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Political Transformation Begins with Leadership

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Opinion: Political Transformation Begins with Leadership

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Then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom at a statewide port security exercise May 18, 2010 in San Francisco, California.

California Lieutenent Governor Gavin Newsom recently told a newspaper that he goes to his Sacramento office an average of two days per week.

The rest of the time, he travels the state to hear about ideas and problems, or hang out with start-ups in a San Francisco incubator, Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle..

Translation: there's not much to do when you're lieutenant governor.

Or is there?

On the one hand, Newsom's right.

About all the lieutenant governor does is sit on the Board of Regents for the University of California, the Board of Trustees for the California State University, the State Lands Commission, and few other bodies that are largely cosmetic in function, and break 20-20 ties in the state Senate which occur less frequently than the decennial census.

Not a whole lot of excitement there.

But there have been occasions when other statewide elected officials in offices just as impotent as Newsom's have transformed their positions through sheer leadership and determination.

On such occasions, those offices and their occupants have emerged with new sources of authority and power, benefiting the state in the process.

A great example is the secretary of state's office under Jerry Brown, from 1970 to 1974.

Yes, the same Jerry Brown who was re-elected governor two years ago after a 28 year absence.

Prior to Brown's election to the secretary of state position, the office was moribund and without any clout.

The office was described as the chief state record-keeping unit and agency that certified signatures for initiative petitions and election results. So quiet was this office that a father and son team, Frank C. Jordan and Frank M. Jordan won every election between 1910 and 1966.

When Jerry Brown was elected, he gave the position a fresh look. He turned to several old, previously ignored statutes on campaign finance records, suing those who failed to comply.

Toward the end of his tenure, Brown sponsored an initiative, the Fair Political Political Practices Act, rode it to victory, and used that success to win the governorship in 1974.

The secretary of state's office has had enhanced visibility ever since.

Jesse Unruh had similar influence while state treasurer, from 1974 to 1987.

Although many know Unruh as the father of the modern legislature in California, he gained fame another way -- through modernizing the state treasurer's office.

Prior to his election, the treasurer was described by one wag as having about as much political clout as the the director of a local mosquito abatement district.

Unruh converted the office into a powerhouse.

Building on the basic responsibility to invest temporary state funds in bonds, he opened up the bidding beyond the few financial institutions that had a virtual monopoly on the program, attracting higher returns in the process.

Unruh also pressed the legislature to create the California Housing Finance Agency, which sold billions of dollars in revenue bonds to finance low-cost housing.

More recently, Kamala Harris has strengthened the office of attorney general.

Unlike the secretary of state and treasurer, the attorney general is a powerful position in the state, exceeded only by the reach of the governor. Nevertheless, Harris has used the office during her short tenure to stretch its authority.

The best example of Harris's clout occurred recently when she bucked the attorneys general of 48 other states and President Obama on a proposed settlement with five major banks accused of abusive mortgage practices.

Calling the settlement -- about $20 billion for the entire United States -- inadequate, she held out, negotiating hard with the banks and delivering $18 billion for California alone.

Which takes us back to Newsom.

Will he find a way to enhance the value of his office, or simply bide his time until another election opportunity?

We'll learn a lot more about his character and commitment in the months to come.

Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst for NBC Bay Area.

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