AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
California Governor Gavin Newsom, who spent much of 2022 organizing a shadow challenge against Joe Biden, has problems aplenty in his home state in 2023, many of which are self-inflicted. Yet rather than addressing them, he and California Democrats seem set to use the budget shortfall and a debate over reparations to crush remaining opposition to their rule over the state.
California faces a nearly $23 billion budget shortfall, which may make Newsom’s decision to fritter away a nearly $100 billion budget surplus over the preceding two years appear less than wise. The bill is now coming due for the largess which Newsom used in part to secure his victory in the 2021 recall election and his 2022 reelection.
Fiscal mismanagement is not the only bill for Newsom’s self-aggrandizement that is now coming due. In the heady days of the summer of 2020, the State of California commissioned a body to look into methods of paying reparations to African Americans. At the time, it was a free gesture to the omnipresent social justice zeitgeist. Politicians are always happy to virtue signal when it costs them nothing, but are remarkably skimpy when taking any action that carries a cost.
“CA just became the first state in the nation to mandate the study and development of proposals for reparations. Our past is one of slavery, racism, and injustice. Our systems were built to oppress people of color. It’s past time we acknowledge that.”
So Governor Newsom proudly proclaimed on his official Twitter account when he signed the bill into law on September 30, 2020. At the time, BLM had swept elite opinion not just within the Democrat Party, but much of America’s corporate and social elite as well. Senator Mitt Romney marched with BLM activists in Washington, D.C. that summer.
For Newsom, it looked like a solid bet. If Biden lost, he would have taken a clear step to win the loyalty of the Democrat base. Even if Biden won in 2020, there was at the time a widespread assumption even among Democrats that he would be a one-term president, thus leaving the door open for a Newsom presidential run in 2024.
But nothing testifies to the ruthless cynicism of Gavin Newsom’s political career more than his willingness to embrace the most extreme causes with nary a second thought when they appear advantageous, and then to dispense with them when the political winds, or his own needs shift.
Since 2020, the popular appeal of Black Lives Matter has faded, along with California’s budget surplus. Joe Biden not only won the election, but is seeking reelection, despite Newsom’s flirtation with a shadow campaign. While Newsom survived a recall in 2021, and then won reelection in 2022, the experiences seem to have attracted his attention to a potential backlash closer to home. His margin in 2022, at 58 percent to 42 percent, was the smallest for any Democrat candidate in 12 years.
There were other signs that Californians were becoming fed up with progressive politics as well. In San Francisco, three members of the school committee were recalled for, among other things, seeking to rename schools named after Abraham Lincoln. San Francisco voters also recalled Chesa Boudin, their far-left District Attorney who placed “social justice” above public safety.
Newsom is unlikely to face a Democrat primary before 2028, if ever. But if he is not careful, he might have to face angry California voters even sooner.
This goes a long way to explaining his shift in tone when it comes to the reparations proposals. Dealing with the legacy of discrimination “is about much more than cash payments,” the Governor told reporters this week, when asked about the Task Force’s proposal to reward black residents of California payments of up $1.2 million each if they could prove to have suffered under specific areas of discrimination, or that their ancestors had done so.
In fairness to the Task Force, nominally at least the payments are not purely racial, but rather based on proving that oneself or one’s ancestors suffered discrimination on the basis of black identity. In theory this would exclude recent immigrants, but in practice, the extensive and near all-encompassing definitions of both eligibility and discrimination seem more like a (probably futile) sop to legal challenges under the 14th Amendment than actual attempts at nuance.
Areas of discrimination include “mass incarceration,” for which “the proposal suggests providing $115,260 per person in 2020 dollars — or $2,352 for each year of residency in the state since 1971, which was the first year of the war on drugs,” and healthcare disparities, “including environmental pollution and discrimination by health care workers — the task force recommended $13,619 per person for every year lived in California.” It went even further. “For those who faced discriminatory housing policies between 1933 and 1977, when redlining mostly occurred, the proposal suggested $148,099 per person, or $3,366 for each year.
These are astounding numbers, and they produce astounding totals, with estimates of the total cost ranging as high as $800 billion, almost four times California’s annual budget of $237 billion. Without a doubt this will not be paid, and Newsom’s remarks are a reflection of that reality. But there is a cynical threat in them to California residents as well, when he suggested that “it is about more than cash payments.”
Newsom seems to have grasped that in the debate about reparations there is a chance to kill several birds with one stone. By rejecting impossible demands for cash payments, he can acquire a fake moderate veneer. Then, he can use the Task Force’s identification of areas of historical discrimination to seize control of areas of the economy in California such as housing, healthcare, and law enforcement.
Newsom and California Democrats have long chafed at their power over all three. Fortified by Proposition 13, which freezes residential property taxes at the time of purchase, homeowners have resisted Democrat efforts to raise taxes or break up residential communities for favored developers. Democrats have long claimed Proposition 13 is “racist,” but by using the guise of reparations for housing discriminations, California Democrats can move to outlaw single-family zoning.
At the same time, local control of health provision and law enforcement frustrates Democrats. California became famous for how long it kept its schools closed during COVID-19, but that was more a reflection of the power of the teachers’ unions than a policy preference by Sacramento. Newsom and the legislature would have liked to crack down on the public during COVID much more heavily than they did, but were prevented by the decentralized nature of California’s government.
Local sheriffs publicly refused to enforce many COVID-19 restrictions, to the fury of Newsom. They have also openly defied Newsom’s efforts at gun control, with the legislature recently passing a law to restrict police from privately purchasing firearms. If Newsom can use the pretext of fighting discriminatory policy to shift control of law enforcement from local areas, where Republicans and moderate Democrats can win office, to Sacramento where they don’t stand a chance, it would allow him to eliminate opposition to his and the legislature’s social engineering agenda.
Control of education is another area where Californians should be concerned by Newsom’s ominous comment expanding the definition of reparations. In 1996 California Voters passed Proposition 209, which banned the use of race in admissions to the state university system. For Democrats, that act has become an original sin, the one legacy of Ronald Reagan’s California they have failed to erase despite decades of rule. In 2020, at the height of the George Floyd protests, they believed the time had come to erase it, and the legislature referred Proposition 16, which would have repealed Proposition 209, to the voters. It lost by a devastating 57 percent to 43 percent margin.
Democrats have raged at their defeat, and the counterattack against Woke DEI power in state schools in red states has only whetted their appetite to take full control of the California university system. If Newsom and Democrats can reclassify Affirmative Action not as racial preferences in admissions, but rather as a form of reparations in which a certain number of spots are set aside for victims of racism, they can use the expansive definition of discrimination provided by the task force to reverse the will of the voters.
All of these actions would do much to advance the power of California’s Democrat rulers, and remarkably little to help the supposed victims of discrimination, who if anything, would see worse housing, less safe streets, and a degrading higher education system.
But that might be why these measures would appeal to Sacramento even more than cash payments. At the end of the day, payments, even to favorable constituencies, are a diversion of money they do control in the state budget to money they do not. By contrast, a redefinition of “reparations” to involve allowing them to use the institutions of the state to their own ends, costs them almost nothing and provides profits.
That these policies will harm the African American middle and upper classes the most is beside the point. If those voters leave the state, along with the white middle class, it is an advantage. Democrats prefer a state inhabited by the very poor, who are dependent on their largesse, and the very rich, preferably tech corporations and firms which exist only on paper but pay extensive taxes. Actual workers are much more apt to complain about taxes, and homeowners about misgovernment.
This is something missing from analysis of the mass migration of taxpayers out of California. It is a feature, not a bug of the California model—at least to the people in charge. It serves to remove the very voters around whom opposition might coalesce. If stripping the few remaining red counties of their sheriffs, guns, schools, and housing values will make them pack up and move to Idaho, well, “good riddance” Newsom would say.
Both the embrace of reparations in 2020, and how Newsom has quietly transformed well-intentioned concerns about the ills of slavery into a power-grab for himself and his cronies, are illustrative of the nature of government in California and the attitudes of the current Democrat Party in blue states. Racial justice was not about fixing the problems, which is why Democrats lost interest in issues such as qualified immunity, civil forfeiture, or any of the issues brought up in Senator Tim Scott’s bill. For the left-wing ruling class, it’s all about the power.
California is unique not in its direction, but in how blatant its leaders are about what they are doing. That is the truly scary part of the entire reparations debate.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.