January 7, 2019

What Will Newsom Mean for California Agriculture?

On November 6, Gavin Newsom rode into the California Governor’s Mansion on a blue wave (which some are dubbing a “blue-nami”) that all but wiped out Republican relevance in the state for the foreseeable future. At 61.8% of the vote—which included a victory in Orange County, which went for a Democratic governor for the first time in 40 years—Newsom tallied the largest gubernatorial point spread since 1950. California’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives now stands at 46 Democrats to 7 Republicans, with the Democrats flipping an incredible seven seats (again, Orange County will not have a single Republican House representative for the first time since 1940). To top it all off, Democrats, who in recent years briefly held a bare two-thirds supermajority in Sacramento, have now captured three-fourths “mega-majorities” in both chambers of the Legislature, which will allow them to pass tax increases, place constitutional amendments directly on the ballot and override the governor’s vetoes.

So, where does this leave a largely conservative industry like agriculture? What can Western Growers members expect out of a Newsom governorship?

What I’m about to suggest may come as a shock to some, but should not be considered provocative. In fact, it could more appropriately be viewed as pragmatic: Let’s give Governor Gavin Newsom the benefit of the doubt.

I’ll give everyone a moment to settle back into their chairs.

Now, let’s set aside any personal views toward Gavin Newsom (and, perhaps, the Democratic Party) and try to have a levelheaded conversation. As an industry, we must acknowledge the political landscape in California and play the hand we have been dealt. Certainly, we will not roll over and allow hostile forces to dictate our destiny, and we will address injustices toward our industry whenever and however they occur. But we must also recognize the need to work within the system, to engage in productive dialogue with reasonable actors on both sides of the aisle.

I, for one, believe Gavin Newsom could be that rational player—at least, at a minimum, on several key issues that impact California agriculture. Newsom is an entrepreneur, so he understands the profit-robbing consequences of burdensome government regulation and bureaucratic red tape. Furthermore, Newsom’s “real” job depends on agriculture, as he founded the PlumpJack wine store and related management group that operates nearly two dozen businesses, many in the winery and restaurant space. So, it would seem, agriculture and agricultural businesses should be natural allies of the new governor.

Indeed, Newsom appears to recognize the foundational importance of the agriculture industry. During his keynote address at the 2016 Forbes AgTech Summit, Newsom classified agriculture as one of the three most iconic industries in California, along with Hollywood and technology. He went on to admit that, “We have regulatory challenges in this state,” and conceded that the government cannot prescribe a “pill for every problem.” Instead, Newsom suggested that the role of government should be to create an environment where the private sector is fundamentally engaged in solving the big problems of the day, and pointed to the collaboration between agriculture and Silicon Valley to address issues like water scarcity and labor shortages.

Newsom concluded his speech by saying, “We are grateful for the work California farmers are doing… I think we have an incredible opportunity here in California, not just to survive in the agricultural industry but to truly thrive in a growing, competitive environment.”

If we take him at his word, then we have a duty to cultivate the seeds of respect and appreciation Newson has expressed for our industry. They may very well take root and blossom into a field of renewed prosperity for California agriculture.

Extended metaphor aside, our recent experiences with California state politics compel me to offer this disclaimer: Be prepared to be disappointed. But, he has given every indication that he cares about agriculture. Therefore, as collective stewards of the industry, we have an obligation to engage the new governor from a position of guarded optimism. In this spirit, we must put forward a good faith effort and work to establish a genuinely positive relationship with the new administration. Perhaps we will be able to find some common ground, after all.