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Newsom adopts Jerry Brown’s ‘canoe theory’ of political shifting

This story appeared on Calmatters

California Governor Jerry Brown and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom greet well wishers after Brown delivered his final state of the state address in Sacramento on Jan. 25, 2018. Photo by Fred Greaves, REUTERS

In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom appears to be following predecessor Jerry Brown’s “canoe theory” of politics, paddling alternatively on the left and right with his vetoes and bill signings.

During his first governorship nearly a half-century ago, Jerry Brown practiced what he called the “canoe theory” of politics.

“The way you have to approach the political process is something like piloting a canoe,” Brown said to explain his often abrupt changes of policy.

“If you stand up on one side you’ll fall in. If you stand up on the other side you’ll fall in. But if you paddle a little bit on the left side, then paddle a little bit on the right side, you keep going right down the middle.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a quasi-nephew of Brown’s due to their families’ interrelationship, seems to be practicing his own version of the theory.

Newsom calls himself a “progressive,” a term that has evolved but today describes someone decidedly left of center, and he generally hews to that ideological position.

However, Newsom also aspires to a role on the national political stage, although his precise ambitions remain ambiguous, and he apparently doesn’t want to be viewed as leaning so far left that he would fall out of the canoe, to use Brown’s metaphor.

Thus, as he announced his first round of actions on bills passed by the Legislature this month, he vetoed three high-profile measures beloved by progressive legislators and their allied interests.

One, Assembly Bill 316, would have required human operators for autonomous trucks and was a high priority for the Teamsters union to protect its members’ jobs.

The second, AB 1306, would have barred the state prison system from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

The third – and most contentious – was AB 957, which would have added a parent’s attitude toward gender identity as a factor in child custody cases.

It was a high priority for transgender rights groups and they reacted angrily to Newsom’s assertion that singling out one factor could set a bad precedent. Equality California cited opposition of right-wing groups to the bill and said “failure to enact this bill bolsters their dangerous efforts.”

Having paddled his canoe a bit to right on Friday, he shifted direction on Saturday by signing a raft of bills “strengthening protections and supports for LGBTQ+ Californians, including measures to better support vulnerable youth,” Newsom said.

“California is proud to have some of the most robust laws in the nation when it comes to protecting and supporting our LGBTQ+ community, and we’re committed to the ongoing work to create safer, more inclusive spaces for all Californians,” he declared.

His announcement included praise from the Legislature’s LGBTQ Caucus and Equality California’s executive director, Tony Hoang, who had denounced his veto of AB 957 the day before.

Newsom’s weekend canoe ride set a pattern that may continue as he wades through the hundreds of bills on his desk. And gun control could be one of the issues getting a bifurcated response.

Newsom has long been advocated tighter controls on gun ownership – even proposing an amendment to the Constitution that would alter the Bill of Rights passage on the right to bear arms.

Late last week, after federal Judge Roger Benitez struck down California’s law limiting the capacity of firearm magazines to 10 rounds, Newsom reiterated his criticism of the judge, saying, “Benitez is not even pretending anymore. This is politics, pure and simple.”

However, Newsom has also signaled that he may veto one of the Legislature’s newest gun control efforts, a bill that would impose a hefty tax on sales of guns and ammunition to finance efforts to curb gun violence.

Newsom has generally rejected tax increases of any kind, disappointing public employee unions and other tax advocates and drawing praise from anti-tax groups.

After all, Jerry Brown frequently changed direction on taxes during both stints as governor.

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