This was perhaps not the expected backdrop of choice, grim and cold, for a politician confronting a restive public. But by the end of the address, it seemed an apt venue for a speech that acknowledged mistakes broadly over the past year and reflected the palpable sense of hope much of a state increasingly vaccinated and open for business is feeling.
Newsom’s political future is tied now to what the image evokes for tens of millions of Californians, the tenuous hope ahead or the unrecoverable loss of the past year. He won his 2018 election with 62 percent of the vote. But it will be the pace and course of the economic openings and the return of daily-life grace notes, spreading now across this vast, uneasy state, that determine whether he even finishes that first term.
“Nothing was linear through the last year,” Newsom, a Democrat, said in an interview with The Washington Post this week. “You have to be open to argument and you have to be iterative and you have to deal with the vagaries in the virus and variations in terms of the application of your rules and regulations. This is just not managing a small state. It’s a complex, dense state.”
A look back over California’s past year of spiking and falling coronavirus infection rates, dying and healing, opening and shuttering, is to trace the trajectory of a once-popular governor’s rise with early decisions, decline as the pandemic wore on, and finally, finish in a political dilemma that will probably force him to answer to voters a year earlier than scheduled.
In the interview this week about the challenges of governing during the time of covid-19, Newsom looked back at some milestone moments of the past year, crisis points many of his fellow governors also had to mark with decisions seeking to balance political demands, economic interests and public health in ways they had never faced before.
The pandemic for every governor has been a crisis that, lacking precedent, is vulnerable to the sharpest of hindsight judgment and in the most unforgiving of partisan political environments. Of a handful of big-state governors, only Florida’s Ron DeSantis (R) has an approval rating today that exceeds his pre-pandemic levels, according to some recent surveys.
But none face the unique political peril Newsom does, partly due to California’s peculiar referendum system and partly because of the pandemic’s savage run through this state of 40 million people, battering its poorest and its people of color far harder than others. More than 3.5 million Californians have contracted the virus and nearly 56,000 have died from it.
On Wednesday, a Republican-led recall drive submitted more than enough still-to-be-validated signatures to qualify the question for the ballot. Five other recall efforts against Newsom have been launched and failed since he took office 26 months ago. State agencies will have until late April to validate these new signatures, then schedule an election that would probably fall in November or December.
Such a statewide recall effort has been successful only once before in California and, although it is a heavily Democratic state, the uncertainties surrounding what is effectively a vote of no confidence on a governor’s competence means that Newsom is in a real fight to stay in office. Polls show the race favors him but only by the slightest of margins.
“I am not a victim politician,” Newsom said. “You have to own stuff, and we have more agency than we sometimes lead on.”
His predicament has become a national Republican cause in an off-election year with conservative money flowing into the state for the expected recall campaign. National Democrats, giving their time, endorsements and money, joined the contest on Newsom’s behalf this week once the governor officially acknowledged the threat.
Republicans in this deep-blue state are the third-largest partisan affiliation, trailing “decline to state” in second place. Even if Newsom is recalled, it remains unlikely a Republican would replace him, a prospect Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Los Angeles) called “absurd” in an interview last week.
But covid-19 and the anger it has stirred here has emboldened a once-powerful state Republican Party that has in recent years been at a historically low ebb.
“He’s never been punched,” said state Sen. Scott Wilk (R-Antelope Valley), the minority leader in that chamber. “We’ll see what happens when he does.”
Wilk declined to sign on as co-chairman of the recall effort — or even sign the petition — out of respect for what he said was an electoral process that requires voters to reevaluate Newsom on the 2022 ballot. But he said he will support the recall if it qualifies.
“I just believe he has proven to be immature and entitled and doesn’t lack the wisdom for the job,” Wilk said. “He has not been forthright.”
Given the previous failed recall attempts against him, Newsom has characterized this movement as one that began with opposition to his immigration policies and has since changed to one emphasizing his management of the pandemic. Some of the big funders, in addition to the state and national Republican parties, are former president Donald Trump’s allies and others whom Newsom describes as right-wing extremists and white supremacists.
“I respect that the average person who signs the petitions are angry and frustrated,” Newsom said. “I’m angry about this last year and devastated. But it’s pandemic-induced. We’re all working our way through this. And, you know, I’m not satisfied with our death rate, but it’s a hell of a lot better than most other big states.”
‘Not just an academic exercise’: Closing down
The dominoes in California’s two most influential cities had fallen by the evening of March 19, 2020, when Newsom; Secretary of Health and Humans Services Mark Ghaly; the governor’s then-chief of staff, Ann O’Leary; and a few others gathered in the state Emergency Operations Center.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D), had days earlier and without a single reported case of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, yet reported in her city, issued a stay-at-home order. Her Los Angeles counterpart, Eric Garcetti (D), followed suit soon after. On this early spring evening, Newsom was studying those cases and the models his staff had generated to inform his next step.
In San Francisco, Breed had been meeting frequently with public health advisers since the first case of covid-19 was reported weeks earlier just south of the city. San Francisco churns with visitors, those coming through San Francisco International Airport, over the bridges, and up and down Highway 101.
It was only a matter of time, in the mayor’s view, that the pandemic would reach her city and tear through some of its distinct neighborhoods and populations, the healthy and the homeless alike. But the advice she was receiving seemed incremental — shrinking the size of public gatherings, bit by bit — until Breed was not sure how best to make a meaningful decision.
“It got to a point where I just pushed back with the public health department and said, ‘Look, I am not going to give people in this city another arbitrary number reduction because it sounds like, inevitably, we’re getting to a place where things are going to have to shut down,’ ” Breed said in an interview last week. “I ran out of patience, and I pushed my health care professionals aggressively.”
Breed’s order came soon after. As Newsom took up the question that March 19 evening, California had reported 17 deaths from covid-19 and fewer than a thousand total coronavirus cases.
It was an early indication that Newsom, at a time when the federal government was dismissing the virus as something that would likely disappear on its own, would favor science to navigate a crisis without historical precedent.
“I say it sort of lovingly — we don’t have any game film on this virus,” said Ghaly, who has trained and worked in some of California’s most vulnerable places, including densely populated neighborhoods and prisons. “What we were learning about covid, we were learning for the first time. This was not a refresher course. This was not a reminder. And it still isn’t.”
After the decision, Newsom and Ghaly walked down one of the operation center’s hallways, talking generally about the decision.
“There was a sort of heavy air of some sort of internalization,” Newsom said. “We were all coming to grips with the magnitude of not just the moment we were in, but the moments to come.”
Newsom said the decision — the first of its kind in the state and nationally — resonated on a personal level because of his business background opening wineries and running restaurants and as the father of school-age kids who would no longer be going to school.
“This was not just an academic exercise,” he said. “I don’t want to belabor it. But when the decision was made, we made it with some clarity and conviction.”
By the end of April, a state unemployment rate that began the year at 4 percent had quadrupled, a cliff-edge drop that began with the shutdown.
‘We were not as aggressive as we could have been’: The first reopening
Yet the statewide stay-at-home order was widely endorsed as a necessary step early on in a frightening process.
One survey at the time found Newsom’s approval rating in the 70-percent range and that far more Californians feared he would lift the restrictions too soon rather than wait too long.
“The general perception is that he started out well in the early days, there was just a lot of uncertainty and he appeared to take decisive action to prevent the state from becoming New York,” said Rob Pyers, research director for California Target Book, a data-driven, subscription-only report for political professionals. “So for a time, his approval rating spiked up, and he wasn’t even completely underwater with Republicans.”
There were warning signs, though, on the periphery of the covid-19 crisis.
In May, the state Employment Development Department warned that fraud was being detected in early covid-19 relief claims.
Eight months later, those seeds grew into a crisis, now among the Republicans’ chief critiques of Newsom’s competence. The state acknowledges the department may have cost taxpayers $11 billion in fraudulent unemployment claims.
As Pyers put it, “It’s the kind of thing that has the tendency to chip away at a person’s confidence in the government’s ability to do its job.”
At the same time, the daily new case counts and other indicators were leveling off and even declining across much of the state, according to Newsom and Ghaly, who have rarely gone more than 48 hours in the last year without a substantive discussion of the pandemic’s status and next steps.
In one sign of over-optimism, Newsom even went so far as to suggest public schools could reopen as early as July to make up for the lost spring. The vast majority of public-school districts remain closed today.
Summer was just ahead. Businesses were still shuttered, and Memorial Day passed with most Southern California beaches closed to the public.
Newsom decided it was time to begin gradually reopening the state, despite some warnings from communities still experiencing a disproportionately high infection rate, namely Black and Latino populations.
“As it wore on, he seemed more vacillating, that there seemed to be a sort of uncertainty about how quickly to move to reopen,” said Jim Newton, a public policy lecturer at UCLA,a journalist and an author. “It felt like the voices pressing for opening were starting to get to him.”
Newton, whose most recent book is “Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown,” acknowledged “this was, after all, a freakin’ pandemic” and that “I don’t know that he could have done it perfectly and I don’t know that there was a perfect way to do it.”
“But I do think he’s put himself in a place that is somewhat characteristic of him,” Newton said. “He’s managed to be a little bit between the extremes and a little bit disappointing to people in both camps.”
In the interview, Newsom located perhaps his biggest policy mistake in this period, too, the late May and early June window when much of his public health team was still trying to figure out the behavior of the virus.
But, Newsom said, “I think it’s too easy to say, ‘Oh, he just caved to the pressure from business,’ because I’ll be very honest with you, that was just not the case. The data also bear it out. There was real stability.”
He added, “The numbers started to stabilize over not just multiple days, but weeks and weeks to a degree where we felt we had to do something, that it was wrong to hold people in that same place.”
The mistake, he said, came in the weeks after his May decision to change the criteria to make it easier for businesses to reopen. In early June, just as the state prison system and many of its nursing homes became fertile venues for the deadly virus, many businesses started to open in large numbers. A post-Memorial Day spike was yet to come.
“What was missing when we reopened, when we modified, was a communications strategy about what it meant and what it didn’t mean,” Newsom said.
“We were not as aggressive as we could have been to communicate the fact that this was not behind us, that just because we are lifting this doesn’t mean you go back to your original form,” he continued. “We communicated internally to businesses, and not as well externally to the public.”
‘So hard to embody the state’: Insularity, political personality and a birthday party
Throughout the crisis, Newsom kept a regularly scheduled Zoom call with an exclusive group of advisers — the state’s five living governors.
There were Republicans Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger; the Democrat whom Schwarzenegger replaced after the last successful gubernatorial recall in 2003, Gray Davis; and, Newsom’s Democratic predecessor, Jerry Brown, the youngest and oldest man to hold the office. Newsom called the group “formidable” and invaluable.
There were other constants — one-off calls that became “repeat” fixtures on iPhone calendars.
“We just had no idea it would last this long,” said state Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego,) president of the chamber.
Newsom had a standing call with Atkins and Rendon every Friday afternoon, dominated by covid-19 and the legislative approaches to take.
Some of it was basic logistics — how to run a virtual government, comply with open-meeting laws and fight a pandemic. Other conversations ranged over what to do about a federal government intent on a different approach to the pandemic than the one Newsom had adopted.
“To a large extent, we’ve learned over the past four and a half years in California that we have to fend for ourselves,” Rendon said. “We felt like we had to take things seriously, because we didn’t think the occupant of the White House was going to do so.”
In the interview, Newsom said he did maintain a back-channel communication with the Trump administration and that, despite Trump’s personal public criticism of Newsom at times, the governor maintained a private productive relationship with the White House.
“It pains many Democrats to hear me say this, but every time we called the Trump administration for something, they stepped up,” Newsom said. “That’s just the fact.”
Newsom also spoke to business leaders, notably Marc Benioff, a fellow San Franciscan and the billionaire owner of Salesforce. The regular talks served as a kind of top-of-the-food-chain temperature-taking for a governor, who because of his own covid-19 restrictions, could not get out much to talk with people.
But state Republicans, even those Newsom had established good relationships with during past wildfire crises, found themselves outside the conversation and increasingly angry over what several described as a “one size fits all” policy toward business closures.
Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City) said he and Newsom had formed a productive relationship during the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and turned the town of Paradise in his district to ash.
But Gallagher sued Newsom last year, claiming an abuse of executive power, when the governor mandated that all 2020 voting would be conducted by mail — at a time when the legislature was working on bills to ensure voter access during the pandemic. A lower court has agreed with Gallagher’s claim, which is working its way through the appeals process.
Gallagher, a rice and walnut farmer with three school-age kids, said his intention was to be a voice for rural interests that could help guide the governor during the process. But he said he rarely got a chance to make his voice heard, and that he was dismayed when his constituents who violated state public health guidelines by opening too early or over capacity, were met with severe fines.
“My point is, to use a sports metaphor, if you are going to hog the ball, then you better make the three-point shot,” Gallagher said. “And right now, the governor can’t make a shot from two feet.”
Newsom acknowledges that it has been his public health team that he has relied on most. And as the summer turned to fall, Ghaly’s models showed a grim winter ahead.
At that time, the conversations between the two were challenging ones, Ghaly said, in the sense that the numbers being reported to the public each day were positive but the warning signs privately were frightening.
“Sometime in the late summer, I told him the worst days of covid are still ahead of us,” Ghaly recalled. “He gulped.”
Newsom’s approval ratings by summer’s end, despite the fact that public schools were still shuttered, still consistently scored above 60 percent. In late August, the governor presented what he called “A Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” establishing a color-coded tier system that counties could use to determine how open their economies should be.
The plan was meant to clarify rules and guidelines for counties and for businesses — which, Ghaly said Newsom acknowledged at the time, “would hopefully get us through the winter.” Then another change would be needed.
But the charts and graphics left questions among many increasingly frustrated business owners about why they could not open and a neighbor could. As Wilk put it, among those in his urban-rural mixed district east of Los Angeles, “it all seemed so arbitrary.”
The virus spread quickly in the next weeks, fueled by a pair of October world championships in Los Angeles that brought tens of thousands of partying, mostly maskless Angelenos into the streets for days.
Newsom urged, in each Monday briefing to reporters and in other venues, that families should stay at home when possible, mingle with others as rarely as possible, and wear masks at all times outdoors.
It was against this warning that Newsom made his signature public-relations mistake of the pandemic year — an early November visit to the French Laundry, a Michelin-star, wine-country restaurant that is shorthand for elite extravagance. It was for an old friend’s 50th birthday celebration, a friend who also happened to be a lobbyist. Pictures showed a dinner table with too many people around it, according to the governor’s recent advice, and a few guests without masks.
Newsom fell squarely on his sword at the time, and in the interview this week, reiterated: “That was a huge mistake and I own it.”
“It’s not a mistake I made before and it’s not one I have made since,” he continued. “But it was a mistake and now it’s branded. I get it.”
Newsom took office with budget surpluses that his predecessor did not. But he also had a nearly week-long teachers strike in Los Angeles to contend with very early on and, since then, more of California has been burned in wildfires than during any similar period in recent history.
“He’s truly faced a number of Acts of God,” Rendon, the assembly speaker, said.
But the French Laundry mistake is “branded” in part because it neatly fits what the governor’s critics least like about him, a sense of aloof entitlement, fair or not, from a politician who emerged from the glamorous side of the San Francisco Bay.
Brown was a second-generation California governor, a candid, cantankerous, sometimes severe Jesuit who managed, through temperament, political acumen and longevity, to bridge or at least patch over the state’s growing urban-rural divide.
He ran Oakland as mayor, the more politically radical, demanding and poorer sister to the city Newsom served as mayor across the Bay.
Newsom, who has been challenged with dyslexia his whole life, paid plenty of dues on his way up. But he is polished to the point of stereotype — tall and fit, with a winning white smile and pushed back hair that made him, perhaps, among the easiest “Saturday Night Live” caricatures in recent times when he was lampooned on the show recently.
“Brown never would have gone to the French Laundry — he’s too cheap,” said Newton, Brown’s biographer, apologizing with a laugh for “being too glib.”
What this means for governing a state as vast and diverse as California through crisis, though, is tangible. The fallout undermines trust and confidence in who is in charge.
Newton said Brown, given his pedigree and time in office, “was just more Californian than anyone you’ve ever met. But with Newsom, I think, sometimes he feels more San Francisco than California and that is a very discrete place, especially in a state without a cohesive media.”
“California is such a hard place to embody and to do so in the middle of a crisis like this, again, is extremely difficult,” he said. “If he were in the fourth or fifth year of his tenure, if he were in his second term, I think it might be somewhat different. But I do think it’s hard to capture the entirety of the gestalt of the state at a moment of crisis.”
‘Who is running this show?’: Closing before the covid winter
Even as his approval rating remained high, Newsom confronted what he knew would be a deeply unpopular decision in a state that had, over the summer, glimpsed mirage-like the pandemic’s end.
Public health officials remained largely unsure about the basics of covid-19, and as winter approached, how seasonal a virus like this would behave in changing weather. Ghaly’s models showed frighteningly high numbers ahead, as the holiday season approached.
“This was at a time when everybody wanted to open up,” Ghaly said. “The whole world was like, ‘We’ve got to have a normal Thanksgiving. We’ve got to have a normal retail season during Christmas. We’ve got to have a normal Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s.’ All of that had to look okay. And he made a very hard choice.”
That choice came during the first week in December when Newsom imposed a new stay-at-home order based on region and tied specifically to intensive care unit capacity.
On the day he did, California was averaging 25,000 new daily covid-19 cases over the past week, more than double the peak fall surge. Nearly 400 Californians died that day of the virus — the majority of them Latino.
Of the nearly 56,000 Californians who have died of covid-19, 46 percent of them have been Latino, a group that makes up only 39 percent of the population. Those proportions are far higher in cities and the agricultural valleys where Latinos live and work.
They fill many of the front-line jobs that have been forced back to work, and because many live in the densely populated neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Oakland and up through the Central Valley, the spread has been fast and harrowing.
“We were not prepared for this kind of a crisis,” said Isaac Bryan, director of the Black Policy Project at UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. “Here in California, we talk incredibly progressive rhetoric, but it’s been shown that our civic institutions and our infrastructure produces social inequities not much different than other places across the country and actually at a larger scale and degree than some.”
Bryan is a Democratic candidate for the state Assembly, running for an open seat in a special election to be held in the coming months. He said the problems that led to covid-19’s disproportionate impact on minorities “predate this governor,” but that in real time, Newsom did little to resolve the problem.
“I would say all levels of California’s government have shown, time and again, where we haven’t considered racial equity and racial justice in our decision-making in the same way that we’ve catered to many other different kinds of interest groups,” Bryan said. “Those obviously have the greater ear of our elected officials.”
The pandemic worsened, across demographic lines, in the weeks after Newsom shut the state down again by region. So, too, did his political standing.
“It’s one thing to show it in a news conference, but it’s not getting into everyone’s living room,” Newsom said. “They’re not fully understanding what you’re seeing. You’re seeing it, but they’re not seeing it. And so here we are asserting that things are about to get bad again.”
Restaurant associations, county governments, small businesses and many others began filing lawsuits, eventually more than 150 against Newsom and the state for the new closures.
A particularly irksome element of the rules was the ban on outdoor dining, which the administration could not provide a clear public-health reason for its rationale. Many restaurant owners had spent a lot of money creating outdoor dining areas for just such situations. Now they sat empty.
Many complaints and legal challenges came from conservative rural counties, others from places such as urban Orange County. A social media video posted by a Sherman Oaks restaurant owner at the time showed her empty outdoor dining area and, next door, a movie crew exempted from the rules dining in a tent.
“This is when people really started asking, ‘Who is running this show?’ ” Newsom recalled. “It really started to break. That’s when we knew this was a new normal. It was a new reality because, you know, you start to lose the broad public support and yet you have to double down on all your efforts given our models.”
He added, “This had become a big thrust of the recall and sort of gave it a second push.”
Within weeks, though, many of the various regions’ hospitals had reached full ICU capacity. Hospitals were being overrun with covid-19 cases — with nowhere to send the overflow. As the new year began, the state was reporting a seven-day average of about 40,000 new daily cases.
On the last day covid-19 deaths were recorded last year, 700 Californians died.
“One of my friends compared this to the Great Depression and how it impacted a generation of people,” said Atkins, the state senate president. “My grandmother, my spouse’s grandmother were of the Depression era, you know, and it affected her entire life and her psychology. And I wonder if we’re not in one of those moments.”
‘Permission to be able to learn’: The state reopens
This week, the vast majority of Californians — more than 35 million people — began living life again under slightly eased public-health regulations. The dreaded “purple tier” had turned “red” for all but 11 of the state’s 58 counties, with more adjustments to come soon.
In recent weeks, Newsom has signed California’s $7.6 billion relief bill, soon to bring direct payments and business grants to millions of residents. The state, reliant on income tax, is enjoying a one-time budget surplus in the tens of billions of dollars as the result of its super-rich residents getting much richer over the course of the pandemic.
“Any negative economic impact was disproportionately felt in our lowest-income communities,” said Bryan, the Democratic Assembly candidate. “They should have known that was coming around, this surplus, they should have been able to track that. As a result, we should have been bolder earlier with resources, sooner in getting resources out. But now that we know, we have to be extremely bold now.”
After a standoff with the powerful teachers’ unions over school openings, namely over Newsom’s position that schools could open before all staff was vaccinated, the governor and others reached an agreement this month that could have some of the biggest districts open within weeks. To seal the deal, Newsom allocated 10 percent of all available vaccines to teachers and school staff members.
The long school closures, though, will form a centerpiece of the recall case against him.
“We had a one-size-fits-all policy for California, which simply didn’t work and with no transparency behind how the decisions were being made,” said Kevin Faulconer, the Republican mayor of San Diego until leaving office last December. He has since declared his candidacy for governor in 2022 or if the recall succeeds this year.
“Right now, California public schools are still not open and private schools are,” he continued. “Teachers are safely teaching kids there in the classroom because those schools report to parents. And yet public schools that ultimately report to Gavin Newsom are closed.”
More than 13 million Californians have received a dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and in Newsom’s sometimes idiosyncratic way of speaking, the state has viewed the process through an “equity lens” to ensure that at least 2 million vaccines are administered in the hardest-hit neighborhoods of color before counties can fully open.
There may even be fans in those seats at Dodger Stadium for the April 9 home opener.
“We should have the permission to be able to learn from what we’re seeing here and abroad and in other parts of the states and try to apply that to a thoughtful approach,” Ghaly said. “Being flexible and being willing to shift in a quickly shifting environment is leadership.”
There are other big-small things happening now as the state opens again.
Breed, San Francisco’s mayor, laced up roller skates for a spin around Golden Gate Park earlier this month, the first time she has since the pandemic began. Restaurants are welcoming people inside. School-supply shopping — while still masked — has begun.
Newsom, too, is out again, more visible in the state than he has been since his campaign. He visits vaccination centers, schools poised to reopen, community clinics — and there is frequently a handful of “Recall Newsom” demonstrators at each stop.
The white Chrysler Pacifica minivan with the “Recall Newsom” placard on the driver’s side door awaited the governor at a vaccination site in Ventura County earlier this month.
“I don’t want anyone to die, but this virus is 99 percent survivable, so why are we not happier about this? Why would we have closed everything down because of this? I wouldn’t have wanted it done for me if I were sick,” said Sheryl Hall, who made the quick drive from Thousand Oaks to confront the governor.
Her two children have missed more than a year of high school, the fraud at the employment department is infuriating, and on principle she disagrees with shutting down an economy for what she says is essentially the flu. She did not vote for Newsom in the first place.
“And, of course, he gets to eat out and we don’t,” she said. “No, the virus doesn’t excuse that.”
In the interview, Newsom said he understands the anger and will run on a record that, while not “perfect” in his assessment, saved lives. His slo-mo walk across the Dodger Stadium outfield has been turned into what looks a lot like a campaign ad, and now national Democrats, from President Biden on down, have condemned the recall effort.
Should the recall qualify, voters will be casting their up-or-down ballots on Newsom at a vastly different time if — and that’s a big if — current health and economic trends hold.
“California’s poised for a huge comeback because the industry that’s been disproportionately impacted is the one that’s going to come roaring back — and that’s hospitality,” Newsom said. “That’s a huge part of California’s economy. So no one’s perfect. I’m not perfect. I’m also my own worst critic.”