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Why 2020 Was Annus Horribilis for California

CAL BUZZ-For our farewell to 2020, Calbuzz was cleverly waiting for the results of the Georgia Senate races, in order to be able to more accurately discuss how 2021 would be shaping up – Democratic control of the U.S. Senate obviously would make things very different than divided government. 

But our best laid plans were upended when a riotous mob, incited by President Trump, attempted a coup last Wednesday, overrunning the U.S. Capitol, defiling the building, killing a cop, causing the death of four other people, hunting for the Congressional leadership, and assaulting the very principle of democracy. 

And, oh yeah, erecting a gallows on the Capitol grounds. 

Whether the Narcissist In Chief will be punished for the Trump Putsch (Coup Klux Klan?) In the meantime, a few reflections about how all this impacts Californians. 

Sherman meets Rev. Warnock. Georgia, driven by the votes from descendants of slaves, has saved the Union, 160 years almost to the date after seceding from the United States and joining the Confederate War of Independence. 

Not since Ohio-born William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta on Sep. 2, 1864 and began his merciless March, to the Sea, has the Peach State played such a pivotal role in American history – this time by electing two Democratic senators who will shift the balance of power in Washington. 

Instead of a hobbled government, Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be able to form the cabinet, appoint the judges and shape the policies they want. 

This is especially welcome news in California where Biden and Harris won a five-million-vote, 63-34% victory over Donald Trump but which also has suffered 2.51 million cases of COVID-19 and 27,461 deaths with a Governor who was slow to make testing easily available — and who crippled his credibility when it was revealed he had dined sans-masque at the tony French Laundry with some of California’s most notorious cash-sucking lobbyists. 

At least one of us previously described this  as “a delicious, easily-digested soupcon of journalism that simultaneously summarizes, synthesizes and sticks a sharp needle into a politician’s puffed-up pomposity, releasing noxious gases of rank hypocrisy and reeking self-regard.” 

How broken is state government? In the early days of the pandemic,  Newsom won praise for his swift and firm attention to the Covid crisis (except for the failure to rapidly make testing available), but as the disease now rampages throughout California and the death toll steadily mounts, he has ceded moral authority and political influence with an endless series of tortuous, bewildering and half-baked orders to businesses and local governments, which verge on self-parody, not to mention his own self-entitled behavior

A couple of our very smart colleagues just today published a searing look at the problems Prince Gavin faces in Politico titled “It’s all fallen apart.” 

Not only have public health officials lost control of the virus, but state administrators have bungled the distribution of unemployment and federal relief programs, leaving tens of thousands of out-of-work Californians entangled in bureaucracy even as imprisoned felons successfully scam millions, raising concerns about how efficiently the vaccine will be distributed in the state.

Who decides when kids go back to school? As a political matter, Newsom’s most urgent problem is finding a pathway for California’s six million public school students to return to classrooms, amid growing pressures from disheartened and exasperated parents throughout the state. 

He has set forth a $2 billion plan of incentives for K-2 students to return in February, but the California Teachers Union is demanding stringent standards for school re-openings, setting up a potential clash between the preeminent special interest in Sacramento, and the Capitol’s dominant Democrats, who are usually on the same side. 

Will Gavin join the Gray Davis Club? Widespread death, economic disruption and government disarray has fueled a Republican-led bid to qualify by March a 2021 ballot measure to recall Newsom. The recall started as a fringe effort, but recently has gained momentum, money and establishment GOP backing, and seasoned political voices are warning Newsom to take the statewide campaign seriously, or risk the fate of recalled Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. 

A second term? Despite our decades of experiencing Newsom as a political Narcissus, we have held out hope that with the right people on his team, the former San Francisco mayor could perform well as governor. Instead, he has given former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, whom many Republicans view as the party’s best chance of ever winning a statewide office again, an opening to tweet:

His kids can learn in person. But yours can’t. He can celebrate birthday parties. But you can’t. He can dine on a $350 meal at one California’s fanciest restaurants during the worst recession in generations. But you definitely can’t. Can you believe this? I can’t. 

Of course, Prince Gavin is fortunate to have no one like Arnold Schwarzenegger lurking in the wings. And while one former San Diego mayor – Pete Wilson — did make it as governor, that was a different era in terms of partisan division. Our take: Faulconer has only run in non-partisan municipal elections. If he runs for governor, he’ll have a big red ‘R’ branded on his forehead. And today, statewide, that’s fatal. 

Can new hands right the ship? Stung by all this, Newsom made a couple of moves in early December to right the ship: he installed our old friend Dee Dee Myers as his top business adviser, and he laid down a policy aimed at separating his political advisers from lobbying. 

Myers has been in the middle of sone serious shit storms from Dianne Feinstein to Michael Dukakis and Frank Jordan to Bill Clinton, and she has always seemed to be one offering a smart, transparent, competent way forward. 

Moreover, as the Sacramento Bee reported: 

The governor’s office issued a statement from [friend of Calbuzz] Ann Ravel, former chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission, applauding the governor’s new policy, calling it “groundbreaking for California.” 

“Not only does it go beyond what’s legally required, it meets the spirit of upholding public trust, which is vital to our Democracy,” Ravel said. 

Dan Schnur, a longtime political operative and government ethics expert, [and friend of Calbuzz] said the policy is both the right thing to do and the political savvy thing to do, given Newsom’s recent gaffes. 

“It’s always a good thing when an elected official moves so strongly to eliminate potential conflicts of interests,” Schnur said. “But it’s also a very savvy damage control maneuver for a governor who’s taken more than his share of ethics hits over the past few weeks.” 

Looking forward, we hold out hope that Prince Gavin will shake off his self-entitlement and pay attention to some of the very smart people who are eager to help him lead California. 

Feinstein Losing Her Grip? Yes, we long ago noted that Feinstein is older than the Golden Gate Bridge. But we also have seen her as far more capable, experienced and competent than those who have arisen to challenge her. 

Now, however, Lady DiFi has — with her doddering, forgetfulness and lack of connection to the here-and-now — begun to lose the confidence of her own Senate colleagues and apparently, some of her close staff. 

As documented by the great (and, in this case, gentle)  Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, 

. . .many others familiar with Feinstein’s situation describe her as seriously struggling, and say it has been evident for several years. Speaking on background, and with respect for her accomplished career, they say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have. They describe Feinstein as forgetting what she has said and getting upset when she can’t keep up. 

Since at least half of us (we name no names) has actually chronicled the life of the Empress of Pacific Heights and we have a view of Feinstein that goes back decades. 

Those who know her best say DiFi remains quite capable, but her memory lapses apparently are real and her lifelong commitment to compromise and civility is way out of fashion amid today’s unrelenting political warfare, raising speculation about Feinstein finishing her term, which doesn’t end until 2024. 

As we head into the new year, we suggest that Dianne that she step down from any leadership positions in the Senate and concentrate on smaller, do-able projects, like helping California recover from four years of Donald Trump on environmental, health, immigration, economic and social problems. 

Use her final few years and considerable seniority for the benefit of her home state and leave the partisan fights to those better suited to mount the tip of the spear. 

Xavier to Capitol: I’m baaack. We’ve been impressed with Becerra since long before he was installed as California Attorney General. 

He’s the real deal when it comes from working his way out of obscurity on the strengths of his intellect, skill and instincts. We’ve always regarded him as a potential governor and figured the perch of AG was just about ideal as a launching pad for a statewide race for the top job. 

But with his background in Congress fighting for affordable health care and his more recent lawsuits against Trump, on issues ranging from immigration to pandemic policy, he was also seen by Joe Biden as a tremendous asset for the new administration. 

At first blush, we were surprised to see him accept the spot of Secretary of Health and Human Services, which has historically been kind of a lesser, cubby-hole of a cabinet position. 

But in the Age of Coronavirus, no cabinet position is going to be more important or high-profile in the next couple of years than the Secretary of HHS which, under Biden, appears to be the cabinet’s coordinator for pandemic policy. 

After Becerra. Losing Becerra to Washington will open up a hugely important statewide post that Newsom will have to fill on a temporary basis. 

We don’t expect it because there is no love lost between the Newsom and Jerry Brown camps, but former Gov. Brown, also a former AG, would make a terrific temporary appointee, leaving the seat open in 2022 for whoever wants to break into that career stream – someone who would defend immigrant rights, choice of abortion, coastal protection and environmental policy and other interests vital of California. 

This has the advantage of putting someone in the top legal post who will spend absolutely zero percent of his or her time trying to build a political apparatus for future re-election to the post but will be fully concentrated on the issues that California confronts in the courts. 

And in those cases where California must join or lead other states in helping share national policy, Brown would step in with an instant mountain of respect from other AGs around the country. 

Senator Alex -Meh. To the surprise of no one – and to the disappointment of Black leaders who wanted an African American appointed – Gov. Newsom named his longtime ally, friend, and fellow Ace Smith client Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill the seat in the U.S. Senate that is vacated by Kamala Harris’s election as vice president.  

As the first Latino from California ever to serve in the Senate and as an able and intelligent politician, we expect Padilla will represent California with distinction. He may not be the single best available choice for the job, but Newsom was smart to name a Latino leader with statewide bona fides and credibility. 

Newsom then promptly nominated Assemblymember Shirley Weber to the Secretary of State post, a gesture to Black leaders who lobbied hard for another African American to succeed Harris. 

Mr. Speaker Kevin McCarthy? Joe Biden thumped Trump in California, but the 2020 election overall was good news for state Republicans, as voters backed conservative policies in conflicts over a host of ballot measures on taxes, affirmative action and criminal justice reforms, while the GOP reclaimed four of seven suburban House seats in the state which they’d lost in 2018. 

Although newly re-elected as House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi now holds only a tiny majority in the House. Before the Insurrection, pro-Trump Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield aggressively was  positioning his caucus with an eye to 2022 and the congressional mid-terms, when the president’s party historically loses seats. 

It will be intriguing to watch to see if McCarthy tries to soften his four years of bully boy fealty to Trump with his sudden, new-found desire for “healing.” Cough, cough. 

Bottom line: The poison and violence Trump and his minions already have injected into the nation’s culture by refusing to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s election, however, will likely fester and putrefy our politics for generations.

 

(Jerry Roberts is a California journalist who writes, blogs and hosts a TV talk show about politics, policy and media. Phil Trounstine is the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News, former communications director for California Gov. Gray Davis and was the founder and director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. This piece appeared originally in CalBuzz.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.