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Opinion The paradoxes of Gavin Newsom

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) talks to reporters in Sacramento on Friday. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
5 min

Let’s explore the paradoxes of Gavin Newsom.

By taking on his right-wing Republican counterparts in Florida and Texas, California’s Democratic governor has gone national in a big way — and earned the gratitude of many in his party who are tired of being pushed around.

Newsom doesn’t regret his public war with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, but he does speak of it somewhat wistfully, as a task he really wishes he didn’t have to undertake. In an interview Friday, he distinguished between “the person that I want to be versus the person I’m becoming.”

Taking on DeSantis, Abbott and the right, he says, is “a tactic to meet this moment. And so, yes, I’m pushing back. … I’m trying to change the narrative because I think they’re dominating the narrative.”

He speaks with pride at having joined former president Donald Trump’s social media platform, Truth Social, in June to call out what he called “the red-state murder problem,” a reference to the fact that eight of the 10 states with the highest murder rates happened to have voted Republican in every election since 2000.

But Newsom insists that he’s weary of “how polarized we’ve become, how traumatized we’ve become through this pandemic, being so socially distant from each other in every way, and how tribalism is dominant.”

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What you might call The Newsom Tension is reflected in the reason he reached out to have a conversation — not because he wanted to press on with his boisterous, attention-grabbing sparring with the GOP’s Sun Belt duo, or to reinforce his efforts on behalf of abortion and LGBTQ rights, but to plug what he called his “proudest moment” as governor:

Friday saw the swearing-in of the first 3,200 members of the state’s new College Corps, which pays low-income students $10,000 annually for undertaking service jobs. The students come from 46 campuses and will serve in 600 different community organizations.

Perhaps it’s a comment on our bitter moment that Newsom’s innovative approach to service is likely to be of wide interest primarily as a counterpoint to his political pugilism. But it’s a cause he’s passionate about. He names Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, as his hero, and his administration has a chief service officer — not your standard bureaucratic post.

Josh Fryday, the Navy veteran and former small-city mayor who holds the job, hopes other states will imitate a program he sees as a next-generation GI Bill. “If you are willing to serve your community,” Fryday says, “we are willing to help you pay for school.”

Newsom freely acknowledges “going back and forth” between the “clenched fist” of partisan warfare and warmer feelings inspired by “these remarkable kids that just don’t care about that, they still care about something bigger than that.”

The man who has relished taking it to the likes of DeSantis and Abbott insists he’d prefer a more peaceable republic. “At a certain point we’re all exhausted,” he says. “At a certain point, this has to end. It’s just too much. … How do we get out of this?” One path out, he thinks, is compulsory national service, drawing citizens together to combat the loss of a “common story” and a “common experience.”

There are other Newsom paradoxes. He is, in many ways, a moderate. In describing his service program, he reaches back to the decades-old slogan of the centrist (and now-defunct) Democratic Leadership Council: “Opportunity, Responsibility, Community.” He referred to himself as a businessperson five times in a roughly 45-minute interview.

Yet he roundly defends his state’s highly progressive tax structure and signed into law a raft of progressive bills. They include pro-labor laws on behalf of fast-food workers and farmworkers; a major climate package; generous new family-leave benefits for lower-income workers; and legal protections for transgender youth. He is particularly proud that the state has set up college savings accounts for low-income children.

Newsom is fond of “mantras” — his word — that sand down frictions: “growth and inclusion,” for example, or “diversity and dynamism.” He praises President Biden for offering a “master class of substance” but can also scold fellow Democrats. “We have a completely broken immigration system,” he says. “Where the hell is my party in that?”

And the biggest tension of all? After turning himself into a national player, Newsom, who has a big lead in his reelection race, insists tenaciously that he is not running for president. “Look, there’s nothing special about me,” he says. “I’m a guy that got 960 on my SAT and struggled to read.”

“I’m getting invitations now to all of these barbecues and dinners,” he adds. “And I’m turning them down because if I turn up, then no one, including myself, will believe anything I say.”

Maybe it’s one more paradox: Such words won’t stop Democrats fed up with Republican bullies from keeping his inbox busy.