There was something almost poetic about this latest rendezvous.
Here was Gov. Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s former mayor, who ascended to the apex of California government.
Next to him stood Vice President Kamala Harris, another alum of San Francisco politics who climbed those same ranks at the same time, only to ascend further still, landing just short of the peak of American government.
And now, with Newsom facing what could be the most harrowing challenge of his political career, he was back in the Bay Area, though not in San Francisco, but in the East Bay — Harris’ turf. And he’s asking his oldest political frenemy to put in a good word just six days before the Sept. 14 recall.
“It was really important to me to come home today to stand and speak in support of my dear friend, my long-standing friend, a great California leader, a great American leader, Governor Gavin Newsom,” Harris said today before the gathered union members and party activists.
Newsom used the opportunity to lambast the top polling Republican replacement candidate, Larry Elder, as he has at virtually every public event for weeks.
“He doesn’t believe there’s a glass ceiling,” Newsom said. “Tell that to Kamala Harris, who shattered the glass ceiling as vice president of the United States.”
The outdoor rally, held in the parking lot of a union training center lot in San Leandro, drew a bevy of California Democrats: Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, state Controller Betty Yee, Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, Treasurer Fiona Ma, Democratic Party chairperson Rusty Hicks, Congressmember Barbara Lee and both Bontas — Rob, the attorney general and his wife Mia, who was sworn into her husband’s former Assembly seat on Tuesday.
“Even as our vice president has been working side by side with President Biden to beat back the COVID-19 pandemic and protect American interests around the world,” Lee said, “she’s always stayed rooted right here in her community.”
In one respect, Harris is only the latest big name party player to make the trek out west on Newsom’s behalf. Saturday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the main attraction at an anti-recall rally in Culver City, where she hyped Newsom and bad-mouthed Larry Elder, the leading Republican replacement candidate. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar hit the campaign trail in Orange County the next day.
Former President Barack Obama put out a vote no video today. And Californians can’t turn to YouTube these days without getting a plea from a pre-recorded Sen. Bernie Sanders. Don’t let “some right wing Republican governor” boot Newsom from office, he pleads in the widely distributed ad.
But a campaign stop by Harris means something else, said Corey Cook, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College in Moraga and a close watcher of San Francisco politics.
Other nationally renowned Democrats have done their best to raise the specter of a GOP victory, making a case that “has been less about Newsom and more about what might happen if Newsom loses,” said Cook.
But given her long, overlapping — if sometimes strained — relationship with the governor, Harris “can really mobilize the base with a message other than, ‘just vote against the guys you don’t like,’” Cook said.
“She can actually speak on behalf of Newsom in a way that is credible and more meaningful, maybe, than anybody else.”
There’s another obvious way Harris’ visit stands out. Sean Clegg, a Democratic political strategist who is advising Newsom in the recall and who has worked for Harris, spoke to a gaggle of reporters before the vice president arrived.
“Y’all are here,” he said. “I don’t think there were as many of you for Amy Klobuchar the other day.”
As someone who watched both Harris and Newsom ascend the ranks of San Francisco politics two decades ago, Zirl Wilson, sporting a purple Service Employees International Union T-shirt, said Harris has “great credibility” for him as a voter. “But then again, we’re not here for her, we’re here for Newsom.”
“We know this is just a call for the Republicans to come over and take over California,” he added.
Harris isn’t as popular as she used to be. Nationwide, only 43% of voters hold a favorable view of the vice president, compared to 50% who don’t, according to a Los Angeles Times poll aggregator.
But, importantly for Newsom, Harris remains well above water with voters in her home state. And she remains as popular as ever with Democrats, the voters Newsom is now most eager to turn out. According to a UC Berkeley survey from late July, the most recent statewide survey to ask the question, 77% of Democrats said they approve of the vice president’s handling of her job. Only 12% said they disapprove, with another 11% saying they were unsure.
Harris’ visit also hammers home the national import of the recall. As both Newsom — and paradoxically Elder, his prime Republican opponent — have stressed, whoever is governor would have the power to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate should one open up between now and 2023. If Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is 88, leaves office early, Elder has vowed to replace her with a Republican. That would tip control of the Senate to the GOP; it is now 50-50, with Harris able to break ties.
This isn’t the first time Harris has flown home to sing Newsom’s praises. When he was running for governor in 2018, Harris, the recently elected and quite popular junior senator hit the campaign trail with him.
And in April of this year, the vice president came to California to tout the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan and threw in a generous helping of praise for Newsom. “We are unambiguous in our support for Gov. Newsom,” she told reporters in Oakland.
Fraternal twins or frenemies?
The support between the two hasn’t always been so unambiguous.
Both ascended parallel career tracks of the San Francisco Democratic power at roughly the same time. They traveled in the same connected, well-heeled circles and each got early leg ups from Willie Brown, the former mayor and Democratic power broker. Both were elected to top executive spots in city government by running as moderates (by San Francisco standards) in 2003. Newsom became mayor, Harris became district attorney; both took their oaths of office on the same day.
And seven years later, both made the jump from San Francisco to Sacramento at the same time with Newsom becoming lieutenant governor and Harris becoming attorney general.
“There’s always been lots of tension and animosity there, but they suppress it pretty well,” said Garry South, a Democratic political strategist who ran Newsom’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
Political “fraternal twins” is how Clegg put it to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2014. “And if they ever run in the same race, it would be ‘a murder-suicide.’”
The two could-be rivals avoided that grisly outcome in 2015.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, first elected in 1992, was throwing in the towel and Gov. Jerry Brown was halfway through his fourth and final term. As longtime California political reporter Dan Morain wrote in his biography of the vice president, Harris and Newsom reached a solomonic kind of pact to divvy up the soon-to-be-vacant seats and go their separate ways. Harris would run for Boxer’s seat in D.C. and Newsom would make his claim on the governor’s mansion.
Six years later, their paths are crossing again.
“I’m out here to support her in any way we can,” said Brenda Okoli-Ugbiyobo, another SEIU worker from Oakland. “Because she’s here to support someone else. And that’s the way it is when you get up there — you reach back and pull other people up.”
Not that Newsom would likely appreciate that framing.
In 2008, the two rising stars met on equal footing at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Both were highlighted as “hotshots to watch” on a Time magazine panel, alongside Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark and now U.S. senator from New Jersey. Asked what united everyone on stage, Newsom said it was their self-determination: “We are not waiting for Air Force One to rescue us.”
This week, it’s just Air Force Two flying to Newsom’s rescue. The president is scheduled to follow suit early next week.
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