal, the elder Newsom is back in California after touring Europe for a year and a half and is sort of running out of money. That seems to be when the family dissolves, effectively, or at least the process begins.

Bill tries to run for office in 1968, loses. And then the Gettys, who are major investors in TCI, pair him up with von Bolschwing and send him off to Western Europe off and on over the next two years to sell technology to Western European financial interests. So, it's crazy stuff.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. And so Gavin really came out of a very well-connected background. Far from being solely a “child of divorce and dyslexia,” he was almost groomed for power.

Luke Thompson: Yeah. I wouldn't even say "groomed" or almost—I think it's true. It's certainly true that he's a child of divorce and dyslexia. And I think that there were periods of serious month-to-month precarity, you might say, for Newsom growing up. And I think the divorce was difficult, but his father didn't abandon him, certainly. He maintains that he's always said that he had a very good relationship with both of his parents, both now deceased. And yeah, he's treated by Gordon Getty as another son.

Brian Anderson: So for his political career, right from the beginning, Gavin Newsom showed a capacity to balance progressivism, a kind of left-wing position on cultural issues with maybe not fiscal constraint, but at least a recognition of the interests of the business world, especially real estate. So he was an early champion, as many people know of, of gay marriage. And he got a reputation, I guess, as a liberal culture warrior, yet he repeatedly demonstrated that he wasn't completely insane to the business community. So how did these instincts for both progressivism and a certain kind of restraint help him form his political identity? And have they continued to hold in his rise to governor?

Luke Thompson: Sure. When Gavin enters the political scene in San Francisco municipal politics, he mainly does so as an avatar of the business community, specifically real estate and some other parallel parts of the economy. He's a personally impressive figure in that world, especially from the standpoint of someone who's able to raise a lot of money. He's handsome, he's young, he's a fairly dynamic person, and of course is intimately connected to the Gettys, and that that's different than what you're used to seeing on the city council. But he sort of gets a reputation for being, by San Francisco standards, almost a crypto right-winger.

So from early in his career, you can see him looking over his left shoulder and he's concerned about challenges from the Left. When he runs for mayor, he does very well in the first round running against a group of other candidates. But in the runoff election, he barely gains any vote share, and I think that's a really striking thing for him, and it scares him because it suggests that there's a really consolidating left-wing, anti-Newsom vote in the city.

That's when you see him pivot towards what you might call gestural progressivism. It's not all culture-war stuff. He does suggest that he's going to make San Francisco a single-payer healthcare city. He does things that are materially consequential, but they rarely get beyond the gestural stage, or that they would be important and have material consequences if he implemented them, but there's not always a lot of follow through. He's probably best known for being an early adopter of sort of legalizing gay marriage locally. He comes out hard against Proposition 8, raises a lot of money for the anti-Prop 8 ballot initiative, and more or less acts in open defiance of it even after it passes.

He finds that this kind of, again, what you might call gestural progressivism, doesn't get rid of, but it certainly blunts the intensity of the leftwing skepticism of him. I suspect it's among the more affluent white progressives that this is effective.

He tries a lot of things. He stands in a picket line with striking hotel workers. He, as I mentioned, says that he's going to make San Francisco a single-payer city. He turns it into a sanctuary city. There are things that he does in different modes, but the culture war seems to be the thing that is most effective in not eliminating, but minimizing the amount of damage that the Left wing of the Democratic Party can do to him.

Brian Anderson: I guess he has continued that as governor to some extent; he's pushed for a number of progressive causes as governor—a more lenient criminal justice system, certainly stricter environmental regulations. His stance during the pandemic was probably the most aggressive among governors in terms of locking down the economy. And I think as a result of some of these policies, you are seeing damage. California's crime has spiked, housing costs are exorbitant along the coast. The state lost population for the first time, I think, ever in 2020.

But despite these real signs of weakness, Newsom survived the 2021 recall effort. He won a second gubernatorial term. So I wonder what your view is of him as governor and how it's affected the California model.

And then secondly, what's your position on whether he is a potential presidential candidate that we should take seriously? A lot of people have said if Joe Biden falters, which is not unimaginable, you could see Newsom sweeping in and being the nominee for the Democrats. So I wonder on those two fronts, what do you take his record to be as governor and what do you think of him as a potential presidential candidate?

Luke Thompson: The California model, I think, is an important thing to define, because it's one of the things that has really constrained Newsom and has in some ways forced him into some of these culture-war fights, only to see himself then mugged by reality and backtrack.

What is the California model? A couple of events happened in the 1970s that are really important. The first is, you have the outbreak of really militant radical politics post-Vietnam in California. Most people associate radicalism with the Vietnam War. But if you look at what happens in California, most of the most dramatic events that we associate with political radicalism in the state happened after American troops leave Vietnam in 1973. Two people tried to assassinate Gerald Ford within a couple of months in the state. You have the advent of Peoples Temple led by Jim Jones. That, of course, culminates in the mass suicide in Guyana of Jones's followers. And then just days after that, I think maybe 10 days or two weeks after that, you have the notorious Mascone–Milk killings in San Francisco City Hall.

All of these events teach the Democratic establishment in San Francisco—and at this point, San Francisco is a Democratic town, and Los Angeles is more or less a Republican town—that they can play footsy with radicalism but they really have to tamp it down. And part of the way they tamp it down is by distributing goods, by paying off nonprofits and things like that over the next 50 years, essentially.

The other thing that happens is, a taxpayer revolt statewide leads to the passage by ballot initiative of Prop 13. Prop 13 caps the amount that property taxes for both residential and commercial property can be increased year over year. And the result of this is that, as a practical matter, Californians pay a fraction in terms of property taxes, of what they would pay if property were assessed at market rate, if assessments were allowed to float. So if you've been in your property for a long time, you're going to be protected from paying really, really onerous taxes. And part of what drove Prop 13 was that as California boomed and there was a hunger for property, older people were functionally being taxed out of their homes. People who'd lived in their homes for 30, 40 years were suddenly seeing their tax bills spike and they were having to sell and move because they couldn't have afford to pay the taxes on their homes.

But what this has done is it's imposed really, really intense austerity through the back door on the income stream for California. And the way California's compensated for this is through massive excise taxes, sales taxes and income taxes. The governor of California, whoever it is, has to live, if you're a Democrat, trapped between these two forces: you have to be comfortable enough with radicalism because radicals are a large block of your electorate, but not owned by them. And at the same time, you don't have an endless amount of money to distribute, even as you're paying off an ever-expanding number of interest groups in the cartel party that is the California Democratic Party.

So Newsom operating within that model, I think, believed that he could take the style of politics that he had executed with to some success as mayor and then lieutenant governor. Lieutenant governor doesn't really have that many concrete responsibilities, more in California than in other states, but not a ton of day-to-day responsibilities. And so Newsom got really good at honing his culture-war skills.

I think he felt that he could take those into the governor's mansion and it would be fine. And what he's found is that quite the opposite has happened. We've seen him reversing on this. His first couple of years as governor, he was very enthusiastic about prison reform. He shifted course on that. Most of that's come in the form of vetoing more radical proposals from the state legislature, but certainly you would see Newsom in his, I would anticipate first and second year, Newsom governorship would've signed those pieces of legislation rather than vetoing them.

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is another great example. Newsom has been an advocate for closing it up until the last 12 months, when he's reversed course and pushed for and succeeded in getting an extension on the nuclear power plant’s lifeline and licensing. That's largely because the California grid, which is governed by its own electricity spot market, is very fragile. And last summer we came within a hair's breadth of rolling blackouts and frankly had some regional grid operators not, of their own volition, done load-shedding events, we might have seen it.

I guess when it comes to assessing Newsom, I'm obviously not going to be a fan of his policy priorities because I'm a conservative and he's a progressive, but I think that he came into office very irresponsible. I do think he's started to recognize the limits that reality is imposing on some of the utopias that he's been asked to embrace as a chief executive, but it's pretty clear he doesn't know how to pivot out of this corner that he's found himself in.

I think there are two ways to read his going off to Texas and Florida and buying ads and billboards and things like that, attacking Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis. One way to read it is, this is laying the groundwork for presidential candidacy in the future. Another way to read it is that this is just trying to do more of the same. This is sort of a culture war affectation for the benefit of the affluent progressive part of the Democratic coalition in California, and it's designed to try to keep those people on the side so that they don't decide to make more concrete, material demands in terms of policy that will lead to disastrous knock-on effects. Look, the most glaring example of Newsom's failure as a chief executive, and again not all of this is his fault, but it has to be said that this has happened while he has been at the apex of California politics, is that for the first time, California's losing population. People are voting with their feet, and that's a tremendously damning state of affairs.

So how does all this shapes up for him as a presidential candidate? The likelihood of him being a contender in 2024 is next to nothing, absent some dramatic exogenous event that would lead to Joe Biden not running for reelection, something he's already said he's going to do. So that would be such an extraordinary event. It would shake all manner of different outcomes, and it's sort of hard to speculate about one way or the other.

Looking ahead to 2028, I think that Newsom is going to struggle. I think he's going to struggle for a couple of reasons. The first is, he's not going to have a record that he can run on. I think even within a Democratic primary, there's plenty of material that he can be hit on. From the Left, he can be hit for flip-flopping on some of his initial progressive commitments. And I think from the center he can be hit on driving his state's economy and quality of life into the ditch.

At the same time, California does a very poor job of training its politicians for the rough and tumble of presidential politics, which tend to be retail heavy. Now, we've seen the DNC make conscious moves to downplay and push back in the calendar Iowa and New Hampshire with an eye to emphasizing larger states, more diverse states, and also I think not coincidentally states that require less in terms of retail politics, something Joe Biden is not really physically equipped to do right now. That might accidentally advantage Gavin compared to the status quo ante, but still he will be expected to gladhand and go to a lot of barbecues and spend a lot of time with super-high-information voters stacked up against other Democrats in circumstances where his spending advantage will not matter that much.

Now, Gavin is very slick. He has done a really good job as a municipal politician, and even in his entry into politics, ingratiating himself with lots of different types of people. So unlike, say, Kamala Harris, he has some retail chops, he has some skills, skills that she evidently lacks because California politics never forced her to learn them in order to rise to the level of the U.S. Senate. But whether those skills are going to stack up against some of the other potential post-Biden contenders, it really remains to be seen. I'm pretty skeptical.

Now, he'll be able to raise money, and he'll certainly campaign hard. The one thing that I don't think can be said of Gavin Newsom the governor is that he's lazy. He loves politics and he loves politicking, and he will get out there after it. He may be somewhat of an indolent administrator, but he's not a lazy campaigner. I am skeptical that he'll translate well to the national stage for all those reasons that I just laid out but we shall see.

Brian Anderson: Luke, thank you very much. Don't forget to check out Luke Thompson's essay on the City Journal website. That's It's a superb profile of Gavin Newsom's rise to political influence in California. It's called “Native Son,” and it's in our special issue “Can California Be Golden Again?” We'll link to Luke Thompson's author page in the description, and you can find him on Twitter @ltthompso. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as usual, if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Luke Thompson, thanks very much for coming on.

Luke Thompson: Thanks so much for having me.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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