Dozens of chanting protesters disrupted a public meeting of the University of California Board of Regents on Monday, driving all but one of the regents from the room.
“What the hell,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a regent by virtue of his office, as he flashed a smile and strode past nervous police to mingle with protesters.
While other regents at the meeting in San Francisco huddled behind closed doors or waited at a safe distance on a teleconference call, Newsom sat forward in his chair, surrounded by students and faculty members railing against a raft of ills: rising tuition, mounting student debt, grim job prospects and accusations of police brutality.
When he finally spoke, Newsom thanked the protesters for “restoring my faith and confidence in this state and country.” He added, “You have my support.”
And, no doubt, he would like theirs in return.
With the University of California and the California State University systems convulsing over increases in tuition and the ensuing protests at several campuses, Newsom has staked a position as a populist champion for students, a key part of his base that will be critical if, as expected, he seeks higher office.
“Gavin is speaking from the heart, but it also makes sense for him politically,” said Nathan Ballard, a former press secretary and an aide to Newsom.
In an interview Thursday, Newsom said he was deeply alarmed by what he called the dismantling of the UC and CSU systems and gently criticized the budget deal struck by Gov. Jerry Brown last year that included steep cuts to financing for both institutions.
“You can’t cut $650 million from both systems and tell me you value the system,” he said. “I believe we could’ve avoided a substantial portion of these cuts.”
He added, “If I were governor, I’d take that as a critique, but I stand by it.”
While Newsom, 44, has grabbed headlines by criticizing tuition increases and cuts to state spending on education, Brown, a fellow Democrat, has been wrangling for months with the Legislature over a pension overhaul and proposed taxes to help finance education.
Brown was on vacation last week, and aides had to address criticism that he failed to swiftly address incidents in which campus police used pepper spray and riot batons to quell student protests at Berkeley and UC Davis, incidents that were condemned by Newsom and John A. Pérez, the Assembly speaker and a UC regent.
Newsom told The Sacramento Bee last week that the relationship between a governor and a lieutenant governor was typically “difficult.”
But on Tuesday, Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for Brown, said the governor and Newsom had a “shared concern” over the tuition increases.
“The governor’s position has always been that without additional revenue coming into the state we’re faced with some terrible choices,” she said. “The lieutenant governor is very aware of the very serious fiscal realities that are facing the state.”
Larry N. Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State University, said Brown and Newsom had fundamentally different aims.