Essential Politics: Newsom’s long, hot summer

Gov. Gavin Newsom talks with reporters in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 2019.
(Brian Melley / Associated Press)

This is the May 24, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

While there are stark differences between California’s two gubernatorial recall elections — the 2003 campaign that led to the ouster of then-Gov. Gray Davis and the one to be held later this year against Gov. Gavin Newsom — both campaigns were rooted in historic events outside the control of the governor.

But when voters think problems are badly handled, they often look to hold someone responsible. That’s certainly part of the story of what happened to Davis.


Newsom, still 19 months away from the end of his first term in office, has faced a number of unprecedented crises as governor. And as spring gives way to summer, one of those challenges is coming back: the threat of deadly wildfires and sweeping electricity shut-offs.

When the lights go down in the city...

Even in an era when Californians have become accustomed to high fire danger, the warnings about what might lie in store this summer and fall are sobering. The state faces severe drought conditions as temperatures rise, and combustible conditions when winds rise and power lines come into contact with brush and branches.

This will be Newsom’s second go-around with power shut-offs geared toward preventing fires. In fall 2019, similar conditions led the newly elected governor to embrace his role in the crisis.

“I own this,” Newsom told reporters that October in describing the process of deciding when and how the power shut-offs should be handled. “It’s on me to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

As Taryn Luna writes in a new look at the issue, the governor’s critics who are now backing the recall effort against him will no doubt remind voters of what Newsom said last time.

“People will ultimately hold him responsible for the state of California, and if they can’t turn their lights on right around the time they’re voting, they’re going to be thinking about that,” said Dave Gilliard, a Republican strategist for the recall effort.

While changes have been made in the power shut-off protocols since earlier fire seasons, it’s worth remembering that Newsom didn’t come into this year with high marks on the issue. In a poll last September conducted by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, the majority of voters surveyed gave Newsom either a poor (35%) or fair (21%) grade for his efforts at ensuring the reliability of electricity. On wildfire dangers, 39% of those surveyed graded his work as poor or very poor and 24% said it was only fair.

The activist A.G.

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta begins his second month Monday in the job of top cop, and he’s off to a blistering pace.

The Oakland Democrat has, as Patrick McGreevy writes, “put the Department of Justice on a hard pivot, launching a series of initiatives to refocus the agency on problems inside the state after it spent four years fighting the Trump administration on national issues.”

It is a marked change from the work of his two immediate predecessors, current U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Vice President Kamala Harris.

“I’m excited by the urgency he’s acting with,” said Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of Prosecutors Alliance of California, a recently formed group of progressive district attorneys. “The attorney general has had a commitment to criminal justice reform since when he was in the Legislature and had an idea of the areas that were concerning to him from that position, and now that he is in the office he has an opportunity to impact them more deeply.”

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National lightning round

— House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy might have had a coronavirus infection when he attended his son’s December wedding.

— An untested, little-known Florida cybersecurity firm is running a partly taxpayer-funded process in Arizona that election experts describe as so deeply flawed it veers into the surreal.

— The only abortion clinic in Mississippi is at the center of a case designed to test how far the high court, remade under then-President Trump, is willing to go to restrict the right to an abortion.

— First Lady Jill Biden told young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children that she feels “inspired” by them because they didn’t just receive a college education, they “fought for it.”

— Thanks to the growing availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and recent relaxation of federal guidance on masks and distancing, the Biden administration is embracing the look and feel of pre-pandemic days at the White House.

Today’s essential California politics

— Four years after the Legislature boosted the gas tax to fix California’s crumbling roads and bridges, the state has spent billions and made some progress in repairs, but officials now say the funding is sufficient only to complete less than half of the work needed.

— Major Northern California reservoirs currently contain only half the water they normally do in late spring. It’s a warning sign of a potentially devastating new drought and an undeniable mark of dramatic climate change, columnist George Skelton writes.

— Healthcare advocates in California are pushing back against Newsom’s budget plan, saying it follows a dangerous pattern of underfunding local public health agencies, despite glaring funding inadequacies exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

— Months after the state approved $2.6 billion to help California tenants pay rent amid hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say a disappointingly low number of people have applied and the program has been hampered by confusion and bureaucratic red tape.

Support for capital punishment continues to dwindle among Californians, but the issue remains politically volatile and the prospects of repeal are uncertain, according to a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

— Newsom and his wife, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, reported an income of $1.7 million in 2019, a half-million more than the year before, with most coming from the governor’s wineries, restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses.

— California government operations would still rely on $12 billion drawn from cash reserves and borrowing under the budget proposed by Newsom, an independent analyst’s report said, even as the state now expects to collect three times that amount from a windfall of tax revenues.

— Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s possible exit to join the Biden administration has lawyers in a lawsuit against the city tussling over when his wife, Amy Elaine Wakeland, could be deposed ahead of any departure by the couple.

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