From his office in the Capitol building, Gov. Gavin Newsom last week made a full-throated apology to California’s Jewish community for a controversial ethnic studies draft curriculum that erases the Jewish story in America and takes unsubtle digs at Israel.
The draft, said Newsom, “will never see the light of day.”
The proposed high school curriculum sparked a national controversy, rallying groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the California Legislative Jewish Caucus to register their objections, charging bias about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other things.
“It’s going to be taken care of,” Newsom said. “We are united in our resolve to make sure the advisory committee draft is only that, a draft, that will be substantially amended. And let me also apologize on behalf of the state for the anxiety that this produced. It was offensive in so many ways, particularly to the Jewish community.”
That was but one topic addressed in a wide-ranging interview in Sacramento with the former San Francisco mayor. The conversation with J. covered everything from climate change to wildfires, anti-Semitism, President Trump — and one youthful summer at Camp Tawonga.
A longtime supporter of Israel, Newsom touted the memorandum of understanding that California and Israel inked together five years ago. He says Israel, with its success in drip irrigation, wastewater recycling and other technologies, has a lot to offer the state.
“The climate crisis creates a sense of urgency that requires people to get out of their own way,” he said. “The old ways of doing business just don’t apply when the hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier and the wets are getting wetter. Israel experienced this decades before California, and there are so many lessons learned. Take an arid nation without an abundance of water, and based on ingenuity and the entrepreneurial spirit, they looked at the ocean anew and revolutionized irrigation and desalinization.”
The unabashed progressive has been on the job just eight months, inaugurated in January after serving as lieutenant governor under fellow Democrat and two-time Gov. Jerry Brown (whom Newsom calls “a master of his craft”). Benefiting from a humming state economy, Newsom proposed all kinds of initiatives in his $215.5 billion budget, including for housing, public pensions and health coverage for undocumented immigrants. The budget projects a $21.5 billion surplus over the next fiscal year.
According to the Sacramento Bee, Newsom also proposed new taxes on businesses to fund an increase of the income tax credit for low-income families, as well as taxes on water, fertilizer and dairy.
But the taxing-and-spending fights so far have taken a backseat to more volatile issues, such as coping with wildfire devastation across the state, the impact of climate change and a troubling uptick in acts of hate, including anti-Semitism.
Those issues thrust Newsom, 51, into the national spotlight once again, especially after the November 2018 fire that obliterated the town of Paradise. The newly elected governor stood side by side with Brown and Trump, surveying the ruins.
In an on-site press conference, Trump said Finland was better at forest management than California because “they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things. We’ve got to take care of the floors, you know the floors of the forest, very important.”
Newsom, governor-elect at the time, stood there stone-faced.
He won’t say today what went through his mind as Trump extolled the virtues of raking. Newsom insists he has a “framework of a relationship” with the president that “has allowed me to pick up the phone and call him directly and vice-versa.”
He said he received a call from Trump about a month after that moment in Paradise.
“He is talking to me about once again raking and what we have done to rake. I kept trying to push the president, [saying] defensible spaces are incredibly important, Mr. President, I appreciate your focus on defensible spaces, and he kept going back to rakes.
“I can assure the president that we’re doing more than ever on forest management, vegetation management, but he substantially cut those from the [federal] forest management budget. Fifty-seven percent of all land in this state is federal land. We will not be able to achieve our goals by handing out rakes.”
Newsom noted that the wildfires over the last two years damaged or destroyed three Jewish summer camps, including Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. His budget, which passed in June, authorized $23.5 million to rebuild all three camps.
Despite that largesse, Newsom worries about drought and wildfire becoming the new normal in California’s changing climate. Trump’s frequent disparaging of the state and threats to withhold federal firefighting aid do not sit well with him.
“It’s our money,” he said. “We’re a net-donor state, and we’re not asking for anything we haven’t already provided from California’s abundance. In the long term, I sleep well as long as [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi is healthy. She is principal because of her ability to claw back any of these resources that may be held in abeyance. She has our back, and I have confidence in her ability to deliver.”
Newsom thinks the president takes shots at California because “it resonates with his base.” Trump is “still raw about the extraordinary defeat he experienced at the hands of [California] voters, and as a consequence, he suggested voter fraud and the like,” the governor said. “It doesn’t surprise me that he seeks to pay us back, so to speak. But I think he’s more interested in the headlines than actually achieving the stated result.”
Even though it was a wet season last year, Newsom knows the state is vulnerable to drought. He said he has tasked agencies to put together a water portfolio project. “By the end of this year,” he predicted, “we will have a detailed strategy to address the water needs not only of today but the future, and then begin to finance that vision.”
Newsom expects California to take greater advantage of the kinds of water technologies developed in Israel over the decades. He learned about those firsthand during a visit as mayor in May 2008. Joining a mission sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Newsom and his then-fiancée Jennifer Siebel met with business and governmental leaders and toured Jerusalem’s Old City, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and other sites.
Newsom, who is Catholic, has personal Jewish connections, as well. He recalled as a kid attending Hanukkah parties hosted by Jewish extended family members. He also went to a JCC preschool in San Francisco for a time, and to one session at Camp Tawonga, the Jewish summer camp near Yosemite.
“There are so many things I take from the values of the Jewish community,” he said. “Being dropped off every day by my mother at the JCC on California Street, the values I learned, the universal values of tikkun olam.”
He credits those values in part to propelling him in his meteoric career, first in business as owner of PlumpJack wine store, then in politics as a San Francisco supervisor and a two-term mayor.
Newsom grabbed the national spotlight early in his first term in 2004 when he directed city clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The lines snaked around the block at City Hall, and ultimately 4,000 couples were married. Within months the State Supreme Court annulled those unions, but the stage was set for marriage equality and Newsom instantly became a hero to progressives.
Though the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right in 2015, Newsom worries that the Trump administration is working to strip away hard-earned rights for the LGBTQ community, women, minorities and all Americans.
He is just as concerned about the rise in anti-Semitism and white nationalism. The massacre of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year, and the more recent murder of a woman in a Chabad center in Poway, spurred the new governor to action.
“We are actively monitoring over 80 hate groups in California,” he said, referring to a joint task force made up of the Office of Emergency Services, state and local law enforcement. “We have been active in this space since the day I got into office. In my first meeting with the OES, I expected the conversation to be about wildfires; it was a conversation about white supremacy.”
He said the issue of anti-Semitism recently hit home in a personal way when his 7-year-old son — one of four Newsom children — came home one day and asked his father if he was Jewish. A good friend had asked him that same question at school, and then said he “hates Jewish people.”
A shocked Newsom told his son, “Yes, we are … just not 100 percent,” given that there are Jewish cousins in the extended Newsom clan. “I wanted him to feel the assault, and appreciate that it wasn’t right.”
As governor, he converted his outrage into policy.
“When it came time to look at the budget, it wasn’t hard to put $15 million into hardening [synagogue security],” he said. “It wasn’t difficult to look at the Holocaust museum in L.A. and say we need $6 million more. It wasn’t difficult for me, having been a Tawonga kid, to look at the Woolsey and Tubbs fires and say, you know what, Jewish camps changed my life. I remember like yesterday how they shaped who I am.”
Though Newsom paints a positive picture of California’s health, he acknowledges that the bitter political divisions and seeming paralysis when it comes to issues like gun violence, immigration and climate change present serious challenges nationwide.
But the governor is upbeat about the country’s ability to recover. “We’ll work through Trump and Trumpism. We are California. The future happens here first.”