Zorro in, Yoda out as a new political era begins in California

5 January 2019 by Steve Blum
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Zorro 625 tall

California has had three democratic governors in the past 75 years: Pat Brown, Jerry Brown and Jerry Brown’s chief of staff. And the chief of staff – Gray Davis – didn’t end well. That changes on Monday, when Gavin Newsom is sworn in.

Jerry Brown earned his reputation as the wise old man at the California capitol. But he’s also a skilled operator, with the finest political mind in California. He would jump into a fight when it was both necessary and winnable, and he rarely, if ever lost. By contrast, Newsom is a crowdpleaser with a swashbuckling persona. He’ll have to duel with fellow Sacramento action heroes once the Jedi master leaves town.

Brown often accommodated telecoms companies that have political money to spend. He was willing to veto one giveaway to telcos in 2017, but he signed another. His office successfully pressured the CPUC to reverse its endorsement of net neutrality rules in 2014, allegedly to protect cash flows from AT&T, Comcast and other monopoly model broadband companies. Then last year, Brown signed California’s own net neutrality law, although it was a politically safe move because the real teeth had been taken out of it, and what was left was destined to be iced by federal courts.

Newsom has to decide to what degree he’ll please telecoms lobbyists who, he must hope, will continue to write big checks to him, to lawmakers and to party causes.

Newsom also has to fill a vacant seat on the California Public Utilities Commission. Who he appoints could say a lot about his priorities – or lack thereof – regarding utility policy in general and, perhaps, broadband policy in particular. Assuming no one resigns from the CPUC, Newsom will have one seat to fill in his first two years as governor. Carla Peterman, who came to the CPUC from the California Energy Commission, ended her term on Monday.

Brown began his third term as governor in 2011, and in his first three months appointed people to the CPUC who had a diverse range of industry experience. Mike Florio was a longtime attorney with TURN, a utility consumer advocacy group, Catherine Sandoval is a telecoms law professor and former FCC staffer, and Mark Ferron was a banker and tech financier. Over time, though, Brown shifted to appointing close aides with extensive political and, particularly, climate change portfolios, but virtually no industry or regulatory experience.

With more political debts to pay and none of Brown’s elder statesman gravitas, Newsom could succumb to pressure and appoint commissioners who appeal to allies with a special interest in the CPUC’s business. There’s no deadline for filling the vacant CPUC seat. Brown was about three weeks into his term when he made his first appointments. It’ll be interesting to see if Newsom can move as quickly.