California Governor Gavin Newsom likes to brag about how much his administration has done to address climate change. In September, after he signed legislation investing in a series of climate measures, he boasted that his state was leading the nation—even the world!—on the issue. “That’s climate action done the California Way,” he enthused. “And we’re not only doubling down, we’re just getting started.”
Many assumed, then, that the governor would support a referendum on the ballot to tax the rich (an extra 1.75 percent on individual incomes over $2 million) to fund incentives and charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, as well as prevent wildfires. But what happened instead was curious. Newsom actually campaigned against Proposition 30. And because of the governor’s opposition, the measure did not pass.
Gavin Newsom tanked Proposition 30 in part because of his presidential ambitions. But his decision to do so should disqualify him from national office.
Newsom ran ads against the referendum, making much of the fact that Lyft, the ride-hail company, backed the measure. Newsom called the measure “one company’s cynical scheme to grab a huge taxpayer subsidy.”
This was absurd. The legislation would have helped Lyft in the sense that California law requires E.V.s to account for 90 percent of rideshare companies’ miles traveled by 2030, but since drivers pay for their own cars out of their own paltry incomes and the measure would also help regular Californians—especially poor people—to purchase E.V.s, Proposition 30 doesn’t meet even the broadest definition of “corporate welfare,” the faux-populist turn of phrase used by Newsom in one anti–Prop 30 ad.
Newsom’s posturing against a tech company was particularly cringeworthy, though, given his history: For anyone who’s been following Newsom closely, it would seem a bit late for the tech-supported politician to try to pretend he doesn’t love the Silicon Valley billionaire class.
While Newsom’s ads this midterm cycle tried to position him as a man of the people, protecting California from the rampaging tech bros, the reality is that the governor has a deep base among billionaires. Many, including Marissa Mayer, Eric Schmidt, and Reed Hastings, spent enormous sums—and signed onto a public letterto successfully beat back last year’s Republican recall campaign against him. Newsom has done nothing so far to alienate the superrich, and the more likely interpretation of his opposition to Prop 30 is that he doesn’t want to start now.
Newsom’s performance is particularly disgraceful when contrasted with Massachusetts, where attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Maura Healey supported a referendum to add an additional 4 percent tax on incomes over $1 million to fund education and public transportation. Both Healey and the referendum won voter approval on Election Day, the latter despite intense opposition by the ruling class, which spent heavily on ads against it.
A significant political difference in the two situations is that the Massachusetts measure was crafted to draw broad union support and unify the 99 percent around shared priorities. Teachers’ unions and transit advocates organized support for it. Proposition 30, unhappily, was opposed by the California Teachers Association, or CTA, which has a deplorable record of fighting any policy that it sees as a potential end run around that state’s funding formula for education. (There was no evidence that Proposition 30 would have taken any money away from the schools, as it would have been a new tax.) The CTA’s ads repeated the same absurd lie as Newsom’s: that Proposition 30 was a subsidy to Lyft.
This splitting of the Democratic base didn’t have to happen. There was no reason why education and the environment should have been pitted against one another. They’re on the same side: that of the future. It surely wouldn’t have been that hard for Newsom to have made Proposition 30 palatable to the CTA. But he doesn’t seem to have pushed for that, and the obvious conclusion to draw is that he simply didn’t want to tax the rich. The end result was that the unions colluded with an allegedly environmentalist governor in protecting Silicon Valley’s billions from the insult of being expropriated for the public good.
To be sure, Newsom is a world leader in setting timelines for climate action. California’s latest piece of climate legislation, passed and signed by Newsom in September, is a cornucopia of such promises: statewide carbon neutrality by 2045; 90 percent clean energy by 2035; and 95 percent by 2040. Even the bill’s name, “California Climate Commitment,” conveys Newsom’s airy style of politics. But the climate—and the people of California—need more than a “commitment.”
Setting timelines and making commitments doesn’t cost any money, and the rich donor class appreciates that. They’re fine with a world in which owning a Tesla is an eco-conscious gesture reserved for the few (“virtue hoarding,” in University of California-Irvine professor Catherine Liu’s evocative phrase). They like being praised for writing checks to environmental organizations but not having to pay higher taxes to support a real transformation of the energy economy.
Without the political work of turning them into reality, timelines are just paper. Newsom has shown that he may not have the chops for that work. In campaigning against Proposition 30, after all, he was effectively refusing to fund his own climate policy.
This isn’t the first time Newsom has been criticized for his decadent plutocratic intimacies. In 2020, he dined maskless with lobbyist “friends” at the French Laundry restaurant after telling regular people not to gather with their families at Thanksgiving. That was bad, but his mendacious campaign against Proposition 30 is of far more consequence.
By failing to turn his own climate promises into reality, Newsom showed that he’s less qualified to be a national leader than Joe Biden or even infamous climate policy equivocator Joe Manchin. It’s not too late for Newsom: He could still turn some of these pretty-sounding “commitments” into policy with a long-term plan to fund them. His billionaire friends wouldn’t like it, but voters—who are more concerned about climate now than at any time in history—might be impressed.