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Newsom slides to right, frustrating progressives politicians’ big hopes

This post appeared on Calmatters

Unite Here Local 11 and their supporters rally outside Los Angeles' Airport on Century Boulevard on June 22, 2023. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters

In summary

Newsom, one of California’s most liberal governors, rejected many bills favored by the left, giving progressives a handful of victories.

The COVID-19 pandemic had faded in the public consciousness, the state treasury seemed to be awash in cash and Gov. Gavin Newsom, arguably the most liberal governor in California history, had verbally endorsed many goals of progressive activists and won a landslide re-election.

However, when Newsom closed the book on the 2023 legislative session over the weekend by acting on the last of 1,046 bills legislators sent to him, those on the left could count only a handful of victories.

Among the proposed measures were those spending — by Newsom’s count — an extra $19 billion over the 2023-24 state budget he had signed in June, and he rejected dozens of them with identical veto messages saying the state faces an uncertain economic future and “it is important to remain disciplined in considering bills with significant fiscal implications, such as this measure.”

Only a handful of the left’s highest priority bills reached Newsom and only a very few were signed. He vetoed the California Labor Federation’s most important measure, Senate Bill 799, which would have allowed striking workers to collect unemployment insurance benefits.

Newsom cited the multi-billion-dollar debt that the state’s unemployment insurance program incurred to keep benefits flowing during the pandemic and said, “Now is not the time to increase costs or incur this sizable debt.”

Newsom did sign a union-backed bill to help grocery store chain workers retain their jobs during mergers (Assembly Bill 647) and two measures setting higher minimum wages for two other industries, fast food (Assembly Bill 1228) and health care (Senate Bill 525), but both were negotiated agreements with the affected industries.

The narrow focus of all three underscored what would have been a massive change in California labor law had Newsom approved unemployment benefits for strikers.

One indication that unions and other progressive advocates came up short this year was the angry retort from Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher — who resigned from the state Assembly last year to become head of the California Labor Federation — after Newsom appointed former union leader Laphonza Butler to the U.S. Senate.

“Don’t get distracted,” Gonzalez Fletcher posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Gov. Newsom has vetoed three important labor bills, including labor’s collective highest priority bill — SB 799. We must continue to organize & fight & demand respect for all workers, especially those who are striking to fix an economy that has failed us.”

While Newsom’s rejection of 14.5% of the Legislature’s bills was not a particularly high rate, his pointed veto messages about increasing spending and imposing new costs on employers were clear signals about his ideological repositioning — as were his signatures on some anti-crime bills.

While those on the left may have seen Newsom’s re-election and verbal support for their goals as an invitation to send high priority bills to his desk, he had turned his attention to raising his national political profile — while insisting that he had no interest in running for president.

Whatever Newsom’s political ambitions beyond the governorship may be, he clearly wants to be seen as an effective and relatively moderate figure, drawing a contrast with a Republican Party dominated by former President Donald Trump.

It’s an article of political faith that American voters instinctively reject anyone they perceive as radical, and that’s particularly true when the national partisan division is very close to 50-50.

If Newsom continues to pursue the image of someone from the broad middle for the remainder of his governorship, those on California’s left will probably continue to be frustrated.

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