Political Notebook

Dan Walters: Gun control effort shows Newsom’s derivative symbolism

During the early years of Jerry Brown’s long political career, he was both admired and criticized for adroitly exploiting trendy, if often trivial, issues.

It first became evident 40-plus years ago when Brown, aspiring to the governorship his father had held, claimed a piece of the Watergate scandal.

As secretary of state, Brown had a minor ministerial duty to commission notaries – those who witness the signing of important documents – and used that to raise a stink about some documents tangentially connected to Watergate.

Simultaneously, he championed a 1974 ballot measure, Proposition 9, that he said would guard against political corruption in Sacramento – a measure whose financial disclosure provisions he recently refused, by vetoing a bill, to expand.

A few years later, Brown did it again, morphing overnight from an outspoken opponent of Proposition 13 into a “born-again tax cutter” and trying to ride the anti-tax wave into the White House.

At the time, Gavin Newsom was the young son of one of Brown’s oldest friends, whom he later appointed as a judge. And whether by osmosis or genetic predisposition, Newsom mimics Brown’s approach in his own career – jumping on a trendy issue and riding it hard.

As mayor of San Francisco, Newsom saw the changing attitudes about same-sex marriage and gained nationwide exposure by refusing to obey a state law against it. He parlayed the issue into a drive for the governorship that was short-circuited by Brown’s reentry.

Even though same-sex marriage eventually became national law, Newsom had to settle for the lieutenant governorship. But the office has scant authority, and Newsom has struggled to remain in the public eye – even briefly hosting his own TV show.

A while back, Newsom saw legalization of marijuana as a developing issue and moved quickly to claim leadership. But others have since taken up the cause and it’s likely to be resolved, one way or the other, in next year’s election.

Newsom, who has made no secret of his intention to run for governor in 2018, is now claiming leadership – or ownership – of another issue: tightening up California’s gun control laws, already the nation’s most stringent.

He’s floating a multipoint proposal whose two most important elements are banning large-capacity firearms magazines and requiring background checks for ammunition purchasers.

On their merits, they are pretty silly. As with other gun control measures, the law-abiding would obey them and lawbreakers and the deranged would ignore them.

Nor is it a courageous act; rather, it’s just pandering to the prejudices of Democratic activists Newsom needs for his gubernatorial bid.

California has no shortage of real issues – water supply, poverty, highway congestion, tax reform and educational deficiencies, to name but a few.

Those who aspire to the governorship should tell us what they’d do about real problems, not merely peddle symbolic fluff à la Jerry Brown in 1974.