SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California Gov. Gavin Newsom spent the summer campaigning to keep his job and, with a landslide victory in hand, he's continued pushing progressive California further left.
In the four weeks after beating back a recall attempt, the Democrat signed laws that require gender-neutral displays of children's toys and toothbrushes in large department stores, made it illegal to remove a condom without consent during intercourse and cleared the way for a nation's first ban on the sale of new gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers.
He also made it illegal to film someone near an abortion clinic for the purpose of intimidation, banned secret employment settlements involving harassment or discrimination and limited the use of rubber bullets by police during protests. He even prohibited restaurants from handing out ketchup packets and other disposable condiments unless customers ask for them.
California is among the deepest blue states in the country — Democrats control all statewide offices and have super majorities in the Legislature, which nowadays often acts as a laboratory for liberal policies that would not get to a vote in many other states. The governor wields immense power over what becomes law because California lawmakers rarely override vetoes.
If this had been a normal non-election year, Newsom might have been more cautious heading into his 2022 re-election campaign. But in early September, just three days into the 30-day period the governor has to review legislation, Newsom convincingly beat back the Republican-led effort to oust him.
Just three days after that election, Newsom signed two laws aimed at limiting single-family zoning in California, a stark change for a state with many communities that define suburban sprawl but now faces an affordable housing shortage.
In all, Newsom signed 92% of the bills lawmakers put on his desk — the highest percentage during his three years in office, according to an analysis by veteran lobbyist Chris Micheli, who has tracked gubernatorial vetoes for years.
The result was “oodles of progressive legislation and oodles of virtual signaling," said Bill Whalen, a policy fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University.
“Traditionally, we have governors who have been more centrist than Newsom,” he said. “With the recall now gone, this is a governor who is really not threatened in any way.”
But what counts as progressive in most of the country can be seen as moderate in California.
Newsom angered many among the state's left wing with his vetoes, including blocking a bill that would have required state contractors to confirm their supply chains don't contribute to tropical deforestation.
He also axed a bill that would have made jaywalking legal, a move advocates have said is needed because police disproportionally stop and ticket Black people for the offense.
And he halted a bill that would have let farm workers vote by mail in union elections, a decision that made some workers so angry they marched in protes t to the French Laundry, the fancy restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area where Newsom was famously photographed dining without a mask during the pandemic. The scene of Newsom out with lobbyist friends while telling others to stay home helped drive the recall effort.
In the weeks leading up to the recall, lawmakers said that the Newsom administration was unusually involved in the legislative process, prompting a flurry of amendments to tailor bills to his liking. He signed a law making California the first state to prohibit mega-retailers like Amazon from firing workers for missing quotas that interfere with bathroom and rest breaks.
But he insisted on lawmakers removing language ordering regulators to impose a statewide standard on reasonable work speeds, according to Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the author of the bill.
“From somebody who considers themselves probably to the left of this governor, ... I don’t think he went all that far,” said Gonzales, a Democrat from San Diego and chair of the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee. “If you look at some of the bills, as they started, and then where they ended up because of input by the administration, then ... you kind of see what’s happening.”
Lawmakers did not send Newsom as many bills as they normally would. The pandemic limited where and how often lawmakers could hold committee hearings, prompting legislative leaders to limit lawmakers to authoring 12 bills each. And this was the first year of a two-year legislative session, so many of the most controversial proposals were delayed for consideration until next year.
One bill would have eliminated the crime of loitering with the intent to commit prostitution, a law advocates have said targets Black women and transgender people. The bill passed the Legislature, but the author decided not to send it to Newsom yet.
Gonzalez believes lawmakers “had a lot of self-regulation" during the session, cognizant that forcing polarizing issues on Newsom could hurt him in the recall election.
But Sen. Sydney Kamlager, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said few lawmakers would have delayed bills because they were worried about how it would impact Newsom's political future, saying “legislators also have egos.” She said the governor is “always involved” with legislation.
“You would want a governor or an administration to be involved, you know, because policy that doesn’t fit or can’t be implemented just ends up becoming a dream,” she said.
Next year, lawmakers could send Newsom legislation to regulate health care prices and impose COVID vaccine or testing mandates for employers, decisions the governor must make amid his re-election campaign. But those decisions could be easier for Newsom now that the recall has affirmed his political strength, despite protests from Republicans. Newsom defeated the recall attempt by more than 60% of the vote.
“Life has become harder and more expensive for families, yet Democrats focus on things like banning to-go ketchup packets and gas-powered lawn mowers,” sate Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk said. “I hope that 2022 brings some common-sense to Sacramento.”