Give away cash, hang with celebrities

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California Governor Gavin Newsom.

California Governor Gavin Newsom gestures after a news conference at Universal Studios in Universal City, Calif. on June 15, 2021. | Ringo H.W. Chiu,

OAKLAND, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s political career has long been something of a white-knuckle roller coaster ride.

So it was fitting that the Democratic governor, in his latest fist-pumping lap around the state, hit the front seat of the New Revolution roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain this week, hands in the air, relishing the stomach-churning jaunt.

It was just the latest example of how Newsom is using a bully pulpit on steroids as he tries to defeat a Republican-driven recall.

The governor announced free tickets to Six Flags and taco giveaways for anyone getting a Covid-19 shot. He channeled his inner game show host persona and delivered massive checks to vaccine lottery winners, backed by a “Big Spin” wheel and appropriately kitschy music. He celebrated the end of pandemic restrictions with Minions and Trolls under confetti at Universal Studios. Between it all, he was on Instagram with musician John Legend and in studio with James Corden on “The Late Late Show.”

His dizzying schedule has made the scope — and optics — of Newsom’s victory tour unrivaled in the annals of modern state politics. Fueled by record tax revenues, business connections and celebrity friends, the governor is demonstrating how he’ll use his official perch this summer to drive his campaign narrative.

“Imagine being in politics and giving away money — that’s about as good as it gets,’’ Newsom told Corden. “Oprah Winfrey, eat your heart out!”

No other governor has duplicated the level of Newsom’s giveaways, most under the auspices of convincing hesitant residents to get vaccinated. But no other governor is facing a recall, either.

His appearances have gotten so over-the-top that longtime political reporters can hardly believe what they’re seeing. “Am I on drugs?” said San Francisco Chronicle reporter Alexei Koseff, marveling at Newsom celebrating with characters in costume. Another, CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall, dubbed a Newsom event “today’s episode of Governor Gives Out Money.”

Just months ago, Newsom was on the ropes, battered by charges of hypocrisy after a tony dinner with lobbyists and other guests at the French Laundry while he told residents to avoid gathering at parties. When California was under siege from the virus in December and January, the situation was so bad that Newsom imposed a curfew and widespread stay-at-home orders.

The state has since seen Covid-19 rates plummet to nation-low levels, and Newsom set June 15 as the state’s grand reopening day. He eliminated social distancing restrictions and capacity limits in most businesses and allowed vaccinated residents to remove their masks.

Newsom has also benefited from a high-wage economy that kept humming through the pandemic, delivering a $76 billion surplus, on top of $27 billion in federal coronavirus relief. That money allowed the governor to propose $600 stimulus checks for two-thirds of California residents, $500 checks for families — and $116.5 million in prizes for vaccine-hesitant residents.

He has timed the giveaways with jubilant events to promote the state’s reopening. But the governor’s tour is striking some as an unseemly excess of fist-pumping and self-congratulations given what the state has endured. California has an unemployment rate higher than in most other states, a Covid-19 death toll of 62,500, the nation’s longest school closures and a host of small business failures under lockdown restrictions.

“Gavin’s traveling circus is offensive to the nearly 4 million Californians who contracted Covid-19, and the nearly 65,000 who died with it,’’ said conservative Jennifer Kerns, a former spokesperson for the California Republican Party and now a national radio talk show host. “It is also offensive to the more than one-third of restaurants that closed forever — owned by hard-working Californians, many of whom lost their life savings due to Newsom’s yearlong lockdown.”

Newsom’s camp, however, says he’s right to celebrate this emergence from 15 months of pandemic isolation. He’s hugged it up with local officials at iconic family bistros like Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, where he pushed the extension of pandemic-era policies aimed at boosting small businesses — including margaritas-to-go and “parklets” to expand restaurant dining outdoors — as well as grants and tax forgiveness.

On Friday, Newsom boasted that the state is “turning a page” on the pandemic — with the help of small business owners surrounding him. “When we talk about California roaring back, we can’t come roaring back unless small businesses are back,’’ he told them. “The job creators are literally here, in this community.”

Peter Ragone, a longtime outside adviser to Newsom, said the California governor’s tour is a celebration of what the state — and its citizens — have done right in battling back from a deadly pandemic.

With its record budget surplus, jobs rebounding and continued tech sector boom, “there’s just no doubt about the fact here that California is the best run state in America, fiscally,” he said. “And Gavin Newsom has been reflecting the exuberance of the people, who are now coming out of this together.”

That exuberance, he said dryly, “is shared by everybody — except maybe seven people left working the recall.”

Newsom’s recent upbeat demeanor has been a far cry from the grim, and occasionally short-tempered, governor of a few months back.

After being confronted by major wildfires and blackouts that affected millions shortly into his first term, Newsom was slammed in late 2020 with rising panic about pandemic shutdowns. Those difficulties were multiplied by his own ill-timed political mistakes, including the French Laundry dinner with lobbyist friends at the height of the stay-at-home order.

“It’s been humbling,” he said to Corden. “There’s been one word, James: humility.”

Newsom’s most recent poll numbers have been strong, with either a plurality or majority opposed to recalling the governor. A whopping 90 percent of Californians believe the worst of the crisis is behind them.

His opponents have struggled to gain traction, most notably Republican reality TV star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, who regularly goes on national TV but only had 6 percent of voter support in a poll last month. The governor is in strong enough shape that fellow Democrats have suggested California should have the recall election as soon as possible.

And Newsom has wasted no time in parlaying the state’s increasingly robust economic numbers into a public campaign he’s touted as “The California Comeback.” Democrats have circulated a Bloomberg piece proclaiming that the state’s economy is leading the nation. The governor has repeatedly jabbed at two large red states, Florida and Texas, which haven’t matched California’s vaccination levels or its lower record for mortality rates per 100,000 residents, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Democrats say Newsom’s undisguised giddiness is not only appropriate — but entirely warranted.

“One of the jobs of leaders is to lead through empathy — to reflect back to people how they’ve been feeling,’’ said veteran California Democratic organizer and strategist Alex Clemens. “California — and the United States, and the world — all need a victory lap. So I wouldn’t begrudge any leader from reminding us that there is joy to be had.”

But Newsom’s opponents say the governor is prematurely dancing in the end zone. They point to a host of lingering problems — millions of public school parents still nervous about the potential for school closures in the fall; growing homelessness and housing problems; an unemployment system plagued by fraud; and small business struggles.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Kevin Faulconer, the former San Diego mayor, said Newsom and Democratic legislators must still be held to account for mismanagement. He’s banking on voters having a long memory this year and not being swayed by a fast-opening economy and various giveaways.

“He can stand up all he wants and do the game show routine, but Californians are angry, they’re pissed off and rightfully so,” Faulconer told the KFI radio show “John and Ken” after the governor’s Universal Studios appearance.

Faulconer also criticized Newsom and lawmakers for recently getting 4.2 percent pay raises from a commission. He called on Newsom to reject the increase; the governor has not said whether he will.

“That’s just incredibly tone deaf,’’ Faulconer said in an interview. “At a time when millions of Californians lost their wages and income over the past year, and we still have over a million Californians who can’t get their unemployment benefits. We had $30 billion worth of fraud in the Employment Development Department. It just shows how out of touch this governor is.’’

Clemens said Newsom’s celebratory week doesn’t belie the seriousness of his campaign strategy. California faces regular disaster risks, from wildfires to drought to blackouts. The governor already issued an emergency order allowing more fossil-fuel plants to run Thursday to ensure residents have enough electricity.

“I am certain that nobody on the governor’s election team is taking anything for granted,” Clemens said, “that they are treating this race like he is down 20 [points].”



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