At first glance, Gavin Newsom quitting the race for governor represents a splendid stroke of blind luck for Jerry Brown: The San Francisco mayor’s sudden withdrawal not only removed the only obstacle currently in Brown’s path to the Democratic nomination, but also eclipsed in the news cycle a damaging story that poses danger to the attorney general’s campaign.
Upon further review, however, Newsom dropping out may present at least as many risks as opportunities for Brown, who may now attract a level of scrutiny he has so far managed to avoid.
A wild day on the Democratic side of the governor’s race began with revelations that a key aide to the attorney general admitted he had surreptitiously and illicitly taped phone calls with reporters, an astonishingly stupid -– and possibly illegal -– act for a high-profile staff member serving in the office of California’s highest ranking law enforcement officer. With the implications of that disclosure just beginning to set in, Newsom’s unexpected move quickly diverted the attention of California’s political press, which took off in full bay to chase that story.
Newsom had for weeks denied persistent rumors of his withdrawal, even petulantly blaming them on Brown. But his inability to raise enough cash for the table stakes needed to make a serious run, coupled with his failure to articulate a compelling message, or even a clear rationale, for his candidacy, had kept his nascent campaign from ever getting off the ground, making his Friday announcement far from a total surprise.
Looking back, Newsom’s effort peaked on the morning of September 15, when his campaign announced — with a juicy leak to Teddy Davis at ABC News — that former President Bill Clinton planned to endorse him and to help him raise money to challenge Brown. The mayor’s partisans and his cheerleaders in the press and political class proclaimed it a major political development –- pollster Ben Tulchin, for example, excitedly called it a “game changer” –- while the candidate himself predicted Clinton’s blessing would trigger a big swing in the polls.
It did nothing of the kind. When Clinton showed up in the state, he offered a few bland words of praise for Newsom, but nothing like a ringing endorsement, and expectations for the big presidential fundraiser completely flopped, with the campaign collecting only a few hundred thousands dollars after all the build-up. Things looked so gruesome for Newsom that Southern California sources told Calbuzz that Clinton spent part of his trip to L.A. brainstorming with pal Ron Burkle about other candidates they could entice into the race to go up against Brown, Bubba’s arch enemy. Instead of closing the polling gap, Newsom fell to 20-points behind Brown in the Field Poll.
Beyond the clear political imperatives, Newsom portrayed his decision to drop out as a variation of the old spend more time with the family yarn –- he does, after all, have a newborn baby at home. We’ll take him at his word on that, but also recall that this is a guy who cavorted in an affair with the wife of his top aide and close friend –- so it’s always possible there’s more to the story than now appears.
That aside, Newsom will be way old news by the time the political obituaries for his short-lived campaign are published in the Sunday papers, by which time erstwhile rival Brown may have begun to experience the down side of being the last man standing in the Democratic race, seven months before the primary.
Until now, Brown has managed to escape much scrutiny, partly by laying in the weeds and playing coy about his obvious ambitions to run again for governor, and partly because Newsom was the new kid on the block and so naturally invited more media attention than the crusty 71-year old attorney general whose foibles and triumphs are far more well-known.
Now unopposed by anyone in his party, Brown on one level is in the enviable position that then-Senator Pete Wilson enjoyed in the 1990 governor’s race. He and his supporters had cleared the primary field, giving the candidate and his crafty campaign team the great luxury of time to raise rivers of cash, while watching as Democrats Dianne Feinstein and John Van de Kamp tried to tear each other’s faces off for months. When an exhausted Feinstein won the battle, a tanned, rested and ready Wilson came out swinging the day after she won the nomination, and never stopped until he’d won the governorship .
But timing is everything in politics, and Brown now finds himself standing in a big pile of yucky goo that threatens to splash him with a stain of scandal if he doesn’t move quickly to contain it. If he fails to do so, it’s still not too late for a Democratic challenger to emerge –- Treasurer Bill Lockyer is the only possibility that seems to make sense at the moment, although rumors about Jane Harman, Steve Westly and even Antonio Villaraigosa were already rippling among those who monger gossip about such matters.
Brown wasted little time Friday putting press spokesman Scott Gerber on “administrative leave,” whatever that is exactly, after the flack admitted taping the Chronicle’s Carla Marincucci and other, so far unidentified, reporters, without their knowledge and while in the office of the attorney general.
But that’s not going to put the matter to rest, as the episode raises far more questions than there are answers to date. For starters, Gerber wasn’t alone during the taping: the Chronicle story states that Chief Deputy Attorney General Jim Humes and Jonathan Renner, a senior assistant attorney general, were both on the conference call with Marinucci and so presumably knew of the taping, which seems to violate at least the spirit, if not the letter, of Penal Code 630-638.
Beyond the fact that Brown’s right-hand man was on the scene, it’s also troubling that the subject of the interview was particularly politically sensitive – the attorney general’s wording for the title and summary of a ballot measure regulating auto insurance rates backed by the Mercury General insurance company, which has donated at least $13,000 to Brown’s campaign, according to the Marinucci and other news reports.
That the AG’s men were nervous about Marinucci’s story is demonstrated by the fact that Gerber reportedly called her editor to complain about what she posted on web after the call; while going over her head, Gerber referred to a transcript of the interview, in the process spilling the beans about the illicit taping all over his lap.
After Gerber was suspended, another Brown flack issued a statement saying that the AG was unaware of the taping:
“Mr. Gerber’s recording of certain telephone conversations was done without Attorney General Brown’s knowledge and in direct violation of explicit directions regarding office policy,” Christine Gasparac of Brown’s press office told the Chron.
But what about Humes and Renner? Did they tell Brown and, if so, when? If they knew about the taping, why aren’t they suspended too? How many reporters has Gerber taped? About what subjects? When? Why? Who knew about the taping, if not Brown? Why didn’t he know? Did Brown’s office improperly rewrite ballot prop language on behalf of a campaign contributor? And on and on, leading to the key, bottom line question of all such matters:
What did Jerry know and when did he know it?