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Backers of the campaign to fire Gov. Gavin Newsom are hoping that Californians will keep some things in mind when they cast their vote in the Sept. 14 recall election. To name a few: Mask mandates, shuttered schools, sluggish vaccine rollouts and the French Laundry. More than any other issue, the pandemic — and Newsom’s handling of it — is the reason the state is holding its second gubernatorial recall ever.
But the governor isn’t just in charge of pandemic policy. How the state’s children are educated, the help we extend to the state’s poorest, who is punished and who gets leniency under the law, and how the state balances the demands of industry and those of environmental stewardship are among the questions facing the state’s chief executive — whether it’s Newsom or any of the 40-plus people hoping to take his place.
For voters who need a highlight reel of Newsom’s two-and-a-half years at the helm of state government, here’s a look at some of the most significant ways he’s changed California — and some of the ways he hasn’t.
California Republicans have been hammering the state’s Democratic governors for their handling of crime for at least half a century. It’s no different this election season.
Early on in his term, Newsom incensed the state’s tough-on-crime voters by halting executions statewide — a decision that got a specific call-out in the recall petition. But public opinion may be on the governor’s side, and the overwhelming defeat of a ballot measure last November suggests most voters don’t want to return to the era of “lock ’em up.”
Meanwhile, homicides in California shot up in 2020, though they still remain low by historical standards. Whether that increase is a pandemic-era anomaly or a sign of things to come, it’s another political vulnerability for a governor who has been a stalwart liberal on crime. Recall proponents, who held a July 20 press event at the state Capitol with relatives of murder victims, certainly think so.
What he’s done:
- End the death penalty (for now): Newsom made no secret of his opposition to capital punishment during his 2018 campaign. Sure enough, one of his first acts as governor was to place a statewide moratorium on executions. It’s not a permanent ban — there are still more than 700 people on death row and a future governor can undo the move with the stroke of a pen. Recall supporters are counting on it.
- Put new limits on police use of force: One of 2019’s fiercest legislative battles was over a bill to make it more difficult for police to legally justify killing civilians. After helping to broker a compromise between criminal justice reform advocates and police unions, Newsom signed the bill into law calling on further action to “make this moment meaningful.” A CalMatters analysis found that the law hasn’t yet had the transformative impact hoped for by supporters.
- Move forward with two prison closures: Newsom has been flirting with the idea of closing a state prison since his inauguration. Now, he’s pushing ahead with shuttering two: Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy by Sept. 30, and California Correctional Center in Susanville by next summer. It’s a response to a long-term decline in the state’s incarcerated population — helped along by the pandemic — but it also represents a sea change in a state once the epicenter of the “tough on crime” movement.
What he hasn’t:
- End the death penalty (for good): In 2018, Newsom not only said he wanted to end capital punishment in California, he said he wanted the voters to do it. In 2016, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have done that by a 6-percentage-point margin. Newsom hasn’t yet given them another chance — or backed an effort to put it back on the ballot.
- Support a new gun tax: In 2021, Newsom’s tough on guns rhetoric collided with his commitment not to raise taxes during a budget boom. An excise tax on guns, gun parts and ammo to fund violence intervention programs passed the Assembly by a thread and is pending before the Senate. Newsom has been mum.
- Replace cops with mental health professionals: Newsom last year vetoed a bill that would have let some cities send clinicians or social workers to respond to certain mental health-related 911 calls rather than armed police. He praised the bill’s “underlying goal” but argued that it put responsibility for the new project with the wrong state agency. Another version is before the Legislature this year, while some cities have acted on their own.
In the same state that boasts the world’s fifth largest economy and is home to household names in entertainment, tech, agriculture and high finance, about 13 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line. Once you factor in cost of living, California’s poverty rate spikes to more than 17 percent — higher than any other state.
That so many people — more than 6 million — live with such insecurity in a state that is so rich speaks to just how staggeringly unequal the state’s wealth is divvied up. That inequality is layered onto existing regional, ethnic and generational fault lines, a fact that long predates Newsom. But he has been more vocal on the subject than any governor in recent memory, widening the social safety net and making both homelessness and child welfare early priorities. Still, as his critics on both the left and right eagerly note, the numbers don’t lie.
What he’s done:
- Push the largest economic stimulus ever: Buoyed by higher than expected tax revenue and an avalanche of federal money, Newsom proposed the largest budget in this state’s — or any state’s — history this year. It included $100 billion in headline-grabbing, poverty-targeting initiatives including direct payments to millions of Californians and billions more for housing, debt relief, pre-K education and broadband.
- Expand signature anti-poverty program: At Newsom’s urging, the 2019 state budget doubled the size of California’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which sends cash to low-wage workers. That expansion, which also included a supplemental boost for taxpayers with young children, was according to one enthusiastic commentator, Newsom’s “biggest accomplishment” to date. Last year, he signed a bill extending the payments to undocumented immigrants.
- Support controversial gig worker law: In 2019, Newsom signed a bill that rewrote California labor law and sent shudders through the political system. It codified a state Supreme Court ruling to make it much harder for companies to classify their workers as “independent contractors.” For freelancing Californians, this meant the prospect of less flexibility, or less work in general, but also a minimum wage, worker compensation protection and other benefits of formal employment. Corporate titans of the gig economy pushed back, placing a carve out for ride-hailing company on the 2020 ballot. Newsom didn’t take a side and it passed overwhelmingly.
- Extend rent and utility debt relief: With the end of California’s eviction moratorium rapidly approaching, the governor and other state lawmakers set aside a $5.2 billion pot of federal cash to help Californians pay their back rent. Another $2 billion has been set aside to help people pay their delinquent utility bills. But both initiatives, mired in delays and confusing or complex applications, have struggled to get money out the door.
What he hasn’t:
- Reform the state tax system: Another one of Newsom’s ambitious policy plans was to overhaul California’s top-heavy tax system. On the table: a sales tax on services, an oil severance tax, an adjusted income tax structure and reform of state property taxes. All of this would stabilize the state’s oscillating revenues that spike during boom years (with one notable exception), but leave the state scrambling for cash and cutting services during recessions. Though he did back a ballot measure in 2020 to raise property taxes on many large commercial properties, it failed. None of the other ideas have gone anywhere.
- Cut interest payments on child support debt: California is particularly tough on those who don’t pay their child support on time, charging 10 percent interest on outstanding payments. A bill scrapping that highest-in-the-nation levy made it to the governor’s desk, but Newsom vetoed it, citing cost concerns. While this year’s state budget included partial forgiveness for some debtors, the 10 percent interest rate remains in place over the objections of anti-poverty advocates.
For the record: This story has been updated to delete a reference to interest being collected by the state before money goes to children. That was changed in 2020 and made permanent in a recent bill.
Leaving aside federal money, the biggest single component by far of California’s budget is K-12 education spending. The state’s public schools educate more than 6 million kids, employ 300,000 teachers and oversee education policy across more than 1,000 districts — including L.A. Unified, the nation’s second largest. That all makes Newsom one of the country’s most consequential education policymakers.
That leadership was put to the test when in-person education shut down during much of the pandemic. The education loss was not distributed equally, worsening the achievement gap — the decades-long chasm in educational outcomes between poor kids and rich, Black students and white ones. The governor made an early priority of closing the gap at its source, by bolstering the state’s early childhood education efforts. We won’t know how well any of those efforts are working yet, but at least the state is now tracking the data.
The governor’s lucrative friendship with California’s teachers unions — the California Teacher Association was Newsom’s biggest backer in 2018 and now opposes the recall — has also provided the political backdrop for many of the most tempestuous education debates.
What he’s done:
- Expand early childhood education: Courtesy of the unprecedented amount of money sloshing around the state budget, the governor and Legislature hammered out a new plan that would allow every 4-year-old in California to attend transitional kindergarten by 2025.
- Okay free school meals for all: During the pandemic, the federal government gave schools permission to offer free grab-and-go breakfast and lunch to all students, suspending proof of income eligibility requirements. Universal school lunch is a policy long sought by anti-poverty and child welfare advocates. This year, Newsom signed off on a legislative proposal to keep the pandemic-era program going at a cost of $650 million a year starting in 2022-23.
- Overhaul charter school law: In 2019, the Legislature passed and Newsom signed a package of new bills subjecting charter schools — publicly funded but independently operated — to new rules. One makes it easier for local school districts to block the creation of new charters, while another requires that charter teachers hold California teaching credentials.
What he hasn’t:
- Mandate ethnic studies in high school: In the fall of 2020, Newsom vetoed a bill to make ethnic studies a required course for California’s high school students, citing “uncertainty about the appropriate K-12 model curriculum.” His decision came after months of public debate over what the class would actually teach. A model curriculum from the state Board of Education was denounced for including “anti-Jewish bias” and the Los Angeles Times editorial board labeled it “jargon filled and all too PC.” This year, a new model curriculum was approved and a new bill introduced.
- Require public schools to reopen: Public schools may be officially set to reopen for in-person classes in the fall (most of them anyway), but that isn’t because the governor forced them. As ticked-off parents, teachers’ unions and a divided Legislature did political battle this spring over when and how to reopen schools, Newsom struck a balance: offering financial incentives and urgent pleas, but no mandates.
- Increase funding accountability: How exactly are school districts spending state money set aside for disadvantaged kids? In 2018, Newsom vowed to push for more transparency and accountability to ensure that the money was actually being spent on narrowing the achievement gap. But in 2020, he vetoed a bill that would have slapped school districts with new financial reporting requirements for the funding over concerns about “new and unnecessary procedural requirements.” This year’s budget includes a massive increase in funding for high-need schools. While it includes a new requirement that districts account for the dollars they’re awarded, it stopped short of the bill that Newsom vetoed and does not require that the money be spent on students being targeted for help.
California has been setting America’s green standard since first declaring war on smog in the late 1960s. In the last two decades, the state has become one of the nation’s most aggressive forces on climate change. For supporters, that policy pathmaking is a source of great pride — and for detractors including many Republicans, one of derision.
Newsom was elected with plenty of green cred. A Bay Area Democrat with the endorsement of most major environmental groups, he promised to carry on the climate change fighting legacy of his predecessor, Jerry Brown.
But California has been beset by a cascade of environmental tragedies, and the governor has been besieged with criticism from both the left and right. Fossil fuel-related bans have outraged the oil industry and many conservatives, but have come too late and too filled with loopholes for some environmentalists. Wildfire seasons have grown more severe, a seasonal political liability for the governor, no matter how much of the blame he actually deserves. And though Newsom made access to clean drinking water an early priority — with mixed results — the current drought seems to have caught him flat-footed.
What he’s done:
- Ban future fracking: After dancing away from this hot-button campaign promise, Newsom finally moved toward a phase-out. The fracking ban isn’t slated to go into effect until 2024, but in July, the administration denied 21 additional fracking permits, citing environmental concerns.
- Announce the end of fossil fuels (eventually): The governor has set two especially audacious goals for the state: an end to oil extraction by 2045 (he wants to bump it up to 2035) and a ban on new gas-powered cars by 2035. These aren’t detailed policies, and Newsom won’t be governor long enough to see them implemented, but they’re signals to both business and other policymakers where the state is headed.
- Prohibit a widely used pesticide: For decades, California farmers have used chlorpyrifos to kill the pests that ravage their fields and orchards. It’s also a neurotoxin. The administration ordered it banned, though it won’t be fully outlawed for two years.
What he hasn’t:
- Defend environmental rules against Trump: In 2019, top Senate Democrat Toni Atkins pushed a bill to give state agencies carte blanche to turn any Obama-era environmental regulations reversed by the Trump administration into state law. The bill passed, but Newsom vetoed it, siding with water agency heads and farmers who were particularly concerned that endangered species protections would be used to curtail water transfers.
- Prevent wildfires: Clearly not. Newsom’s time as governor has coincided with some of our worst wildfire seasons. Though his administration has ramped up spending on forest management and fire prevention — a budget item that often gets the financial short shrift over fighting active fires — Newsom has also overstated the scope of its recent efforts, according to CapRadio.
- Support buffers between oil wells and homes: State lawmakers have twice proposed mandatory setbacks between oil and gas-related facilities and “sensitive receptors” — namely, homes, schools and medical facilities. Both bills died in the Legislature, buried in opposition from industry, labor, business-aligned Democrats and Republicans. Newsom didn’t vocally support either bill and hasn’t stepped forward to offer executive workarounds, despite calls to do so from environmentalists.
It’s easy to forget after a year and a half of a deadly global pandemic, but Newsom’s 2018 campaign was chock full of big health care policy promises that had nothing to do with COVID-19. Among them were a state-funded single-payer health care, lower prescription drug prices and a comprehensive statewide plan to care for aging Californians.
Most of those plans have been slow to get off the ground. That’s in part due to COVID, but also to the governor’s habit of setting big, audacious goals that aren’t always easy to deliver. In the meantime, Newsom has overseen some changes to the state’s health care system that are fairly significant.
What he’s done:
- Expand Medi-Cal for undocumented residents: For years, one of the top items on California progressives’ wish list has to been to make Medi-Cal, the publicly funded health insurance program, available to the largest group of uninsured people: undocumented immigrants. In 2019, Newsom signed a law letting young adults as old as 26 sign up. And this year’s budget covers those 50 and older.
- Boost Obamacare subsidies: Few states embraced the Affordable Care Act like California. In 2019, Newsom proposed a few enhancements: Though Congress stripped the federal law of the mandate to get insurance, California would add its own. The state also made roughly 1 million more Californians eligible for subsidies through the state insurance marketplace.
What he hasn’t:
- Enact single-payer health care: Few campaign proposals generated as much attention — and as much heat — as Newsom’s 2018 pledge to bring state-funded health insurance for all Californians. So far, the governor has assembled a task force to look into how to get to universal coverage, but he was silent on last year’s single-payer proposal in the Legislature.
- Lower health care costs: On his first day in office, Newsom signed an executive order directing state agencies to collaborate on purchasing prescription drugs and last year he signed a bill enabling the state to produce its own generic drugs. But the state has yet to get into the pharmaceutical business and likely won’t for years. And last year alone, manufacturers reported price increases of more than 16 percent on more than 1,200 prescription drugs to state regulators.
The cost of housing in California has been so high for so long it’s practically part of our identity. The median price of an existing single-family home in California topped $800,000 this year, an increase of 53 percent since Newsom’s inauguration. And despite his repeated pronouncements that the state needs to build way more housing, permits for new construction have more or less flatlined — with a major dip last year.
The pandemic gave Newsom a year-long opportunity to reshape housing policy by executive fiat. Some of those programs and protections may continue. But as COVID concerns ease, rents, home prices and the cost of living remain a top concern for many Californians.
What he’s done:
- Enact mild rent control: In 2019 state lawmakers placed a ceiling on how much landlords can hike the rent. At roughly 7 percent, the cap only banned exorbitant increases. Many rent control advocates were not impressed, and they put an unsuccessful rent control measure on the ballot last November. But in a state that has long been wary of telling landlords what they can charge their tenants, it remains one of Newsom’s biggest legislative accomplishments.
- Ban many evictions during COVID: In the summer 2020, COVID cases were reaching ever higher totals, unemployment rates were skyrocketing and a potential wave of evictions presented not only an economic crisis, but a public health one. So the governor issued an executive order barring evictions for non-payment of rent — though crucially, tenants still owe their back rent. The Legislature has renewed that policy twice now, most recently through Sept. 30, in part because the state has been slow to roll out rent relief. But a CalMatters investigation found that thousands of tenants had been evicted despite the moratorium.
- Turn hotels into housing: In the early months of the pandemic, Newsom launched Project Roomkey, a program that spent federal money on acquiring vacant hotel rooms and converting them into temporary shelter for homeless Californians. It temporarily helped more than 42,000 people off the street while also curtailing the spread of the raging virus. Since then, the governor has supercharged the idea, converting 6,000 rooms into permanent supportive housing. This year’s state budget includes another $5.8 billion for the program, about half people with mental illness. That’s all part of an unprecedented $12 billion package to reduce homelessness.
What he hasn’t:
- Meet housing production goals: Running for governor, Newsom vowed to oversee the construction of 3.5 million new units by 2025. That works out to about 500,000 units a year — a feverish pace of construction unseen even in the state’s boomingest years. Critics called the promise wildly unrealistic. It looks like they were right. Even before the pandemic, new building permits statewide were coming in at about a fifth of the goal.
- Reduce the number of homeless people: California’s most intractable problem has not gotten any less so on Newsom’s watch. Since his inauguration, the number of Californians estimated to be living in shelters or on the street has increased by 25 percent.
- Ease zoning laws: Since Newsom took office, some of the most ferocious legislative battles have been over bills that would relax local zoning rules across California, opening up neighborhoods to more duplexes and apartment buildings. To the dismay of “Yes In My Backyard” activists, none of those proposals have earned the full-throated endorsement of Newsom and — perhaps partially as a result — all have failed so far.
When former Yolo County Sheriff’s Sgt. Orrin Heatlie started gathering signatures in February 2020 to put the recall on the ballot, COVID-19 wasn’t on his list of grievances. But without the pandemic — and Newsom’s handling of it — it’s hard to imagine Heatlie’s long-shot campaign succeeding.
It wasn’t always obvious things would end this way. In the early months of the pandemic, when Newsom acted more quickly and aggressively than most governors to quell the new contagion, his popularity grew. But as months of restrictions on daily life and often confusing messaging from the governor’s office went on, the public’s patience started to fray and pandemic policy became an increasingly partisan issue. The governor did himself no favors when he accepted the invitation of a friend-lobbyist to wine and dine maskless at the French Laundry restaurant with a $350 prix fixe menu.
Even so, most Californians seem to give Newsom passing marks for his handling of the worst public health emergency in living memory.
What he’s done:
- Ramp up vaccinations: California may have gotten off to a rough start, but we’ve since turned a corner maintaining an inoculation rate higher than all but 12 states. Newsom has helped with the pro-vaccine campaign, from funding door-to-door vaccination campaigns, partnering with churches and other trusted community groups and, of course, emceeing those cheesy vaccine lottery drawings.
- Set the record for executive orders: While the pandemic slowed the other branches of government to a crawl, the governor’s office went into lawmaking overdrive. In 2020, Newsom issued more executive orders than any governor in a single year in modern history. Of the 58 that were COVID-related, some called for lockdowns or implemented color-coded tiers, while others lifted and relaxed them; some redirected billions of dollars while others loosened restrictions on aid; and many reshaped other areas of the law in response to the public health threat, suspending evictions, extending tax filing deadlines and ensuring that every voter would receive a ballot in the mail, to name a few.
- Led in acquiring personal protective equipment: In the early months of the pandemic, everyone — hospitals, households, national governments — was scrambling to get masks, face shields and ventilators. With the federal government taking a laissez-faire approach to PPE, the governor coordinated purchases with neighboring states, massaged the Trump administration for more gear and deployed a torrent of contracts to private vendors. While some of those last-minute contracts collapsed or went to eminently unqualified vendors, other no-bid deals benefited Newsom’s biggest campaign benefactors.
What he hasn’t:
- Solve the unemployment catastrophe: Since the beginning of the pandemic, California’s Employment Development Department has struggled to keep up with the historic surge in unemployment claims. Hundreds of thousands have spent weeks or longer waiting for desperately needed assistance while the department and its contractors fight against fraud. Newsom has deployed a “strike team” to streamline the process and the state has spent hundreds of millions on consultants. But the governor has also conceded that the current system was “not designed for the challenge.”
- Shutter churches to prevent COVID: The earliest pockets of pushback against Newsom’s handling of the pandemic came from houses of worship. As early as Easter 2020 — less than a month after the first public health orders — churches represented by conservative legal action groups began suing the state over the right of congregations to pray, chant and sing in-person and indoors. Initially, the churches lost, but as their challenges landed at the nation’s highest court with its newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, California restrictions began to fall — a loss for Newsom and a sea change in constitutional law.