California’s Governor And His Three Christmas Ghosts

Thursday, December 19, 2019
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Office of the Lieutenant Governor of California

This being our last Thursday column before the holiday break, I thought it fitting to take a look at Sacramento through a more Dickensian lens—a 2019 version, if you will, of A Christmas Carol, the 66-page novella first published in 1843.

Not that California’s governor is to be mistaken for Ebenezer Scrooge. Gavin Newsom, age 52, is neither old nor miserly (though a new version of the Dickens classic—a British production that debuts in America tonight on the FX cable network—offers a darker reimagining of Scrooge: he’s younger and saddled with obsessive-compulsive tendencies and a history of family trauma).

Still, our Sacramento version of A Christmas Carol follows a familiar plot line: the encounter by the story’s protagonist with three spirits.

In the Dickensian original, Scrooge comes face to face with the Ghost of Christmas Past, who takes the miser on a highlight tour of his life’s mistakes (being an unkind son and brother, an unappreciative employee, an unloving fiancé, etc.).

Sacramento’s Ghost of Christmas Past? That would be Gray Davis, the last California governor to leave office by public fiat (California 2003’s gubernatorial recall election, in which voters replaced Davis with Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Davis’s message for Newsom? Keep the state legislature in check or beware the consequences.

When Davis took office in 1999, a challenge for the new governor was taming the urges of a Democratic-controlled legislature frustrated by 16 years of Republican governors. Davis did a poor job of curbing the zeal to spend; budgets soared until a recession brought that binge to an end, with lawmakers unable to balance California’s books without imposing an increase in the state’s vehicle license fee—a blunder that Schwarzenegger used to full and cinematic effect in the recall contest. 

Newsom entered office last January facing a similar dynamic as Davis. In Newsom’s case, lawmakers were frustrated not by a string of Republican governors but instead by a Scrooge-like Democrat who boasted that “nobody is tougher with a buck than I am.”

Newsom’s first budget filled savings accounts in anticipation of an economic downturn—a miserly necessity, given that a California recession is long overdue. The governor’s sophomore year, with another healthy revenue surplus and a legislative appetite to spend, will test whether Newsom enters the “Gray area” of a governor losing fiscal control.

Scrooge’s next visitor: the Ghost of Christmas Present, whose purpose is to show the miser how those less fortunate (in particular, the struggling Cratchit family) balance festivity and deprivation—with a stark reminder that bad things will happen if Scrooge doesn’t change his ways (the Ghost says of Tiny Tim: “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die”).

Sacramento’s Ghost of Christmas Present: the alluded-to Jerry Brown, Newsom’s predecessor and Ronald Reagan’s successor in his separate eight-year turns as California’s 34th and 39th governor.

Why Brown as the “present” spirit? Because a governor who once talked about his grandmother having been born “in modest circumstances” lives a humble, no-frills lifestyle in his political retirement in rural Colusa County (ironically, Brown never having carried that county in any of his four successful gubernatorial runs).

Brown’s a curious blend: the anchor leg of a political dynasty (his eponymous father, better known as Pat Brown, governed California from 1959 to 1967) with some life experiences wholly unrelatable to most Californians (time spent in a Zen meditation center and a Jesuit seminary). Still, Brown possessed a strong knowledge of working-class Californians’ concerns in his 16 years as governor.

That odd mix is reflected in Brown’s policy contrasts—on the one hand, a futurist champion for addressing climate change, yet a pragmatist/skeptic when it comes to progressive concepts like universal healthcare and marijuana legalization (as Brown once told an interviewer: “How many people can get stoned and still have a great state?”).

To his credit, Newsom’s first year as governor included some symbolic gestures hard to overlook—specifically, time spent and investments made in the more Republican, socially conservative Central Valley. It’s symbolic in that Newsom is a product of the San Francisco Bay Area, whose life has been lived and his worldview developed in a decidedly blue bubble.    

Time will tell if Newsom has much, if any, interest in Brown’s more blended approach to governing. 

Scrooge’s third visitor: the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

In the novella, the spirit shows Scrooge a deceased (and obviously unpopular) man whose funeral is attended by a single businessman—he’s there on the condition that lunch is served. 

Obviously, it’s a wake-up call for the miser, who responds by sending money to a charity and food (and a pay raise for the family patriarch) to the Cratchit family.

Who plays this role in our Sacramento morality play?

California doesn’t lack for individuals and institutions who are trying to hold the Golden State’s elected class accountable for its policy choices (or lack of political bravery).

For years, Govern for California‘s David Crane has been a veritable Paul Revere when it comes to pension obligations, misdirected education spending, and the exaggerated influence of special-interest money.

Also a reliable alarm clock: Joe Fox and his Fox & Hounds website devoted to California business and politics. Also doing its best to enlighten the public: CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism venture that’s stepped into a void created by an atrophied Sacramento press corps and that provides in-depth and insightful examinations of state government.

In a better world, everyone gets their holiday wishes granted. And if you’re wishing for one thing for Sacramento, it might be that 2020 be a year when state lawmakers address problems beyond its political ken in 2019 (affordable housing being a good start) and resist the temptation to engage in national politics—and the inviting target that is President Trump—and instead stay focused on more parochial concerns.

We’ll see you in this space in the new year.

Until then, here’s wishing you and yours a joyful holiday season.

Bah, humbug!