Bay Area Democrats whose political families have been entwined for decades, the two men nonetheless are sharply different politicians in tone and policy outlook. Where Brown once had presidential ambitions, those now belong to Newsom, one of several California Democrats believed to have their eyes on the White House.
Brown, who after a 28-year hiatus again took over as governor in 2011 at a time of steep deficits, has provided Newsom with nearly ideal conditions in which to govern. Newsom will start with Democrats having supermajorities in both houses of the legislature and with California enjoying a $30 billion budget surplus.
Newsom brings a political personality eager to speak more loudly than his predecessor for the self-appointed “state of resistance” to the Trump administration, and the political challenge he faces probably will come from his own party. He will be expected, given the budget surplus and unchecked Democratic power, to say yes more than Brown did, to expensive initiatives such as a state single-payer health-care system, affordable-housing programs, enhanced wildfire protection measures, enormous rail and water projects, and a public education system in need of resources.
“We will prove that people of good faith and firm will can still come together to achieve big things,” Newsom said in a 25-minute inaugural address, a large portion of which he delivered with his 2-year-old son, Dutch, in his arms or wandering the stage. “We will offer an alternative to the corruption and incompetence in the White House. Our government will be progressive, principled and always on the side of the people.”
In a recent interview on his ranch an hour’s drive north of here, Brown cited another factor that could make Newsom’s tenure far more difficult, despite the auspicious financial picture as he enters office.
“The big news is there’s going to be a recession,” Brown said, warning that “when you have a lot of money, that’s the time not to spend.”
The leadership change will alter the politics and personality of this state capital.
Pat Brown, Jerry’s father, served two terms as governor, until 1967. His tenure was defined by his push for huge public works projects — including the California Aqueduct and the University of California system — as the state boomed in the post-World War II years. Reagan followed him in office.
As the Brown family political dynasty began, there was a Newsom there to help. Among the chief financiers of Pat Brown’s successful run for San Francisco district attorney in 1943 was William A. Newsom II, Gavin’s grandfather.
Jerry Brown, who considered the Jesuit priesthood before heading to UC-Berkeley and Yale Law School, won the office after Reagan. Early in his tenure, Brown appointed William Newsom III, an early environmental lawyer and Gavin’s father, as a judge on the Placer County Superior Court.
William Newsom III died in December at age 84, just over a month after his son’s election as governor.
“The interesting thing about this changeover is that it feels exciting yet steady,” said Karen Skelton, a Democratic consultant here. “The family connections are deep, and the transition is as close as it gets, in continuity and in structure.”
The shift from old to new will be unmistakable.
Brown is 80 and as irascible as ever, worrying about the possibility of nuclear war — something that has preoccupied him since the early 1970s — and the quickening pace of climate change, which he made a focus of his final term in office. He is seemingly far happier these days when alone with his wife, Anne Gust, and two dogs on their 2,500-acre ranch of rolling hills, live oaks and pasture that his family settled in the late 1800s.
True to his Jesuit roots, Brown remains interested most in social fairness, whether in the economy or in the justice system. He also has continued to push public works projects that he says are necessary to meet the state’s environmental goals and to accommodate a population that has reached 40 million people.
On some of the more current social issues, Brown has shown less enthusiasm. He has supported, if not always championed, same-sex marriage in California. He opposed the 2016 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use. It passed easily.
“Everyone’s getting married and getting high now,” he said, laughing.
Gavin Newsom is 29 years younger and married to Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a documentary filmmaker and actress. The couple have four children — the photogenic family made frequent appearances together on the campaign trail and was a prominent presence during Monday’s inaugural celebration. His relatively short marriage to Kimberly Guilfoyle, the former Fox News personality who now ardently supports President Trump, ended in divorce 13 years ago.
Before running for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, Newsom made money in the wine and restaurant business, in a partnership that included members of the Getty family and other longtime patrons of his political campaigns. He won the mayor’s office in 2004.
Within months, Newsom emerged as a leading voice for the gay rights movement, allowing same-sex marriage in the city at a time when even Democrats worried doing so would alienate key parts of the electorate.
Four years later, state voters passed Proposition 8, which made same-sex marriage illegal. The initiative was later found to be unconstitutional. Newsom has since built a national name around his decision.
“Gavin is not afraid to say what he thinks, and he will have the permission of the people of California to do so,” said state Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), the Senate leader. “This is a resistance. There are values we have, programs we have in place, and we need to defend them.”
Out of the shadow
Newsom first ran for governor in 2009, but the campaign lasted just a few months, with polls consistently showing him trailing by large margins to the man who eventually won the race — Jerry Brown.
After dropping out, Newsom ran for lieutenant governor and in 2010 won his first statewide election. For the past eight years, he has served deep in the shadow of a man with whom he shares only mild personal rapport.
The two are something of an odd couple.
Newsom’s combed-back graying hair is as noticeable as Brown’s is absent. His tailored suits and open-neck shirts are a fashion epoch away from Brown’s crew-neck sweaters and sensible shoes.
Brown’s image has shifted increasingly toward Colusa, the red agricultural county where his ranch is, while Newsom has remained firmly in Marin, the rich blue pocket where he lives north of San Francisco. He grew up there with his mother after his parents divorced when he was very young.
“Jerry was a curmudgeon, a low-profile politician, not much of a self-promoter, though he was once,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant here. “With Newsom, it’s going to feel more energetic, more charismatic, with a guy who has bigger ambitions.”
Brown leaves with some interest groups and legislators on the left upset over his caution at a time of state prosperity. His opposition to a single-payer health-care bill two years ago angered the powerful California Nurses Association, even though the measure as passed by the state Senate had no financing behind it.
Newsom will be pressured to push ahead with “Medicare-for-all,” something he has expressed political support for in the past. Stutzman noted, though, that Newsom has begun referring to “universal coverage” as his goal.
That could be a signal he believes a single-payer system could be too expensive and complex to achieve, given that the state would need a waiver from the Trump administration to spend federal health-care money on a new state system.
“The resistance to this came from, and comes from, a lack of political will,” said Stephanie Roberson, a lobbyist for the California Nurses Association.
It is an issue that exemplifies the bind Newsom will encounter almost immediately. How he moves forward on health care, as he promotes his expensive initiatives for childhood education and free community-college access, will determine the strength of his legislative support.
“Right now, everyone is wondering how this is all going to fall into place,” said Atkins, who said she supports a single-payer system in principle. “Even though we are in great shape right now, we can’t do everything people want.”
The road to Colusa
For Brown, the debate will soon be a memory.
From the governor’s mansion here, Interstate 5 plows north across the Sacramento River, a vast spread of channels and stones and mud about 30 miles northeast of its delta near the San Francisco Bay. Brown has been trying to transform the delta for years with a $17 billion double-tunnel system that would carry water from the state’s relatively wet north to the dry south.
Brown has argued that the California WaterFix would help resolve delivery problems between the two ends of the state. But it is expensive, politically delicate among water districts that would eventually pay much of the cost, and a concern of environmentalists for its potential impact on fisheries. Newsom has indicated that he favors a smaller project.
“He’s a younger person who will come in with ideas and proposals of his own,” Brown said, arguing that some form of the project is “inevitable.”
After the river come the almond and pistachio fields, harvested now, the bare branches of each tree appearing against the gray sky like veins in a heart. It is flat and dry. The Sierra foothills rise in the east and, to the west, rolling hills unfold in the near distance.
Rancho Venada sits among them, a modest home where the Browns live, powered mostly by solar energy. No cellphone signal reaches between the hills.
Brown and Gust buzz around the property on small four-wheel carts, looping up the side of steep hills to overlook a broad, green valley below. Cattle graze, a neighbor’s herd that feeds there under a long-term agreement.
“I’m a back-seat driver,” Gust said as she raised questions, amid some disconcerting grinding, about whether Brown was in the correct gear for the ride downhill.
“You’ve gotten worse,” he said.
Brown intends to “build out the ranch” in his new free time. He also has some other projects underway, including work as the executive chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (He has long been an avid watcher of its Doomsday Clock.)
Asked to rank his achievements in office, Brown said, “I don’t think life fits that way.”
“Will I miss it? That implies I look back a lot,” he said, “and I haven’t started that yet.”