SACRAMENTO — When Gov. Gavin Newsom signed state legislation that could change the landscape of college sports, it came as an early Monday morning surprise to many inside California’s Capitol building.
But not to LeBron James.
Story Continued Below
The NBA star was sitting beside the governor in a barber’s chair as Newsom, wearing blue jeans and sneakers, picked up a pen and signed the bill during a taping of James’ HBO show “The Shop” last Friday. A clip from the show ran on Twitter as part of Newsom’s unorthodox bill signing rollout three days later as many Californians were still asleep, and as Washington woke up to the latest in the impeachment drama.
“Let’s do it man, alright,” a grinning Newsom says in the clip, showing off the piece of paper adorned with his signature to James and others applauding in the room — the Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi, former NBA player Ed O’Bannon, former gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, agent Rich Paul and media personality Maverick Carter. “It’s now law in California.”
The policy news at hand was the enactment of legislation authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), to allow student athletes in California to be paid for their names, images and likenesses despite NCAA regulations prohibiting such compensation. Given California’s massive university system, that’s a big deal; as Newsom put it, the NCAA “can’t afford to lose the state of California.”
But the celebrity rollout also gave people across the country a new glimpse at a laid-back Newsom, the liberal A-list leader of the world’s fifth largest economy, chumming it up with one of the country’s most idolized athletes. It was almost Schwarzenegger-esque hype, some in Sacramento said. And it begged the question, once again, to Newsom-watchers on the East and West coasts: Was this the early makings of a future presidential run?
Newsom’s spokesperson Nathan Click says no — it’s just a governor who recognizes the value of popular culture in getting his message across. When Newsom was in New York City last week for Climate Week, he made some time to appear on the Daily Show. He appeared on The View back in March to talk about his moratorium on the California death penalty; a few weeks ago, he propped a stuffed animal at a podium to announce legislation in honor of his childhood pet, Potter the Otter.
Newsom knows how to make a statement. And he likes to do it his own way. Whether it’s intervening in state legislative debates on Twitter, holding surprise bill signings or posting explanatory videos of the state budget from inside his office, Newsom controls his message.
“He’s a 21st century governor who’s using the tools of the 21st century to communicate with the people he serves,” Click told POLITICO. “All of it kind of falls under his worldview that to effectively lead, you have to effectively communicate. … This is about breaking down the barriers for every day people to get engaged with government, about bringing the government closer to the people they serve — people he serves.”
Newsom and James exchanged praise on Twitter on Monday, with the former San Francisco mayor, who became governor this past January, giving the Lakers star a fist-bump by way of emoji.
“You the man Governor Gav!” James tweeted at Newsom after the bill was signed.
Some saw the Monday episode as an attempt by Newsom to shed his slick persona; the governor is often criticized as elitist in parts of California more rural than his native San Francisco.
“Working class people can tell when affluent people are trying to come across as just folks,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of American and California politics at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles County. “I see a politician keeping his options open. When you’re a governor of California, you’re inevitably thinking about the White House. He’s playing the long game. In 20 years, he’ll still be younger than Trump is today.”
Other observers saw parallels to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who harnessed his celebrity in the 2000s to promote California to a larger audience.
Rob Stutzman, a former deputy chief of staff for Schwarzenegger’s communications team who now runs a firm in Sacramento, said the bill signing, and Newsom’s increasingly high profile, hearkens back to Schwarzenegger’s tenure.
“When I saw it, I was impressed. I think it’s one of the better moments he’s had this year,” he said of Monday’s bill signing announcement. “It was a staple of the types of things we would do with Schwarzenegger, and Newsom is particularly well suited for these types of opportunities. He’s been on late night TV. He’s articulate. He can command that kind of attention.”
To Dan Schnur, a politics professor at Berkeley and USC, Newsom’s moves show why he is “California’s first social media governor.”
“Hanging out with celebrities for autobiographical credibility is something that politicians have been doing for a long time, but what he did with the bill signing was innovative,” Schnur said. “Jerry Brown may have been in office when Instagram and Snapchat became popular. But he didn’t seem to care very much.”