As I listened to California Gov. Gavin Newsom lambaste Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for being evil enough to use poor migrants from South America to fire up his deplorable followers, it occurred to me that Newsom was right about DeSantis but not innocent himself.
Newsom is preferable to DeSantis for obvious and numerous reasons. DeSantis represents the worst of a sick culture of political grievance. He appeals to an angry minority of voters who get off when their “leaders” pull off stunts such as flying Venezuelan migrants to Massachusetts to “own the libs.” As long as someone like DeSantis passes for a presidential hopeful, our nation is still in danger of falling prey to Republicans who believe in hatred but not democracy.
Standing next to a specimen as revolting as DeSantis, Newsom looks pretty as a picture, and he knows it. In fact, picking a fight with DeSantis is classic Newsom. Above all, California’s governor is skilled in the power of symbolism to generate headlines and campaign contributions while posing little risk to himself or his brand. Being so politically safe that he doesn’t even have to mention his GOP opponent in November’s election, he has a clear field to challenge DeSantis to a debate that seems unlikely to happen.
Newsom, who freely shows compassion, would never exploit poor and powerless people as cruelly as DeSantis has. The Florida governor, who smiles with his lips but not his eyes, is not above sneering at schoolchildren wearing masks in a pandemic because that sort of thing really hacks him off.
But if we’re telling the sober truth about our representatives, we should also take stock of who Newsom really is.
Newsom is the man who refuses to sign a bill to make it easier for California farmworkers to organize. Newsom is the governor of a state whose school kids are dead last in literacy. As EdSource wrote of the state last month: “Half of its third graders, including two-thirds of Black students and 61% of Latino students, do not read at grade level.”
Newsom is the statewide standard-bearer of a Democratic Party that is seeing softening support among Latino voters. The top issue by far for Latinos, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, is the economy, and Democrats have seen their support on that score erode greatly.
It was clear to me why that is when Newsom spoke to McClatchy’s California editorial boards last week. The governor came across as a wealthy San Francisco liberal, waxing poetic about the late labor leader Cesar Chavez and emphasizing that he considers the iconic activist Dolores Huerta a mentor.
But he won’t sign legislation that would allow farmworkers to choose their representatives by a mail vote. Virtually all other union employees in the state can do this, but not farmworkers — the most vulnerable workers in the United States.
Newsom is a grower and a restaurant owner, a beneficiary of industries propped up by cheap Mexican labor. He looks terrible for not giving farmworkers rights already guaranteed to other workers.
It was laudable that Newsom nominated Alex Padilla to be a U.S. senator, making him the first California Latino to hold the office.
But Padilla’s ascendancy is not a substitute for supporting immigrant workers who put food on our tables. It’s not a substitute for improving the public schools that are failing Latino kids, Black kids, poor kids, Southeast Asian kids and homeless kids. It’s not a substitute for closing the achievement gap in schools and the wealth gap in an economy that leaves Latinos behind.
Newsom gets away with taking Latino voters for granted because they let him. They turned out in big numbers, more than 70% in the 2021 recall, because Republicans are so inept and bigoted that Latino voters have nowhere else to go but with Democrats in California.
To be sure, Newsom is not a menacing figure like DeSantis — far from it.
He’s more like a two-faced friend who remains superficially friendly, who smiles broadly if not vacantly in your direction, so long as doing so doesn’t conflict with his interests.