Just after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first state-of-the-state speech, a major newspaper editorialized that perhaps he should become known as “Gov. Gaslight” because of the mind-bending way he announced a plan to switch the focus of California’s under-construction bullet train to the rather short run between Bakersfield and Merced, but then pulled back.
The nickname referred to the plot of a 1930s-era movie of that name.
Newsom, fast becoming the face of resistance to President Trump and his agenda, ironically sounded very Trumpesque when he blasted the press for reporting what he said, rather than what he perhaps wished he had said.
For this, color Newsom green as grass, inexperienced. Barely a month into his time as governor of the nation’s largest state, he seemed not to realize his words might be reported outside California. They were, and Trump seized on them.
Soon after Newsom spoke, Trump announced he will cancel almost $1 billion of a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) grant that this state’s High Speed Rail Authority has counted on for about one-fourth of its known funding. The authority still hopes to find private backers and more state funds than the $9 billion in bonds authorized by voters in 2008, but little has materialized.
Trump also threatened to claw back another $2.5 billion in federal funds already spent on the bullet train, an unprecedented action. And it was hard to quarrel with the justifying facts set out in the Trump administration threat letter, signed by the FRA administrator.
The letter said California has not kicked in matching funds it promised for final design work and adds that the state can’t complete even part of the originally proposed project by 2022, a key deadline in the federal grant.
Newsom called this “political retribution” for California’s resistance to Trump policies, including his deep desire to build a solid wall along the Mexican border. The Trump move surely is retribution, aimed at bringing Newsom to heel.
Why be surprised? As Mr. Dooley, the legendary, fictitious bartender of the 1890s, once observed, “Politics ain’t beanbag.”
None of this had to happen. Newsom’s speech could have avoided the subject of high speed rail, like most of ex-Gov. Jerry Brown’s similar addresses. Perhaps a desire to avoid such pitfalls moved Brown to make speeches quickly forgotten after their delivery, just like most presidential state-of-the-union addresses.
But Newsom blithely stepped into a pothole, then acted surprised when he tripped. His shock at having his words quickly and accurately reported does not render him less idealistic than he’s been, offering initiative after initiative to help poor children, areas with foul drinking water and places that need more housing. Nor does it necessarily portend lasting hostility to the press, with which he has long enjoyed positive relations. This man is not a blackguard.
Rather, Newsom looks like a green rookie. He demonstrated this elsewhere during the same ongoing bullet train flap created by his speech. The new governor seemed to think he can by himself change the train’s scope and route. He was quickly reminded by the chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee that he cannot. As Democratic Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose told a reporter, “He has a right to say what he wants. But there has to be a public process.” That might include legislative votes.
This part of the kerfluffle evoked a 1999 flap which saw the newly-elected Gov. Gray Davis issue an order to then Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Lockyer demurred, reminding Davis the attorney general works for the state, not the governor, and is independently elected by the same constituents.
Davis, like Newsom, was a former lieutenant governor who may have gotten magnified ideas about gubernatorial powers by watching up close as a political veteran exercised them skillfully, in his case ex-Gov. Pete Wilson.
Davis never again made a similar mistake. So maybe Newsom’s bullet train blunders won’t be repeated, either. For if Newsom has demonstrated any quality besides idealism as governor, it’s that he’s a fast learner. That might mean the current “Gov. Green-as-grass” will soon turn into a savvy operative, like the man he succeeded.