Gavin Newsom at Genesis Church in Sacramento
Gov. Gavine Newsom speaks at Genesis Church in Sacramento on Monday. Image for video

As the crises cascade one upon the other — pandemic, economic decline and racial conflict — Democrat Gavin Newsom’s governorship bears an increasingly eery resemblance to that of Republican Pete Wilson three decades earlier.

Both entered the office with ambitious plans for transforming government.

Wilson, a former mayor of San Diego, gave up a seat in the U.S. Senate because he wanted to be a Tory reformer in the mold of Earl Warren with “preventive government” — identifying and dealing with burgeoning social and economic issues proactively, before they became crises.

Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco, moved up the ladder from the lieutenant governorship, where he had little authority but publicly embraced a theory of governmental reform centered on the use of high technology, and promised proactive assaults on homelessness, poverty and other long-festering problems.

Both men, however, were forced to set aside their ambitious agendas as crises erupted, one after the other.

When Wilson succeeded fellow Republican George Deukmejian, he found himself dealing with the fallout of a national economic downturn, and later quipped, “Duke, is there perhaps something you forgot to tell me?” But a relatively moderate national recession mushroomed into a major one in California with the virtual collapse of Southern California’s aerospace/defense industry, thanks to the abrupt end of the Cold War.

For the rest of Wilson’s first term he negotiated — and often bickered — with legislators, including fellow Republicans, over spending cuts, taxes and borrowing to close the state’s growing budget deficits. But as he did, other crises, both natural and human-caused, continued to appear.

The two biggest were the deadly rioting that exploded in Los Angeles after policemen were acquitted of beating black motorist Rodney King in 1992, and a major earthquake that struck Los Angeles in 1994, but there were many other smaller incidents. At one time or another, Wilson issued disaster proclamations for every California county.

Wilson was visibly disappointed at the hand fate dealt him, knowing that his “preventive government” concept was doomed. However, he figuratively shrugged his shoulders and, however reluctantly, transformed himself into a hands-on crisis manager.

It seemed for a while that Wilson would lose his bid for a second term in 1994. But he also was a junkyard dog campaigner and wound up with a landslide victory over Democrat Kathleen Brown and even made a very brief run for president in 1996.

Two of Newsom’s crises echo two of Wilson’s — demonstrations of outrage about the suffocation of a black man, George Floyd, being held down by a Minneapolis policeman that became riotous, and a sharp recession stemming from the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like Wilson, Newsom deployed National Guard troops to dampen the violence in Los Angeles, and like Wilson, Newsom has proposed a traditional recipe for dealing with budget deficits — spending cuts, off-the-book borrowing and new revenues unpopular in the Legislature.

Wilson’s governorship obviously turned out to be markedly different than what he wanted. And so far, Newsom’s governorship seems to be following a similar arc — forced to set aside what he wants to do to do what circumstances dictate he must do.

“There’s a humility because of your own feeling of inadequacy to meet everybody’s needs,” Newsom told California Sunday magazine. “What comes at you every single day is a deep overwhelm, and every day you feel that way. It’s like a coral reef. It keeps amassing on top of each other. So every day becomes even more challenging than the next, because you realize you still have to attend to last week’s work.”

Pete Wilson would understand.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.