OAKLAND — California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s chief of staff, Ann O’Leary, is leaving her post and has landed on the short list for jobs in the Biden administration, sources close to the governor told POLITICO.
O’Leary had previously spent most of her government career in Washington, and President-elect Joe Biden’s win gives her an opportunity to return to there with Democrats in power. But her departure also comes as Newsom faces his lowest point in office thus far.
The governor suffered public rebuke after attending a lobbyist’s dinner party at The French Laundry last month with multiple households, hampering his ability to discourage residents from gathering as infections were surging. At the same time, his administration has faced growing criticism for unemployment benefits fraud — including payments to inmates — and little progress on reopening schools.
O’Leary took charge of Newsom’s operations in November 2018 during his gubernatorial transition. She arrived with deep policy experience, much of it in Washington, where she worked many years for Hillary Clinton. She came in with the reputation as a coalition builder and an impassioned advocate for early education and working families.
It was not immediately clear when she will depart the office. O’Leary did not respond to requests for comment. Newsom communications director Sahar Robertson said she had no comment.
Newsom is seriously considering as a replacement Jim DeBoo, a registered lobbyist and former legislative aide who has recently run ballot campaigns, including the successful 2016 tobacco tax backed by doctors, multiple Capitol sources said. DeBoo also worked with the governor this year on Prop. 13, the education facilities bond that voters rejected. DeBoo did not respond to inquiries.
DeBoo’s lobbying clients include the California Medical Association, California Apartment Association, California Dental Association and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, according to state records.
O’Leary previously served as co-executive director of the Clinton-Kaine Transition Project. She was also a senior policy adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Clinton’s legislative director in the Senate before working in the U.S. Department of Education. She was an attorney and partner at the Silicon Valley law firm of Boies Schiller Flexner just before running Newsom’s office.
But O’Leary lacked deep political experience in California, and Newsom is facing his biggest political troubles so far in his governorship. Besides the problems with unemployment payments and schools, the governor has faced increasing resistance from residents for his lockdown efforts in a bid to preserve hospital beds in California. Business owners and churchgoers have railed against Newsom, and some have said they do not intend to abide by his restrictions this winter.
Sources close to Newsom said the governor’s office has been disorganized over the past month and has not responded effectively to damaging headlines. They point to his prolonged delay in naming a U.S. Senate replacement for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as one example.
A task force O’Leary headed with former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer disbanded last month despite California heading toward a new round of stay-home restrictions and business closures.
As Newsom begins his third full year in office, the governor’s team is increasingly concerned with a long-shot conservative recall that could mushroom into a major threat in 2021 if it attracts significant financial support. Newsom must also ensure he is strong enough to win reelection in two years. The governor remains an odds-on favorite in a state where Democrats hold tremendous power, but the pandemic has already shown it can scramble loyalties and voter attitudes toward those in power.
O’Leary’s departure comes as Newsom “needs friends, but what [administration officials] haven’t been able to develop are political friendships,’’ said longtime state political observer David McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State. Instead, “they’ve fanned the flames against themselves with self-inflicted wounds.”
Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.