Spotlight on Gavin Newsom fades with move to Sacramento 

Gavin Newsom could not wait to leave the Mayor’s Office, bemoaning the fact that he had so much work to do in his final days — little details such as securing the America’s Cup for San Francisco.

And then you view his first agenda as California lieutenant governor and you have to wonder: Why the rush?

“Newsom to kick-off higher education listening tour,” in San Diego, his press office declared, “the beginning of a statewide conversation on higher education.’’

Golly, where do we sign up?

One week you are changing the entire political landscape of San Francisco, then the next you are talking to college students about tuition fees. College campuses are nice, but really, you might be wishing for some more action.

It would be foolish to underestimate the former mayor and far too early to predict his political future, but there is a reason that Newsom rather infamously once stated he did not know what the Office of Lieutenant Governor does.

The lieutenant governor does whatever the officeholder wants because no one really pays attention. Sure, they can play a role in higher education, the environment and conceivably in job creation, but only in an ancillary way.

And do not think going to an office with an $800,000 budget carries quite the same heft as one with a $6.5 billion treasury. If Newsom was criticized for having too big a personal staff as mayor, that will not be a problem in his new job.

Newsom had planned to keep his main office in San Francisco, but that has not happened and it goes a long way toward describing the steady decimation of the lieutenant governor post over time. Back when Gray Davis held the job, the office had a staff of 17 people and outposts in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.

“We had trouble making ends meet with a $1.3 million general-fund budget,” said Garry South, Davis’ former chief of staff who helped him be elected governor after becoming a full-time political consultant.

It is worth noting that even with a relatively paltry budget, Newsom is taking over the office with half the fiscal year over and his predecessor, Abel Maldonado, having no incentive to keep the cupboard full (he lost to Newsom in the general election).

Three decades ago, the office had considerably more clout when Leo McCarthy — the longest-serving lieutenant governor in state history — ran it as sort of an offshoot of the Governor’s Office. But other than having some appointment powers to state boards and commissions — along with a seat on a few — the job does not have a lot of pizzazz, which may explain why the likes of Cruz Bustamante and John Garamendi were able to fill it.

Newsom might be enjoying the lack of daily run-ins with some of his longtime opponents, who seemed to live just to attack him, and maybe his time in Sacramento will allow him to see other sides of the state’s political spectrum.

But there is no avoiding the fact that his new job is hardly a stepping stone to the Governor’s Office and he will have a lot of time to think about his next move. For all the people who have tried to make the jump, only Davis has succeeded, and he did not fare so well, being the subject of the first gubernatorial recall in California history.

South, who worked as Newsom’s campaign manager during his abbreviated run for governor, said it would likely have been a more effective post if a Republican had won the governor job, serving as a sort of political foil for the Democratic Party. But with Jerry Brown in office, that role goes to one as team player.

The thing to watch is whether new state Attorney General Kamala Harris eclipses Newsom as the party’s rising star. Her stunning victory in the race, and her links to the Obama administration, already have some observers predicting that she will surpass Newsom if they both pursue higher ambitions.

One thing is undeniable: More attorneys general have won the governor job, Brown being just the latest, and it has clearly served as a better political platform.

But it is only Newsom’s first week. Maybe he deserves the time off.

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Ken Garcia

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