Gov. New­som had ‘bap­tism by fire’ in 1st year

Antelope Valley Press - - News - By KATH­LEEN RONAYNE

SACRA­MENTO — Dur­ing his inau­gu­ral ad­dress last Jan­uary, Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Gavin New­som made only a pass­ing ref­er­ence to wild­fires and never men­tioned the state’s largest util­ity, Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric. Both soon be­came in­escapable top­ics.

PG&E filed for bank­ruptcy barely three weeks after the Demo­cratic gov­er­nor was sworn in, trig­ger­ing a se­ries of events that de­fined the for­mer San Fran­cisco mayor’s first year as leader of the coun­try’s most pop­u­lous state.

New­som worked with state law­mak­ers to cre­ate fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity for PG&E and the state’s two other in­vestor-owned util­i­ties; de­vel­oped a plan that re­quired them to strengthen their safety mea­sures; and force­fully re­acted when the util­i­ties shut off the lights to mil­lions of Cal­i­for­ni­ans.

“He cer­tainly had bap­tism by fire, and I’m not even kid­ding,” said state Se­nate leader Toni Atkins, a San Diego Demo­crat.

PG&E’s bank­ruptcy was prompted by an es­ti­mated $30 bil­lion in li­a­bil­ity from wild­fires sparked by its equip­ment in 2017 and 2018, in­clud­ing the state’s dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive blaze, which killed 85 and nearly lev­eled the city of Par­adise.

Fear­ing fur­ther fi­nan­cial con­se­quences, PG&E in­sti­tuted wide-scale black­outs when weather cre­ated high fire dan­ger. In previous years, util­ity lines and other equip­ment sparked fires when winds were ex­treme.

New­som de­clared he “owned” the black­outs and would fight to keep them from hap­pen­ing again, putting him­self squarely in the cen­ter of an is­sue that had prompted a public out­cry. He also blasted the util­i­ties for years of poor main­te­nance and a lax fo­cus on safety.

“New­som has shown a will­ing­ness to re­ally en­gage on a topic that wasn’t of his choos­ing, and that’s an im­por­tant hall­mark of a strong gov­er­nor,” said Michael Wara, a re­searcher on cli­mate and en­ergy pol­icy at Stan­ford Univer­sity who has worked with the state on en­ergy and wild­fire is­sues.

State Assem­bly­man James Gal­lagher, a Re­pub­li­can whose district in­cludes Par­adise, said New­som has done a good job of chang­ing wild­fire pol­icy, fight­ing to com­pen­sate vic­tims and hold­ing PG&E ac­count­able.

“The gov­er­nor and I don’t agree on a whole lot ... but I think that we have found ac­tu­ally a lot of agree­ment and mu­tual co­op­er­a­tion when it comes to wild­fire pol­icy,” Gal­lagher said.

Gal­lagher even praised New­som for work­ing well with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to pro­cure fed­eral dis­as­ter re­sources.

“I think a lot of this stuff is show,” he said of New­som’s on­go­ing bat­tles on Twit­ter and else­where with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Re­gard­less, New­som’s feuds with the Re­pub­li­can pres­i­dent at­tracted much at­ten­tion. Per­haps the most con­se­quen­tial was the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to stop Cal­i­for­nia from con­tin­u­ing to set its own auto emis­sions reg­u­la­tions. In re­sponse, New­som teamed with four ma­jor au­tomak­ers to go against Washington.

When he wasn’t bat­tling with the pres­i­dent, New­som was ad­vanc­ing pol­icy at a fre­netic pace. He be­gan the year by plac­ing a mora­to­rium on ex­e­cu­tions for the more than 730 peo­ple on Cal­i­for­nia’s death row, the largest in the West­ern Hemi­sphere. The move won praise from crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form ad­vo­cates and scorn from fam­i­lies of peo­ple killed by con­victed crim­i­nals who had been sen­tenced to death.

Else­where, he checked off a li­tany of items in his pro­gres­sive wish list. Among them: health care to more young im­mi­grants liv­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally, ex­panded sub­si­dies for mid­dle-in­come peo­ple to buy health in­surance, an in­creased tax credit for work­ing fam­i­lies, a ban on for-profit pris­ons, and stricter rules for when po­lice use deadly force.

All of the moves drew sharp crit­i­cism from the state’s Re­pub­li­can mi­nor­ity, and some Cal­i­for­nia res­i­dents have started a long-shot cam­paign to re­call New­som from of­fice.

New­som stum­bled at times on mes­sage, sow­ing con­fu­sion early on about the fu­ture of Cal­i­for­nia’s trou­bled high-speed rail pro­ject and in­ject­ing last-minute un­cer­tainty into an im­pas­sioned de­bate over ex­emp­tions for child­hood vac­ci­na­tions.

As­sem­bly Speaker An­thony Ren­don, a fel­low Demo­crat, said it’s been a year of learning be­tween New­som and law­mak­ers after eight years of deal­ing with Gov. Jerry Brown.

“We’ve had an in­cred­i­bly pro­duc­tive year, and I con­sider him a part­ner, and I know he is will­ing to work through things,” Ren­don said.

Atkins, how­ever, found her­self at odds with New­som when he ve­toed her bill aimed at blunt­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal roll­backs from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. En­vi­ron­men­tal groups, nor­mally al­lies, were up­set.

“I think he had some grow­ing pains that were frus­trat­ing in the first year,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club Cal­i­for­nia.

Home­less­ness has be­come a top is­sue in Cal­i­for­nia, and Trump took de­light in high­light­ing the prob­lem, say­ing the state’s ma­jor cities were “go­ing to hell.”

New­som has touted a $1 bil­lion in­vest­ment the state made in 2019 to ad­dress home­less­ness and the law he signed en­act­ing a statewide cap on an­nual rent in­creases to help ad­dress the lack of af­ford­able hous­ing. But those moves have yet to pro­duce vis­i­ble results.

Still, New­som said in an Oc­to­ber in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press that his ad­min­is­tra­tion has done more than any other on the two is­sues.

“I can’t solve that overnight,” he said. But “we’re not be­ing ne­glect­ful in that space, and I think the con­se­quences of that will re­ver­ber­ate in cities large and small, but also will leave clues for other states that are strug­gling with the same.”

Gal­lagher said he thinks New­som and Democrats have spent too much time fo­cused on failed so­lu­tions to home­less­ness and hous­ing. The assem­bly­man said the state needs to re­duce gov­ern­ment red tape and bar­ri­ers to build­ing.

“He needs to push a lit­tle bit harder maybe against his base on the is­sue to re­ally see results,” Gal­lagher said.

New­som’s over­all ap­proval rat­ing has stayed be­tween 44% and 48% dur­ing his first year in of­fice, ac­cord­ing to sur­veys by the Public Pol­icy In­sti­tute of Cal­i­for­nia. About 46% of peo­ple ap­prove of his han­dling of the wild­fire is­sues.

In a re­cent in­ter­view with the AP, Brown said a gov­er­nor shouldn’t be mea­sured un­til after a full four-year term.

“I think it’s a mis­take to look to the first year and draw a lot of big con­clu­sions,” he said.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File

In this Nov. 17, 2018, file photo, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump talks with then Cal­i­for­nia Gov.-elect Gavin New­som dur­ing a visit to a neigh­bor­hood de­stroyed by the wild­fires in Par­adise, Calif. Gov. New­som is wrap­ping up a first year high­lighted by the bank­ruptcy of the coun­try’s largest util­ity, an es­ca­lat­ing home­less­ness cri­sis and an in­ten­si­fy­ing feud with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, along with record-low unem­ploy­ment and a boom­ing state econ­omy pro­duc­ing a multi-bil­lion-dol­lar sur­plus.

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