In 2019, still settling into his new home in the state’s creepy, gothic governor’s mansion, Gavin Newsom told an Axios interviewer, “California is what America is going to look like.” Then, perhaps reflecting on his Hollywood benefactors, he added for emphasis, “California is America’s coming attraction.”
California has always aspired to be a shining city-state on a hill. But few Californians expected that the source of the hilltop glow, the buttery radiance emanating as if from a Thomas Kinkade (“Painter of Light”) painting, would be Governor Newsom’s — and the state’s — spectacular and deadly spontaneous combustion.
Mind If We Smoke?
I write as four Northern California counties are consumed in actual hellish fire, fire that transforms forests and communities into smoke and ash that rise over the state’s eastern border and stream across Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, and the Midwest, emitting more unlocked carbon than all the carbon released annually by all the gasoline-powered vehicles registered in California.
“Summer after summer, California, a global leader in battling air pollution from vehicles, sends giant clouds of haze filled with health-damaging particles across the country,” the New York Times reports. Thanks to California, schools in western states have closed, and masks, only yesterday a requirement in the battle to stop COVID, are finding new life in the battle against smoke from the Golden State.
California is a menace to society. It’s not just our mismanaged forests. It’s a catalogue of state failures stretching back decades.
Now, searching for someone to blame — anyone but ourselves — we Californians have settled on a kind of death match between Gavin Newsom and the grassroots activists who organized a long-shot effort to recall him. On September 14, we’ll wrap up a month of Election Days to determine whether Newsom stays in the aforementioned haunted house. Whether he does or he doesn’t, it’s a certainty that California voters will not have learned anything like a “lesson.” On September 15, whatever the outcome, the inmates will still be running the asylum.
Just a few weeks ago, polls showed the governor winning easily. Now those polls suggest a coin toss. What has happened betweentimes is a summer of COVID numbers ticking up. Teachers’-union leaders are whispering that the uptick ought to trigger a return to distance-learning schemes that helped move even Democrats to back the recall.
And then, of course, there’s fire.
“But here’s the bottom line about those polls,” says Jon Fleischman, a longtime Sacramento observer and conservative political consultant. “Everybody’s guessing. Turnout is everything, and no one — no one — knows what the turnout will be.” One thing’s for sure, Fleischman adds: “These [poll] results clearly help Newsom raise cash.”
Terrified by the new polls, liberal donors have stampeded to the governor’s side. The latest reports show Newsom’s campaign with a 200-to-one advertising-spending advantage over the recall campaign itself: $5.9 million to $27,500 in July alone. One of the ads purchased with that money features Elizabeth Warren’s sepulchral mug in a video denouncing the recall effort as uniquely “Republican” or, worse, Trump-adjacent.
Warren couldn’t spare even one of her 30 seconds to praise Newsom, nor did she apparently consider the worrisome optics in her message: Newsom’s campaign fundraising so far depends almost entirely on the state’s billionaires and leaders of the billion-dollar government unions — precisely the sort of “lobbyists and billionaires” who Warren has said “try to buy off politicians during elections.” As reported by the Orange County Register, the donations include a total of $6.25 million from Reed Hastings, head of Netflix; George Marcus of real-estate fame; Connie Ballmer, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers; and hedge-fund investors James Simons, Liz Simons (daughter of James), and Mark Heising (husband of Liz). And they include the state’s prison-guards’ union ($1.75 million) and the California Teachers Association ($1.8 million). Consider it a clear symptom of poll-induced panic on the left that the Service Employees International Union has written checks to Newsom totaling a remarkable $5.5 million.
It almost never pays to examine campaign propaganda too closely — it’s like sending the late, great L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold to sample the Hooters lunch menu — but Warren’s pitch reveals the Newsom campaign’s work to link the recall to Donald Trump. So far, the former president’s most notable contribution to the recall has been his unprecedented silence. Nevertheless, says Warren, the connection is clear: “We’ve seen Trump Republicans across the country, attacking election results and the right to vote. Now they’re coming to grab power in California, abusing the recall process and costing taxpayers millions.”
Warren may hate California’s recall process — many conservatives do, too — but it’s been in the state constitution for 110 years, and the only “abuse” has been the governor’s. Like a British prime minister calling a snap election, Newsom bet that speeding up the election would deprive recall supporters — primarily grassroots activists — of time they need to raise cash for the campaign against him. California secretary of state Shirley Weber (whom Newsom appointed to replace Alex Padilla, whom he had appointed to replace Kamala Harris) agreed to the September 14 filing. If that seems autocratic, Newsom next leveraged emergency powers he granted himself during the COVID pandemic and ordered ballots mailed to all registered California voters.
As for Warren’s complaint about the recall’s cost — projected to be about $215 million — well, that’s a fraction of the cost of the many blunders for which Newsom could be recalled.
The popular notion is that the recall is driven by Republicans upset about the governor’s ham-fisted COVID response, including (maybe especially) his decision to attend a pandemic-year birthday party with lobbyists, unmasked, at the fabulous restaurant French Laundry. That one had even his most liberal admirers gasping. “Gavin Newsom: What were you thinking?” a New York Times opinion writer asked. As if in response, a CNN opinion writer offered, “Gavin Newsom’s French Laundry scandal is no reason to toss him out.”
But the reasons to toss him out are legion, and each is more costly than an expensive recall. A foul-up at the state’s Employment Development Division sent $31 billion to fraudulent applicants, including inmates in the state’s prison system. During COVID, a CapRadio investigation found “at least a half-dozen companies that made substantial contributions to Newsom and received no-bid contracts from the state, influential appointments, or other opportunities related to the state’s pandemic response”: “The contributions range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The contracts range from $2 million to over $1 billion — including the one awarded to Blue Shield for vaccine distribution . . . worth up to $15 million.” Then there’s Newsom’s insistence on building a high-speed rail system in which the greatest feature is indeed speed, but not of the trains: The project cost has moved with mind-boggling velocity from $33 billion in 2008 to a projected $100 billion today. It still goes from nowhere to nowhere. In July, Newsom bailed out the Biden administration’s immigration catastrophe at the state’s border with Mexico, signing into law an expansion of state health insurance to cover 235,000 undocumented migrants over 50 years of age. There was much focus on the cost of health insurance to those migrants, but almost none on the cost to the state’s taxpayers.
Some costs are harder to calculate, such as Newsom’s reliance on financial support from the state’s teachers’ unions. In 2019, he signed into law a series of bills written by the California Teachers Association, carried by a former CTA executive-turned-legislator, and designed to kill public charter schools. In California, if you’re poor and trapped in a failing school, a charter — publicly funded but independently managed and typically non-union — may be your only alternative. How do you measure the cost of protecting a failed state monopoly in K–12 education? Similarly, his pandemic-motivated shutdown of the state’s schools, driven by teachers’-union leaders and activists, hurt California’s poorest most grievously.
Not wishing to diminish anything else in this résumé of failure, let’s return to wildfires.
California’s wildfires illuminate — though they have not yet burned — everything rotten in the state’s progressive politics. Two summers ago, Newsom asserted that massive wildfires had been caused by the failure of Pacific Gas & Electric to maintain its equipment.
“It’s about dog-eat-dog capitalism meeting climate change. It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change,” he roared.
The fact is that state officials run California’s utilities via the state’s powerful Public Utilities Commission. The PUC board comprises political appointees to whom you would not entrust a small box of matches, and yet the PUC determines the management of Pacific Gas & Electric in such exacting detail that the utility hardly qualifies as a private enterprise. For years, the PUC has steered California’s utilities away from fire safety and toward a menu of green initiatives, lucrative but wasteful overbuilding, and the vulnerable, long-distance transmission of electricity from states where it’s easier to build plants and still legal to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity.
The political appointees at the PUC have merged with environmentalists who’ve made it impossible to manage state and national forests. Seemingly taking their science cues from the Na’vi humanoids of Pandora (thanks, James Cameron!), these forest advocates see every tree as a conscious being, every stick-frame house as something like a murder scene. They’ve killed the sawmills that once employed tens of thousands. They’ve shut down fire-access roads. The result is densely packed tinder piling up beneath a network of long-distance interstate high-power transmission lines.
This highly political regulatory environment — not some unhinged, slick-haired, coke-snorting Wall Street madman — is the real source of our troubles.
Critics know this. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have concluded that California’s diabolical fire seasons are largely the result of years of environmentalist excess on the part of state regulators, that “protecting our forests” actually means storing up kindling for a future conflagration. Before the onset of this year’s fire season, perhaps hearing that call and deciding to genuflect, Newsom announced that his executive order had carved out fuel breaks and prescribed burns on 90,000 acres. But in June, a public-radio reporter discovered that “the state’s own data show the actual number [of acres treated] is 11,399.” Newsom had overstated his impact by 690 percent.
But even 90,000 acres was a chump’s con. As I write this, the Dixie Fire has been burning through four Northern California counties for a month, incinerating 490,000 acres, or 765 square miles. Still just 21 percent contained, it is already the second-largest wildfire in California history, and state fire officials say they no longer know when they’ll stop it.
Somewhere in those numbers was the 5,120-acre town of Greenville, a gold-rush-era mountain town consumed by fire in half an hour on August 4. Few wildfire stories from the summer of 2021 can compete with the vivid terror of its 1,100 residents, who have fled, and the absurdity of the governor’s stomping through its remains three days later for obliging reporters. In a tweet featuring a photo of his glamorous self against the wreckage, the governor said, “Greenville — though this moment may seem insurmountable, we’ll be there to help you rebuild.”
Three days earlier, on the day Greenville burned down, four candidates vying to replace Newsom debated his failures at the Nixon Library in Orange County. Newsom chose counter-programming — a press conference on the edge of a burn scar from the 2020 August Complex Fire, for the moment the largest fire in state history. The state’s fire authority helpfully provided the backdrop, one of its highly polished institutional-green trucks. Newsom took the mic and then handed it to U.S. secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack.
Vilsack was there to represent the transition in California’s relationship with Washington, D.C. While Trump was in office, California sued the federal government more than 100 times; Newsom ridiculed the president’s claim that California’s forest mismanagement, not climate change, is the primary cause of its wildfires. But with Joe Biden in the White House, Vilsack could say what we know to be true — what Trump himself had said only a year ago: “We need more boots on the ground. We need to do more forest management to reduce the risk of fire.”
Of course, Vilsack was also there to demand more money for the men and women in those boots, members of the state’s powerful and left-leaning firefighters’ union. More significantly, he was there to plug the Biden administration’s massive, trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. Newsom made the requisite promises: Despite his provable lies about his past efforts in this area — misrepresentations he says he regrets, but which we cannot forget — Newsom assured us that wise practices are forthcoming.
Fade to Blackout
They can’t come soon enough. Along with summer heat and fires come blackouts — and blackouts, as Newsom knows, drove Gray Davis from the governor’s mansion in 2003, in the state’s only other recall.
On July 8, as temperatures spiked throughout the Canadian and American West, the PUC begged state residents to cut back on electricity consumption. But by then, officials had already concluded that voluntary compliance would not be enough to rescue the state from the PUC’s green-energy policies. Then, in an act the Los Angeles Times called “a cruel twist of the climate era” (but which you and I might call “irony”), Newsom issued an emergency proclamation that ordered state regulators to crank up every available source of power generation, including those that run on fossil fuels.
When Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519, he ordered his men to burn their ships, barring any retreat in the face of what terrors might befall them during their conquest. Similarly, Newsom and Jerry Brown before him have systematically dismantled electricity generation from fossil fuels. That has left the state reliant on the unreliable — electricity from the sun and wind, or from states where clean-air politics haven’t yet supplanted reality.
But the heat wave threatened to kill those out-of-state sources even as it drove up energy demand in California. And the sun, she refused to shine at night. So, Newsom reversed course. He commanded cargo ships tied up in the state’s major ports to continue running their diesel engines rather than plug into dockside electricity hookups. More spectacularly, the governor’s order directed regulators to switch on the very gas-fired power generators the governor’s team had scheduled for permanent shutdown a year ago. Agency officials broke the emergency glass and flipped the switches. California was saved by oil, natural gas, and coal.
You don’t have to be a Republican or even a conservative to see why thousands of Californians volunteered to gather more than 1.5 million signatures to qualify this recall for the ballot. You don’t have to like Donald Trump to get why millions more will vote to remove the governor. You don’t even have to like the idea of recalls. But when you think about what Gavin Newsom has cost ordinary Californians — never mind California’s neighbors — you can understand.