Why Isn't Gavin Newsom Running His Campaign More Like Bernie Sanders?

As whispers grew louder that Gov. Gavin Newsom's recall campaign was having trouble gaining traction with Latino voters, first in the Spring and then again in August, with a spate of stories about how Latinos weren't engaged, Democrats tapped their personal connections to see what could be done.

One plugged-in operative reached out to Chuck Rocha, a consultant widely credited as the architect of Sen. Bernie Sander's successful Latino outreach during the 2020 primary.

It was a straightforward request: reach out to the Newsom campaign leadership and see if they could use his help.

Rocha contacted the campaign twice, the operative told Newsweek, but twice received no response.

Rocha declined a Newsweek request for comment.

But those involved with Bernie Sanders' decisive win in California during a hotly contested primary say Newsom would be in stronger position if he tapped into the approach the Vermont senator took, starting with hiring his former senior staff.

"If Gavin Newsom really wanted the results like Bernie got in California, he should have hired the folks that gave Bernie the win in California," said Daniel Andalon, a 25-year Democratic campaign veteran who held the high-pressure role of Los Angeles area director for Sanders in 2020. "People like Chuck, people with similar philosophies, who were given resources early on."

After recent criticism on the campaign's Latino outreach, the campaign responded to Newsweek by detailing its $6 million budget for outreach to Hispanics, and its firm belief that its robust field effort would be a key to victory.

The top spots in Newsom's recall campaign staff are filled by veterans of the Kamala Harris, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Cory Booker campaigns. One notable exception is in digital outreach, which is led by key former Sanders staffer Tim Tagaris and his firm Aisle 518. Tagaris, a former Sanders senior advisor in 2020, was digital fundraising director in 2016 when he raised $218 million.

One obvious problem with Newsom running his campaign like Sanders, however, is that he is not a Democratic socialist, and it's difficult to emulate the man often held up as the gold standard in progressive politics.

His former California state director Rafael Návar told Newsweek that Sanders had a fundamental alignment with frontline workers and people suffering inequality post-2008.

"Bernie was speaking to that deep frustration, and Newsom doesn't have that politics unfortunately," he said.

Návar recalled the bad optics of Newsom's dinner last November at the opulent French Laundry in Napa — twice named the best restaurant in the world — a costly gourmet feast held maskless while his state was in the deadly grip of a surging COVID-19 for which he had imposed statewide restrictions.

That view of his politics is why Návar said he would have declined if he was asked to join Newsom's team. He reiterated, though, the anger Latinos in the state are feeling, and said the governor could be doing more to tap into it.

"The right team helps him withstand the blows, but Latinos are hungry for something different and they're not getting it," he said, invoking the high pandemic death rates within the community.

Návar said that Sanders outreach efforts included six California area directors, the hiring of organizers from the within community, and mapping out heavily-Latino districts across the state.

"There's a real anger and frustration that's difficult to meet without building something comparable in the field," he said.

That level of organization was critical in withstanding a late push by former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who pumped millions of dollars into The Golden State but still lost.

Despite recognizing that Newsom and Sanders are not ideologically comparable, some elected officials in California wish he would have pushed the state to be more progressive.

Vincente Saramiento, an early Sanders supporter, was elected as mayor of Santa Ana in Orange County in 2020. The city that Ronald Reagan chose to hold a Labor Day rally to kick off his re-election campaign in 1984 broke an 80-year streak of voting for Republicans when it supported Clinton in 2016 and then Joe Biden in 2020.

Santa Ana, where the median age is 33, is the kind of city where progressive politics is flourishing, Mayor Saramiento told Newsweek, and where young people and Latinos want to see more action on affordable housing, food insecurity, health care and education.

"The governor at his heart is progressive, but it just seems like some of us would like him to be more bold in his policies," he said, which would "capture the imagination of 18- to 35-year-olds, where we've seen a much larger presence of them in the electorate."

Saramiento said that while the state has seen a disparity in the way health care has been delivered, especially with Latinos disproportionately affected by the virus, he acknowledged that when vaccines were delivered to Orange County, Newsom called on counties to distribute them equitably, including threatening to withhold them if vaccines were not delivered to zip codes with the highest positivity rates.

"It's unfair to be critical, to say he completely dropped the ball during the pandemic. He didn't," he said. "But I think we saw this discussion during the presidential election that a lot of us were hopeful of California being a leader nationally on progressive policy."

Other Californians, including many Democrats, don't blame Newsom, saying that he has been a progressive leader during the crisis, with a Los Angeles Times column by Jean Guerrero Wednesday calling him "one of the most pro-Latino governors in California history."

She pointed to his appointment of Alex Padilla as the state's first Latino U.S. senator, prioritizing high-risk Latino neighborhoods for vaccines, expanding college student loans for Dreamers, as well as backing stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants and approving temporary housing for farmworkers who contracted the virus.

California state assembly member Wendy Carrillo, who represents the 51st district, supported Sanders in 2016, but told Newsweek she bristles at the criticism Newsom has faced, calling him "a defender and a champion of our community."

Carrillo recalled the countless days and nights she was on the phone with his office during the height of the pandemic to ensure that the residents of her Los Angeles district, which is 20% below the poverty line, had adequate access to testing and vaccines at the community health centers they use.

She likened anti-immigrant Republican messaging around the recall aimed at Newsom and his support for Latinos and immigrants now to the approach former governor Pete Wilson took in the infamous Prop 187 fight in 1994, which angered Latinos.

"It's frustrating to me to see selective memory of what we've gone through the last 18 months," Carrillo said. "Latinos have been impacted the most, and people are able to quarantine at home because farmworkers in the Central Valley are making sure we get food amid COVID and inhaling dangerous air due to wildfires."

Some Democrats also take issue with the idea that the Sanders campaign was particularly special.

"Bernie had higher name ID," one California Democrat dismissively told Newsweek. "God bless our community, we vote for whoever has higher name ID. Biden didn't come to California. So does a single mom in Boyle Heights know Joe Biden was running for president or Bernie Sanders?"

Still, whether it was Sanders unique qualities or the work his team put in, he won, and there is a nagging feeling Newsom could be doing more to sharpen the contrast with Republicans on policy in the perennially blue state.

"Bernie took chances, he let people take risks," said Javier Gonzalez, the former political director of the janitors' union and organizer of legendary immigration marches in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. "He let me work on policy for the campaign. Bernie took more chances, and establishment people don't take any chances."

With ballots already in the hands of voters, Democrats have sent back more than 1.3 million ballots, with independents and Republicans amounting to less than 1.1 million ballots grouped together, according to the PDI tracker. But in a possible sign of lagging Latino enthusiasm, unsuccessful outreach, or both, whites have sent back 13% of their ballots, while Latinos are behind Asian and Black voters at only a 6% return rate.

Perhaps that's why the Newsom campaign has been running an ad over the last month featuring Senator Elizabeth Warren saying, "We've seen Trump Republicans across the country attacking election results and the right to vote," and "now they're coming to grab power in California, abusing the recall process, and costing taxpayers millions."

It's a strategy Návar says may excite white progressives, but shows "they're not trying to reach Latinos, not with her."

The irony, of course, is that both Newsom critics and defenders who spoke with Newsweek described a similar philosophy when it comes to Latinos, who comprise nearly 40% of the population and fuel California's success.

"If it helps Latinos, it will help everyone in the state," Carillo said.

bernie mural
Artist Jonas Never (@never1959) applies finishing touches to his mural of Senator Bernie Sanders in Culver City, California on January 24, 2021. Standing out in a crowd of glamorously dressed guests, Bernie Sanders showed up for the U.S. presidential inauguration in a heavy winter jacket and patterned mittens. Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images