Gavin Newsom makes a good first impression

The face is the face of a sportswear model, but the mind is the mind of a wonk.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, running for Governor, is in L.A. tonight to do a “town hall” and his staff arranged a sit-down interview with (as it turned out) eight bloggers. I hadn’t heard anything that especially made me want to see Newsom as Governor, but on the other hand I hadn’t heard anything like that about any of the likely Democratic candidates, and I figured that my loud expressions of dismay at the clown show in Sacramento meant that I ought to do something about finding an alternative, so I went.

My immediate take wasn’t positive: Newsom is tall, thin, elegantly dressed, elegantly coiffed, and quite good-looking in a conventional GQ sort of way. He looks rich, self-satisfied, and not overly intelligent. I’m not sure what the masculine form of the word “bimbo” might be*, but that was the thought that came to mind.

Then he started to talk, and I changed my mind in a hurry.

First point: The California budget process is busted. And the state is damned near busted, now having managed to fall below Louisiana as the state with the worst bond rating. Good. As far as I’m concerned, acknowledging that fact out loud is the basic eligibility requirement for a gubernatorial candidate.

Second point: San Francisco has its budget under control, with a rainy-day fund. Newsom fixed the multi-hundred-million dollar structural deficit he found, and didn’t let it stop him from doing a bunch of expensive stuff that needed doing. That’s obviously going to be his central campaign pitch: fiscal competence that isn’t just fiscal competence but relates to programs people care about. No idea how accurate his claims are, but he made them convincingly (albeit without saying what, precisely, he has SF spending less money on than it used to).

Which leads into: The two-thirds rule for passing the budget sets up a “tyranny of the majority” and has to go, and the only way to get rid of it is via a state constitutional convention that would also get rid of some of the other barnacles on the budget process: not just the set-asides, but Holy Prop 13 as well. California is a rich state with the eighth largest economy in the world, and it shouldn’t be run as a third-world country. “The bar is so low that everyone is complimenting themselves on putting together a midnight deal, as if that was the job we hired them to do.”

Okay, now he has me completely.

Newsom went on to say that polling data were showing that the California electorate has finally figured out that the state is in deep doo-doo, in a way that makes the previously unthinkable possibly thinkable. And he noted that he’s not running into the culture-war stuff he was worried about: no one cares about “San Francisco Values,” he said: they want to know how he managed to put together something approaching comprehensive health care for San Francisco, whether he could do it state-wide, and how much it would cost.

And then Newsom proceeded to display a very firm grasp (as far as I could check him, which isn’t very far) of the relevant facts and figures. Someone said afterward that his reputation is as a wonk, and he has mastered a wonky-but-not-boring style.

He’s prepared to tackle prison expenditures the only way they can actually be handled: by releasing a bunch of prisoners. He was aware of the Pew “One in 31” report. He knows what a prison bed costs. He had what seemed to me a thoroughly bad idea &#8212 releasing apparently non-dangerous offenders without insisting on a term of post-release supervision &#8212 but didn’t seem stubborn about it. He’s excited about what he called “step-down” programs, which I gather means halfway houses and post-release employment programs.

Very Obama-ish about education: California has to compete with Utah. K-12 is soooo Twentieth Century: we need a “Pre-K-to-16” system. He’s aware of how bad the budget situation is for the UC system, but (like many Democrats) he seemed more focused on the Cal State system, which he cited as the source of the teachers and nurses the state needs.

In SF, the schools are multi-tasking as community centers and as sites for public-health interventions. An obviously good idea if you can make it work; those buildings represent too much capital to let them sit idle evenings, weekends, and summers, and they’re obviously good places to deliver services kids need other than schooling. He talked about arts programs, a deal with the Cal State system guaranteeing a college education to every child who does well enough in the San Francisco public schools to merit it, and universal preschool (which I’m not sure is a good program in practice, though the idea is attractive enough).

Like many others &#8212 and crediting Assembly Speaker Karen Bass &#8212 he’s on board for reforming the state’s foster-care system; he can speak from experience, since when he was young his mother took in foster children, one of whom turned out quite badly.

What would he cut? Medi-Cal. He wouldn’t specify exactly which elements of Medi-Cal (nursing-home care?) were on the chopping block, but he cited the budget numbers showing that the current system is fiscally unsustainable (as well as low in quality) and pointed to the Care Not Cash revolution he had brought about in San Francisco’s policy toward homeless adults as a case where more good could be produced with less money by thinking carefully about goals and means. Again, I don’t know the Care Not Cash story, but he made it sound plausible. I could hear a pitch that voters other than committed liberals and Democrats might hearken to.

I don’t especially fancy myself as a judge of political horseflesh, and especially not in California, whose politics I understand about as well as I understand Israel’s. But forty minutes with Newsom left me believing that (1) he might actually become Governor and (2) that he would probably make a much better Governor than anyone else I’ve heard of as likely to run.

* Himbo?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: