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Thursday January 17th, 2019 10:29PM

California governor brings personal touch, fresh focus

By The Associated Press
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Gavin Newsom held his toddler son during his inaugural address, spent nearly two hours discussing his state budget with reporters and engaged in two Twitter spats with the president.

Newsom, 51, took office Monday and quickly dove into governing the nation's most populous state, but with a different focus and touch than his 80-year-old predecessor, fellow Democrat Jerry Brown.

Newsom, a father of four, placed expanding early education and paid leave at the center of a family-friendly platform he outlined in his inaugural address, which delivered a signature image when Newsom's 2-year-old son, Dutch, wandered on stage. Newsom didn't miss a beat, picking up his son and continuing to talk as he cradled him.

Three days later, when he announced his budget plan, Newsom seemed to enjoy his lengthy dialogue with the media and showed a deep grasp of the facts and figures.

"Wait 'til next year, you'll have to sit here for four hours," he told reporters. "I love this stuff."

Brown usually kept the media at arm's length. When his budget plans were announced, he would appear briefly but let his finance director delve into details.

Newsom "has a style that's much more interactive," said Kim Nalder, a professor of government at California State University-Sacramento. Newsom's on-stage moment with his son, she said, "sort of broke the mold for what we think the gravitas of the office requires."

Newsom, like Brown, so far isn't releasing a daily schedule of his whereabouts. On Friday, he made an unannounced trip to the Central Valley to discuss clean drinking water with residents. His budget proposes a new tax to help clean up contaminated water. 

After eight years as lieutenant governor, Newsom won the governorship in a landslide over Republican John Cox. In his inaugural address, he said he would work to gain the trust and support of rural Californians, millions of whom didn't vote for him.

Newsom's first public appearance after the inauguration was in Placer County, which he lost in November. He wore jeans and sneakers as he discussed wildfire safety and stressed his personal connection to the Sierra Nevada foothills county where his father had lived.

Brown was a harsh critic of Trump but picked his battles. Newsom overtly blasted the White House's "corruption and incompetence" in his inaugural address and in his first week hit back twice, on Twitter, at Trump's threats to withhold emergency money for fire victims and flood projects.

"The President of the United States is trying to take funds away from California communities devastated by natural disasters to pay for an immoral wall that America doesn't need or want," Newsom tweeted Friday.

Newsom showcased his policy chops when he discussed details of his budget plan, which pledges to pay down California's debts while investing in housing and education. Whether his projection for a gigantic $21.5 billion surplus comes to bear and allows him to do it will become clear in coming months.

While Brown often warned the Legislature was too quick to spend money or pass new laws, Newsom has eagerly engaged lawmakers.

"This budget, I think, reflects a lot of their priorities in advance in ways that, with respect, the previous administration's budget didn't," Newsom said.

Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting, the chair of the budget committee, said he appreciates Newsom's willingness to tackle big issues. But lawmakers still plan to give the budget a critical eye.

"We'll be dissecting every piece of that budget," he said. "The devil's all in the details and we'll figure out whether we agree with what he put in."

Newsom frequently stressed his respect for his predecessor and that he understands the need to guard against an economic downturn, but he hinted he'll make major changes to some of Brown's top priorities.

"I pledge more transparency, more accountability," Newsom said of the troubled high-speed rail project. "I'm going to be more honest about what is it, what it isn't."

He even said he'll engage on a third-rail of California politics: tax reform, a topic Brown wasn't eager to take on. Newsom has no immediate proposals, but said he hopes a 2020 ballot measure to restructure property taxes will be a jumping-off point for a wider conversation.

California relies heavily on income tax on the top earners and, through Proposition 13, limits what local governments can collect in property taxes.

"Gov. Brown had no interest in this even at the peak of his power and influence with all his history, so I'm not suggesting I'm going to walk in here and we're going to get new tax reform," Newsom said.

The biggest question going forward is whether he can deliver on his promises, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

As she put it, "Gavin's on his honeymoon."

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