It’s no secret that California governors begin to lose popularity as they get deeper into their second – and last – terms. Gavin Newsom seems no exception.
Environmentalists are unhappy he wants to allocate more water to farms and cities and less to salmon runs through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Many homeowners resent his signing bill after bill to densify housing across the state. Mass transit advocates don’t like his proposed budget cuts. And on and on.
But malcontents can rest easy knowing Newsom won’t be governor forever. In fact, he’ll be out just 3 ½ years from now, regardless of who might be president at the time.
His successor is much less clear today than was his own eventual accession to the governor’s office at this same point in predecessor Jerry Brown’s final term in the state Capitol.
Back then, Newsom – a former mayor of San Francisco best known for bringing same-sex marriage to his city – faced significant competition in moving up only from Antonio Villaraigosa, an ex-Los Angeles mayor and former state Assembly speaker who roused plenty of his own negative feelings during a long career in public life.
There are no candidates today as certain to run strongly as those two were just eight years ago.
So, who is likely to take over Newsom’s chair? Chances are it won’t be any of the state’s big-city mayors. Neither London Breed of San Francisco nor Karen Bass of Los Angeles is as well known in other parts of California as both Newsom and Villaraigosa were at the same early stage in the battle for succession.
Of course, by 2026, either might build a far more considerable reputation than she enjoys today, especially if they can seriously dent the homelessness crisis that dogs both their cities.
That leaves the likes of Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, former state Controller Betty Yee, Xavier Becerra, and current Speaker Anthony Rendon. Like the mayors, all are Democrats; no Republican now occupies a prominent office that could propel them to even higher stature and no conservative celebrities appear interested.
Because of her current post, Kounalakis is a logical candidate, and she’s declared early. Two of the last four governors – Newsom and Gray Davis – moved up from the job she holds. One thing for sure, Kounalakis, daughter of Angelo Tsakopoulos, a Sacramento developer and longtime Democratic campaign donor, will have no cash shortage.
Kounalakis, a onetime ambassador to Hungary under ex-President Barack Obama, would figure to be even more liberally oriented than Newsom has been.
Bonta’s office has also been a steppingstone to the governorship for many, including Brown, Republicans George Deukmejian and Earl Warren, plus Pat Brown, Jerry’s father and a two-term governor.
An obscure assemblyman before Newsom appointed him, Bonta has made himself a force in housing policy by suing more than a dozen cities for their reluctance to OK dense housing within their borders.
Becerra, a former state attorney general and congressman, now is President Biden’s secretary of Health and Human Services. Undefeated in California electoral runs, he’s already the highest-ranking Latino official ever elected here and made few enemies during his four years as attorney general. He could be a formidable primary election force but would have to get moving soon.
The same for Rendon, due to give up his gavel next month. A resident of Lakewood in Los Angeles County, Rendon cannot move to a big city mayoral job, like Willie Brown and Villaraigosa did after being speaker.
So, he might have to seek statewide office, and why not the top one, since he has proven a formidable fundraiser?
There also could be Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who is the first female president of the state Senate. Now an unofficial candidate for lieutenant governor, she could shift one notch up if she sees an opportunity. Whatever she runs for, her fund-raising record means she would have to be taken seriously, unlike Yee, whose appeal would be mostly to Asian-Americans.
The bottom line: Democrats have a strong bench from which to choose Newsom’s successor. But it’s far too early to make odds on how this still unshaped race will go.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net
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