California Governor's Race Well Under Way The election for California's next governor doesn't happen until November 2010, but already the race is very much under way. Carla Marinucci, senior political writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, offers her insight.
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California Governor's Race Well Under Way

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California Governor's Race Well Under Way

California Governor's Race Well Under Way

California Governor's Race Well Under Way

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The election for California's next governor doesn't happen until November 2010, but already the race is very much under way. Carla Marinucci, senior political writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, offers her insight.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in Washington.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

Maybe you've heard: This place is a mess. The voters are fed up with their leaders here. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is about as popular as a traffic jam right now. But that doesn't mean there aren't a bunch of people eager to take over when he leaves. The governor's race is on, even though the primary isn't until next June. We'll get a rundown on the contenders in a moment. First, let's spend some time with the only major Democrat who has officially entered the race.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: Without further ado, please welcome the next governor of the state of California, my friend, Gavin Newsom.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BRAND: Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, 42 years old, looking to be the Obama of California.

Mayor GAVIN NEWSOM (San Francisco): It is time for the Twitter question. You can't - how many of you are on Twitter?

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mayor NEWSOM: All right, that's a good start. San Francisco Bay's company, so I have to do a little plug for Twitter.

BRAND: I went to a Newsom town hall in the San Fernando Valley just outside L.A. recently. Shirt sleeves rolled up, cordless mic in hand, hair slicked back, Gavin Newsom ticked off his accomplishments as mayor, ending with…

Mayor NEWSOM: Most aggressive green building standards in America, the highest recycling rate, 72 percent and now we're requiring composting. You want controversy? Forget gay marriage, require composting in your city.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: But seriously, folks, the rest of California is not like San Francisco, which I asked Gavin Newsom about in a quick sit-down interview before the town hall.

So, you are a long way from San Francisco.

Mayor NEWSOM: Yes.

BRAND: How do you portray yourself outside of the city?

Mayor NEWSOM: Pretty consistently. I mean, you know, I was in Fresno my last town hall, an area that hardly would be described as liberal or progressive, and it was one of our not only best attended town halls, but I think best receptions we've received.

Now, there were protestors there. People are very upset about some of the issues I'm identified with. But at the end of the day, it was remarkable the commonality that we all had together.

I mean, the issues that I'm fighting for every single day as mayor of San Francisco are the exact same issues that need to be fought for and championed in Fresno. It's education. It's health care. It's the environment. And it's poverty. And then there are the issues, right, that divide not just Californians, but Americans. And those are the issues, obviously, of marriage equality.

BRAND: Well, since you brought it up, let's talk about the issue that you are most well-known for nationally.

Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah.

BRAND: And that is gay marriage.

Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah.

BRAND: Proposition 8…

Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah.

BRAND: …passed in this state.

Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah. Yeah.

BRAND: It was a very contentious battle.

Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah.

BRAND: This banned gay marriage, Proposition 8.

Mayor NEWSOM: Sure.

BRAND: What are you going to say to the voters of this state about that? You obviously are not in the majority.

Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah, I'm not in the majority.

BRAND: You don't represent the majority.

Mayor NEWSOM: But, you know, there are certain fundamental values that I hold dear. And there are principles that I'll fight for. I believe in equality. It's not just a slogan. It's not just rhetoric. I actually want to champion it. I want to fight for it. And I'm someone who just doesn't believe separate is equal.

BRAND: So even if you focus group it and your campaign manager and your pollsters say, look, this is a losing battle, you're going to lose this election if you keep talking about gay marriage.

Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah. I mean, I talk about it, but candidly, more people want to know about why we're the only city in America with universal health care - how we did that without raising taxes and creating a new bureaucracy.

When I'm asked, do I believe in equality? I absolutely will answer that. I will not equivocate. And I won't say one thing in one setting and another in another setting. I am who I am and at least you know where I stand. And I'm not necessarily convinced in this country that I know where a lot of politicians stand on tough issues. They tend to be politicians and I don't want to be a politician in that sense.

I want to be open-minded to argument and, of course, recognize that not everyone agrees with me, so I'm not here to force feed my point of view, but I'm here to offer it in an honest and unfiltered way.

BRAND: The state is in horrible shape, as you know. Why would you want to be governor at a time like this?

Mayor NEWSOM: Well, this is an extraordinary time to be in elected office. I'm mayor of San Francisco and I got more reforms done this year than I did in the previous five years I was mayor. If you believe in reforms, you want to fight to solve problems, this is the time to be in government. And now more than ever there's an openness to new ideas.

I mean, I don't want to manage in the good times in the margins. I want to be involved in something where you can really produce order(ph) of magnitude change, because that's what the times demand.

BRAND: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said practically the same thing.

Mayor NEWSOM: Without the basis of experience, and candidly, some working knowledge - and I don't mean that as a critique, it's an observation. You know, I came from the private sector as well, created over 1,000 jobs. I came here with a lot of that same exuberance over a decade - almost a decade and half ago. And I realized that government works a little differently.

BRAND: Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco and candidate for California governor. Newsom is campaigning like crazy, probably because he faces an uphill battle in name recognition and in raising money. For an overview of all the major contenders, I spoke with Carla Marinucci. She's senior political writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ms. CARLA MARINUCCI (Senior Political Writer, San Francisco Chronicle): Gavin Newsom has described San Francisco as 47 square miles surrounded by insanity, as he said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARINUCCI: Maybe it's the other way around. But the bottom line is, yes, San Francisco is its own political universe. And when Gavin Newsom declared same-sex marriage is legal in San Francisco City Hall, he made a name for himself, and not necessarily a good name for himself, with the rest of the state.

Among Democrats, though, that may be a plus. He is getting a lot of support from Los Angeles voters, from very high-profile people in the entertainment industry. Rosie O'Donnell just gave him a $25,000 check. So he has stuck to his support on same-sex marriage.

BRAND: Okay. And so his main Democratic challenger looks like it'll be Jerry Brown, the former governor, the current attorney general and who has not officially entered the race, but has really high name recognition.

Ms. MARINUCCI: That's right. You know, Jerry Brown is, in his own way, a political icon in California. He was governor for two terms back in the 1970s -that is exactly his challenge. Between Newsom and Brown, this will be the largest age gap ever. Thirty years between these two candidates. It really is a generational contest in many ways.

Jerry Brown is well-known to the older Democratic establishment and those most likely to come out and vote. Newsom is banking on the fact that those younger voters who were fired up by Obama will still be there for him next year when the primary comes around.

BRAND: Let's turn to the Republican side now. We have three candidates from the same area code, really, from the Silicon Valley.

Ms. MARINUCCI: We're talking about the area code that produced Google, Twitter, Facebook, I can go on and on. But the fact is, two of these candidates are multi, multi millionaires, if not, billionaires in Meg Whitman's case.

Meg Whitman, of course, the former CEO of eBay, has already put $15 million into this race and said she could spend as much as 50 million. So we're talking high-price, high-profile candidate with a lot of problems, too - somebody who has a very spotty voting record, who wasn't even a registered Republican until 2007.

She's up against Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner, also incredibly wealthy. If you have - if you're familiar with the GPS on your cell phone, well, he's the guy who's responsible for that; made a ton of money.

The guy that's considered maybe most likely to be able to save California, ironically enough, is someone who has pretty much no money at all, but is an incredible policy wonk, very well-respected, considered one of the smartest guys in California politics. And that is former Congressman Tom Campbell, who was also the former state budget director. This is a guy who is a wonk central when it comes to the state budget. He has a 30-page single-spaced proposal on how to save California…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Wow.

Ms. MARINUCCI: …from its current fiscal problems. And that's no small thing when you talk about the kind of problems that California has.

BRAND: And the primaries are in June. The general, next November.

Ms. MARINUCCI: That's right.

BRAND: (Unintelligible)

Ms. MARINUCCI: We're less than a year away from the primary, right. And Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom are out there already, even though Brown hasn't even declared, talking to those Democratic voters in blue state California.

Whitman, Poizner and Campbell are hoping to keep California Republican at the top. And Republicans all across the country are already watching this, saying that if they can hold onto the governor's seat in California, this could be the beginning of a renaissance for the Republican Party and the rest of the country. That's why you'll see money from around the country come into this race as well.

BRAND: Carla Marinucci, senior political writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Thanks, Carla.

Ms. MARINUCCI: Thanks for having me.

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