Bottom line on the California Democratic Party convention: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom made the biggest splash and showed off a slick campaign operation but Attorney General Jerry Brown proved anew that, even without a campaign apparatus, his political presence remains commanding.
Newsom’s well-delivered speech, ubiquitous team of volunteers, flashy street party and fireside chat for bloggers signaled to potential donors, activists and cognoscenti that his nascent campaign for governor is for real.
But his effort to frame the 2010 Democratic primary as a generational battle of future versus past – casting Brown as a “stroll down memory lane” – was far from convincing. Portraying Brown as the political status quo is like trying to paint Mick Jagger as musically obsolete.
For starters, Brown is still the smartest guy in the room, and trying to outflank him as the avatar of ideas, new or old, will be a tough sell among those who tend to vote in Democratic primaries.
While Newsom (a Hillary supporter, BTW) spent the weekend trying to position himself as Obama to Brown’s Clinton, General Jerry delivered a Jim Hightower-like jeremiad to the convention, filled with rips and roars at financial insiders and white collar criminals. In tone and substance it seemed closer to tapping the populist zeitgeist of these financially troubled times than did Newsom’s effort to fight the last war.
Voters fed up with Governor Arnold’s shattered promises to “blow up boxes” and sweep clean the mess in Sacramento may well be in the mood for less “change” and more common sense, which happens to be Brown’s political meme du jour.
Still, Brown was exposed, once again, as deficient in the organizational department. While Newsom already has a smooth, if expensive, functioning campaign machine, Brown HQ is still the Jerry & Anne Show, with the extraordinary energy and smarts of his wife providing what passes for his campaign structure.
In preparing to speak to the delegates, Newsom rehearsed his carefully crafted speech on a teleprompter. There was an actual text. Brown showed up with no text, no talking points, and having had no pre-game discussion with advisers about narratives or theme.
For us the most telling moment of the weekend came as we talked with Brown in the driveway of the old governor’s mansion in the cool, camellia-scented air of early Saturday evening. Surrounded by supporters, he was upbeat and feeling good about his speech, so good that he asked Calbuzz if we had a transcript, or at least a tape, of his convention address that he could borrow. (Note to Jerry: talk to John Burton – the party records these things).
Polls show Brown begins the race with a solid base of one-third of the Democratic vote, so he has plenty of time to assemble a campaign operation. But running for governor in 2010 will not be like he remembers it from 1974. Whether Brown will have the discipline and mindfulness to hire professionals and actually listen to them remains uncertain.
Newsom meanwhile has some stylistic problems of his own. He’s perilously close to turning his Twitter/Facebook/You Tube campaign into a kind of cyber-narcissism where the motto seems to be “Yes I Can.”
In his zeal to frame the race as future versus past he also runs the risk of sounding like he’s rallying the young to dump senior citizens on ice floes, in a primary where older voters vastly outnumber younger ones. During a Saturday meeting with bloggers, he started to walk back from that position when he said, “It’s not about young versus old. It’s about whether we’re going to move forward in a new direction or whether we’re going to look back. It’s not about attacking people. It’s about attacking the status quo.”
For Newsom, the weekend was as much a branding exercise as a campaign event. Because he’s still largely an unknown, and trails Brown 2-to-1, he did exactly what he needed to do by putting a strong personal stamp on the convention. At this point, the one thing most people know about him is the endlessly replayed “whether they like it or not” Mr. Smarty Pants moment, when he did an arrogant little touchdown dance in celebrating the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision.
At least twice at the convention, we heard him try to re-brand the phrase. “Whether they like it or not – my name’s Gavin Newsom, and I’m here to get things started,” he said in his speech opening. Calbuzz thinks he may be better off just letting it go lest the repetitions become a repeating reel in a future negative TV spot.
Still, whatever Newsom did or didn’t accomplish, it was a helluva’ lot better than what Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa did, namely reprise Billy Bob Thornton’s role in “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” No political professionals we talked to at the convention buy his consultant’s spin: he enjoys the luxury of waiting until late July to launch because the electorate will be 35 percent Latino, and he’ll win 90 percent of that.
Tony V’s mouthpiece did get off a good shot at Newsom – who has his own gnarly $438 million budget deficit in San Francisco – the day before the convention, sniping that his boss would not “Twitter while Rome burns.” But one line does not a campaign presence make. For Villaraigosa, the bottom line is that the convention was a flat-out missed opportunity, to recruit and fire up some troops, and to show he’s got the stuff of a governor in him.
In case you didn’t hear: In a major slap at their own legislative leaders, Democratic delegates on Sunday refused to endorse three of the six ballot measures on the May 19 special election ballot. The rejection of Prop. 1A from the left, when it’s already under attack from the Republican right-wing, does not portend well for the centerpiece of the Schwarzenegger-Democrat budget deal.