Bill Clinton's nod galvanizes Newsom campaign in California

The former president threw his support in the gubernatorial primary to the San Francisco mayor. Some see payback against likely candidate Jerry Brown.

Paul Sakuma / AP
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is also running for Governor, speaks during a panel discussion at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. on Wednesday.

News that former President Bill Clinton is throwing his support behind San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for California governor has galvanized the fledgling Newsom campaign, thrown the spotlight on the gubernatorial Democratic primary – and has political pundits asking, “Why now?”

“Clinton and Newsom don’t necessarily equate on public policy and everyone is still waiting to see if Dianne Feinstein will run, so the only reason appears to be helping Newsom raise money,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento.

“Newsom clearly needs a shot in the arm and Bill Clinton has a large Rolodex for California,” she adds.

More importantly, analysts say Clinton’s support may be payback against Mr. Newsom’s potential rival, state attorney general Jerry Brown, for his accusation in the 1992 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination that Clinton had illegally steered state contracts to the Rose Law firm where his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a partner.

Bill Clinton’s endorsement may have more to do with “supporting anyone who is not Jerry Brown,” says Jessica Levinson, political analyst for the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, adding, “to say there is bad blood between Clinton and Brown is an understatement.”

Clinton may also be rewarding Newsom for his early endorsement of Hillary in last year’s race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton is likely to be at least two campaign events this year.

Whatever the motivation, experts say the Clinton endorsement will clearly help Newsom’s chances outside San Francisco. Clinton is well-known and well-liked in California – and is particularly hot at the moment for his role in negotiating the release of two California journalists from North Korea.

“Clinton will bring star power, not to mention the star dollars, to Newsom’s campaign,” says Ms. Levinson.

The wider race has been otherwise lackluster. Besides Democrats Brown – who has not yet formally entered the race – and Newsom, there are three Silicon Valley-ites vying for the GOP nomination. They are former US Representative Tom Campbell, current state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, and former eBay chief Meg Whitman.

All the candidates have been giving speeches without specifics on the state’s hot button issues – budget, taxes, education, prisons – mostly because they don’t want to take any risks at this early stage, analysts say.

However, a statewide Field poll from March shows all five would lose to US Sen. Dianne Feinstein if she were to run. Senator Feinstein's communication director Gil Duran said she hasn’t made a decision yet on whether to run.

Without Senator Feinstein in the race, Brown leads with 26 percent of Democratic voters favoring him, while Newsom is the choice of 16 percent.


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