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Capitol Journal: Forget the trip to El Salvador, Newsom needs to focus on California’s problems

LOS ANGELES, CA-MARCH 28, 2019: Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during at a roundtable discussion at th
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks last week at L.A.'s Clinica Monseñor Oscar A. Romero healthcare facility about Central American migration and his upcoming visit to El Salvador.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

It looked like an early April Fools’ joke at first. But, no, it was just an ambitious rookie governor trying to play world leader.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that he’ll be flying to El Salvador to learn “the root causes of migration” to the United States.

Does anyone in this hemisphere not know the root cause of why caravans of Central American refugees are seeking asylum in the U.S.? Newsom quickly answered his own question in the same prepared sentence in which he raised it: They’re “fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries.”

That has been a reason why humans have migrated for thousands of years. Escaping poverty and bullies — seeking opportunity and a better life — have been root motivators forever.

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So consider the governor’s “fact-finding mission” completed before he even boards the plane, right? Maybe he also could read a book and do a little Googling. That should wrap it up without spending nearly a week in dangerous El Salvador surrounded by California bodyguards.

The trip will be paid for by the State Protocol Foundation, a group of wealthy interests that funds gubernatorial junkets.

Newsom should pay for it himself. And by that, I mean personally — out of his checking account, not his political kitty that is stuffed with special-interest donations.

Anyway, the new governor hasn’t been on the job long enough — three months — to earn junket rights.

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There’s nothing in the California Constitution about the duty of a governor to get up to speed on why people migrate to the U.S.

And if Newsom wanted to enmesh himself in foreign affairs, he should have run for the U.S. Senate three years ago when a seat opened.

Why is Newsom really traveling to El Salvador?

Out of curiosity? That’s probably closest to the truth. To burnish his resume by adding some foreign policy talking points for a presidential run in 2024 or 2028? Time is on his side. He’s only 51. To build national ID? Strengthen his support among Latinos? Stick it to President Trump again?

Most likely all of the above.

Trump deserves sharp pokes after announcing Saturday that he’s cutting off roughly $500 million in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, claiming they’re not doing enough to stem migration. Newsom delivered a jab without leaving California, accusing Trump of trying “to score cheap political points.”

A statewide poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed last week that voters mostly agree with the governor and oppose the president on immigration. No shock there.

Should Trump have declared a national emergency in order to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border? No, says 70%. How about California protecting the legal rights of immigrants in the country illegally? Fifty-four percent favor that. But the federal crackdown on illegal immigration? Voters are split evenly on whether it’s a good or bad thing.

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I suspect voters would prefer that Newsom devote his full attention to running state government, the job they elected him to do. I don’t recall a campaign promise to delve into the rudiments of migration.

He did promise to provide early childhood education, reduce homelessness, develop affordable housing, deliver universal healthcare, fix delta plumbing and try to prevent wildfires.

The governor has some good proposals, but they need to be pushed hard and implemented.

When Newsom gets all of that done, he can turn to the nagging problems of an unstable tax system, abuse of environmental regulations that stymie homebuilding and subpar K-12 education. And let’s not forget that pokey, costly bullet train project.

Actually, Newsom has mostly been traipsing around the state holding photo ops of one form or another, as he was when he announced the El Salvador trip in Los Angeles. He noted that 680,000 Salvadorans live in California.

“We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on Mexico, trying to understand Mexico,” the governor said. “It’s time to put that same kind of intention into Central America. Let’s start with El Salvador.”

No, let’s start with impoverished sections of the San Joaquin Valley where water is too unhealthy to drink. And go from there, within California’s borders.

Newsom said he has been inspired by Trump’s turning his back on asylum seekers. “I’m more resolved than ever, and I’m in this for the long run,” the governor said.

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It’s “part of the role and responsibility of a governor,” he said, to exercise the state’s “moral authority” on immigration.

“America needs leadership internationally. California will assert itself if this administration wants to walk away.”

Sorry, but a governor is not a presidential backup. It’s not a governor’s responsibility to assume a role that the president doesn’t want to undertake.

Modern governors have always junketed overseas. But they’ve done it under the guise of “trade missions,” ostensibly trying to strengthen California’s economy. The trips have mostly been fun sightseeing excursions of low economic value. An exception was Gov. George Deukmejian selling Japan shiploads of California rice in 1987 after trade experts told him it was impossible.

Governors have opened foreign trade offices that turned out to be busts. They’ve been shuttered when recessions hit. Gov. Ronald Reagan closed three he inherited, contending — correctly — that private enterprise could handle such missions better than government.

Now Newsom is thinking about opening some foreign outposts.

His trip to El Salvador will be the first time a California governor has traveled to a foreign country solely to check on immigration motives.

It should be the last.

More from George Skelton »

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter


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