As Jerry Brown begins his first trip out of the country as governor, the man who might someday seek to replace him finds himself overseeing the affairs of the nation's most populous state if only temporarily. Brown's 10-day trip to China gives Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom his most extensive time in the chief executive's chair, although his office says he has no plans beyond his normal engagements.
Newsom's schedule this week includes an announcement about online education at San Jose State University, a speech on economics in San Diego, and attending the weekend California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento, said his spokeswoman, Dierdre Hussey.
In China, Brown will promote investment in California and open a trade office in Shanghai, leaving Newsom, the telegenic former mayor of San Francisco, in charge should an emergency arise. Newsom, who sought the Democratic nomination for governor before Brown entered the race in 2010, has not hidden his aspirations for higher office and recently has been on a book tour.
"The best thing he can do as acting governor is nothing,'' said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. As long as nothing goes wrong, Newsom can add the time served as a positive footnote on his resume, Pitney said.
"He needs to be on call to respond in case there's a sudden crisis, a natural disaster here in California, such as an earthquake. Given his experience as mayor of San Francisco, he could probably handle that quite well,'' Pitney said.
The opportunity can hold both promise and peril for those with aspirations for higher office. The last time a lieutenant governor was in charge for an extended period was 2010, when then-Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado found himself responding to a deadly pipeline explosion in San Bruno as then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was on his own trip to Asia. Maldonado, a Republican who was running for lieutenant governor against Newsom at the time, was criticized as an opportunist for holding several news conferences at the scene and tweeting photos of himself talking to President Barack Obama.
Maldonado said Tuesday that politics did not cross his mind at the time.
"When you are the acting governor, obviously if there is an emergency, you act immediately,'' he said. "You don't even think of politics. Politics wasn't even in the air when San Bruno happened.'' Maldonado noted that Schwarzenegger frequently traveled out of state and out of the country, but he said he was always thoroughly briefed by staff from Schwarzenegger's office and emergency management officials.
A spokesman for Brown, Gareth Lacey, said the governor's office is focused on the China trip and is not aware of any special instructions left for Newsom.