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Last spring, at the beginning of the pandemic, California, and its Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, received a lot of praise for its handling of the coronavirus. While New York and other areas were struggling, California, which was the first state to issue a stay-at-home order, seemed to have figured something out. But at some point, things changed. Angela Hart, who covers health policy for California Healthline, says the turning point was the state’s summer reopening. “California opened too fast, and since then, we’ve seen a series of really big missteps on the part of this governor,” she says.
Newsom in particular is drawing fire from Californians who feel misled by the rosy picture he’s been painting of the state’s coronavirus response, all while the situation on the ground gets worse and worse. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Hart about Newsom’s pandemic response and the increasingly serious effort to recall him from office. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: When did you start to think that so many people might be mad at Gavin Newsom that all of this might get him kicked out of office?
Angela Hart: I’ve been seeing these recall signs all over the freeways and in Home Depot parking lots. You see the signature gathering going on. So that’s just kind of out there. But then when you start talking to people, you start to understand: These aren’t only Republicans. These are disaffected Democrats. These are “no party preference” voters. So you really can’t ignore the voice of all the different sides of the political spectrum.
My understanding is that in California there are lots of recall efforts, actually. It’s just very few of them succeed.
What we’re seeing out there is not the same as the past recall efforts. There have been six against Gov. Newsom. This one is different. This one is gaining momentum from across the political spectrum. It’s not only Republicans who are growing disillusioned with the governor.
I’m always trying to gut-check myself about if this is still a long shot. And I went out to a lot of my Democratic sources, and I did not hear anybody with a full-throttle defense of the governor and his leadership. I did not hear anybody say, “This is not a Gov. Newsom problem.”
In California, it’s the counties, all 58 of them, that are having to roll out the coronavirus vaccination plan. So while the state says everyone 65 and older can get vaccinated, that might not actually be the case on the ground, right?
People can’t find very basic information here. People can’t find out where to get an appointment. They can’t figure out who to call. They can’t figure out where their place in line is. I spoke to this woman Joyce Hanson for a story. She specifically said, I understand the governor doesn’t control the supply of vaccines coming to California, and I can handle waiting until March or April if that’s how long it’s going to take for me to get vaccinated. She’s 69. But the governor made it sound like she’s going to be able to get signed up and get vaccinated tomorrow. So she said, I can take it, I can take the truth, but just be honest with us. And she feels wholeheartedly misled by the governor.
It seems to me like Newsom has a couple of problems. He’s got this problem of optics—what it looks like he’s doing and maybe not doing. And then he’s got the problem of what is actually happening that is touching people. I remember back in November it seemed like some anti-Newsom sentiment picked up after he was caught going to this fancy dinner without a mask. Did you see that as a turning point?
Certainly, that was a turning point. Gov. Newsom was at the French Laundry, a hip, very upscale, trendy restaurant in wine country in California.
He was with donors, right?
He was schmoozing with donors—lobbyists. It just looked really bad on him. And he was violating his own rules. He was dining with a group of friends that were not from his household. He defended himself at first, and then a little while later he apologized. Voters are extremely upset about this. I’ve heard it everywhere. I’ve heard it from Republicans. I’ve heard it from independents. I’ve heard it from Democrats.
It’s optics, but it’s even deeper than that. Everybody has sacrificed so much. We’ve been, by and large, locked in our houses for the better part of a year. And to see the governor flippantly ignoring his own rules hit a nerve.
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The questions over Newsom’s performance as governor go deeper than disorganization, right? They’re about money. Talk about the latest state budget that Newsom drew up.
Essentially, there is no new direct public health money for counties in the budget.
Even though a pandemic is raging.
Counties have their hands up, begging for anything, and the governor has said, essentially, no. I’ve asked them specifically: Is public health not a big enough priority? Why do counties not get any more public health money, and meanwhile you have continued to ladle increasing amounts of responsibility on them—contact tracing, testing, enforcement of the rules, and now vaccination?
I’m going to tell you about Dr. Phuong Luu, who is the health officer for Yuba and Sutter counties in rural Northern California. This is a county that is struggling to make ends meet in terms of its pandemic response. It is completely drowning in responsibility. Phuong Luu has 50 people to do all those big tests, and she is about to lay off 20 of them this month.
It just shows that an underfunded and overworked local health department that’s been given all this responsibility is caught in this really, really treacherous vaccination rollout in California. You find these stories all across California.
In the coming weeks, county health departments will have some of that pressure taken off of them, right? Last week, Newsom announced—rather suddenly—that the insurer Blue Shield would be taking over California’s vaccine rollout.
But that, too, is causing people to just throw their arms up, and people are really upset. There’s been a really robust social media conversation, and a woman named Nancy said it is his fault the governor doesn’t have a plan to distribute the vaccine. (He did have a plan, but it was just not carried out efficiently.) And now you and I are going to have to pay Blue Shield millions of dollars to do it, even though they had no expertise in this area—total abdication of leadership.
So even the fix has people angry.
People are so angry. Why can’t California do this? What changed? We don’t know how much this contract is costing the state. We haven’t been able to get answers. We don’t know some of the mechanics about how it’s going to work—really important details. It puts a large part of the distribution responsibility in the hands of a private health insurer when the response really needs to be driven by a public health perspective. And so that’s causing a lot of concern, it’s causing some early backlash as well. It’s really a difficult position this governor finds himself in.
So the organizers of this recall effort, they need to gather a lot of signatures in a very short period of time. Can you lay that out a little bit?
Yes, they still have a long ways to go. They’ve got still about half of their signatures to collect. This is largely, at this point, a volunteer-driven effort. It’s not really that organized. It’s kind of a mess, the way that the campaign looks on the ground. They are actually proud of that. They like that it is being driven by this grassroots energy.
And they need to gather signatures by March?
The deadline is March 17, and then the secretary of state’s office will count them all. So they need almost 1.5 million ballot signatures. We shall see what they actually turn in and how many are valid. However, I think these things can really take on a life of their own. All it really takes is one big check. If you look back historically, when Gray Davis was recalled in 2003, you saw a $2 million check from a congressman named Darrell Issa come in. And that turned this long-shot campaign into, Oh, man, we have to take this seriously now.
Is there anyone out there who looks like they might have money to spend on this and want to tip the scales?
Lots of people out there have lots of deep pockets. The question is who, right? If the momentum keeps building and building and building, you reach the sort of breaking point politically. And then all it takes is one Democrat or one Republican—it doesn’t matter what their political stripe is—to say, “We have a shot.”
What do you think the saga of Gavin Newsom says to other governors who are struggling to control the coronavirus?
I think the lesson is be straightforward, level with the public. The governor here in California has made very explicit and lofty promises going back to Oct. 19, vowing that California would lead an equitable and smooth vaccine distribution strategy. He said, “There’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’re a few months away from truly seeing real progress with the vaccine.” Dec. 7: “Hope is on the horizon.”
Let me just contrast that with the message we heard from President Biden after he took office: “The brutal truth is it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated.” Months.
You sound frustrated with him too.
If I sound frustrated, it’s because I’m reflecting the total insanity out there on the ground. And I’m reflecting, I think, the frustration that I’ve heard from many of the people I’ve spoken to in the course of reporting. The governor has outlined a very different reality than people are experiencing on the ground. He’s sending a message of hope. And We’ve got this. And Stick with us. California’s a leader. California’s at the bottom of states nationally in terms of the vaccines administered compared to the vaccines that it has received. California is not leading. California’s failing compared to the rhetoric that the governor had in the beginning.
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