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Why 2020 Was Annus Horribilis for California

Monday, January 11th, 2021

For our farewell to 2020, Calbuzz was cleverly waiting for the results of the Georgia Senate races, in order to be able to more accurately discuss how 2021 would be shaping up – Democratic control of the U.S. Senate obviously would make things very different than divided government.

But our best laid plans were upended when a riotous mob, incited by President Trump, attempted a coup last Wednesday, overrunning the U.S. Capitol, defiling the building, killing a cop, causing the death of four other people, hunting for the Congressional leadership and assaulting the very principle of democracy.

And, oh yeah, erecting a gallows on the Capitol grounds.

Whether the Narcissist In Chief will be punished for the Trump Putsch (Coup Klux Klan?) In the meantime, a few reflections about how all this impacts Californians.

Sherman meets Rev. Warnock. Georgia, driven by the votes from descendants of slaves, has saved the Union, 160 years almost to the date after seceding from the United States and joining the Confederate War of Independence.

Not since Ohio-born William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta on Sep. 2, 1864 and began his merciless March, to the Sea, has the Peach State played such a pivotal role in American history – this time by electing two Democratic senators who will shift the balance of power in Washington.

Instead of a hobbled government, Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be able to form the cabinet, appoint the judges and shape the policies they want.

This is especially welcome news in California where Biden and Harris won a five-million-vote, 63-34% victory over Donald Trump but which also has suffered 2.51 million cases of Covid and 27,461 deaths with a Governor who was slow to make testing easily available — and who crippled his credibility when it was revealed he had dined sans-masque at the tony French Laundry with some of California’s most notorious cash-sucking lobbyists.

At least one of us previously described this  as “a delicious, easily-digested soupcon of journalism that simultaneously summarizes, synthesizes and sticks a sharp needle into a politician’s puffed-up pomposity, releasing noxious gases of rank hypocrisy and reeking self-regard.”

How broken is state government? In the early days of the pandemic,  Newsom won praise for his swift and firm attention to the Covid crisis (except for the failure to rapidly make testing available), but as the disease now rampages throughout California and the death toll steadily mounts, he has ceded moral authority and political influence with an endless series of tortuous, bewildering and half-baked orders to businesses and local governments, which verge on self-parody, not to mention his own self-entitled behavior.

A couple of our very smart colleagues just today published a searing look at the problems Prince Gavin faces in Politico titled “It’s all fallen apart.”

Not only have public health officials lost control of the virus, but state administrators have bungled the distribution of unemployment and federal relief programs, leaving tens of thousands of out-of-work Californians entangled in bureaucracy even as imprisoned felons successfully scam millions, raising concerns about how efficiently the vaccine will be distributed in the state.

Who decides when kids go back to school? As a political matter, Newsom’s most urgent problem is finding a pathway for California’s six million public school students to return to classrooms, amid growing pressures from disheartened and exasperated parents throughout the state.

He has set forth a $2 billion plan of incentives for K-2 students to return in February, but the California Teachers Union is demanding stringent standards for school re-openings, setting up a potential clash between the preeminent special interest in Sacramento, and the Capitol’s dominant Democrats, who are usually on the same side.

Will Gavin join the Gray Davis Club? Widespread death, economic disruption and government disarray has fueled a Republican-led bid to qualify by March a 2021 ballot measure to recall Newsom. The recall started as a fringe effort, but recently has gained momentum, money and establishment GOP backing, and seasoned political voices are warning Newsom to take the statewide campaign seriously, or risk the fate of recalled Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.

A second term? Despite our decades of experiencing Newsom as a political Narcissus, we have held out hope that with the right people on his team, the former San Francisco mayor could to perform well as governor. Instead he has given former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, whom many Republicans view as the party’s best chance of ever winning a statewide office again, an opening to tweet:

His kids can learn in person. But yours can’t. He can celebrate birthday parties. But you can’t. He can dine on a $350 meal at one California’s fanciest restaurants during the worst recession in generations. But you definitely can’t. Can you believe this? I can’t.

Of course, Prince Gavin is fortunate to have no one like Arnold Schwarzenegger lurking in the wings. And while one former San Diego mayor – Pete Wilson — did make it as governor, that was a different era in terms of partisan division. Our take:  Faulconer has only run in non-partisan municipal elections. If he runs for governor, he’ll have a big red ‘R’ branded on his forehead. And today, statewide, that’s fatal.

Can new hands right the ship? Stung by all this, Newsom made a couple of moves in early December to right the ship: he installed our old friend Dee Dee Myers as his top business adviser and he laid down a policy aimed at separating his political advisers from lobbying.

Myers has been in the middle of sone serious shit storms from Dianne Feinstein to Michael Dukakis and Frank Jordan to Bill Clinton, and she has always seemed to be one offering a smart, transparent, competent way forward.

Moreover, as the Sacramento Bee reported:

The governor’s office issued a statement from [friend of Calbuzz] Ann Ravel, former chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission, applauding the governor’s new policy, calling it “groundbreaking for California.”

“Not only does it go beyond what’s legally required, it meets the spirit of upholding public trust, which is vital to our Democracy,” Ravel said.

Dan Schnur, a longtime political operative and government ethics expert, [and friend of Calbuzz] said the policy is both the right thing to do and the political savvy thing to do, given Newsom’s recent gaffes.

“It’s always a good thing when an elected official moves so strongly to eliminate potential conflicts of interests,” Schnur said. “But it’s also a very savvy damage control maneuver for a governor who’s taken more than his share of ethics hits over the past few weeks.”

Looking forward, we hold out hope that Prince Gavin will shake off his self-entitlement and pay attention to some of the very smart people who are eager to help him lead California.

Feinstein Losing Her Grip? Yes, we long ago noted that Feinstein is older than the Golden Gate Bridge. But we also have seen her as far more capable, experienced and competent than those who have arisen to challenge her.

Now, however, Lady DiFi has — with her doddering, forgetfulness and lack of connection to the here-and-now — begun to lose the confidence of her own Senate colleagues and apparently, some of her close staff.

As documented by the great (and, in this case, gentle)  Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, 

…many others familiar with Feinstein’s situation describe her as seriously struggling, and say it has been evident for several years. Speaking on background, and with respect for her accomplished career, they say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have. They describe Feinstein as forgetting what she has said and getting upset when she can’t keep up.

Since at least half of us (we name no names) has actually chronicled the life of the Empress of Pacific Heights and we have a view of Feinstein that goes back decades.

Those who know her best say DiFi remains quite capable, but her memory lapses apparently are real and her lifelong commitment to compromise and civility is way out of fashion amid today’s unrelenting political warfare, raising speculation about Feinstein finishing her term, which doesn’t end until 2024.

As we head into the new year, we suggest that Dianne that she step down from any leadership positions in the Senate and concentrate on smaller, do-able projects, like helping California recover from four years of Donald Trump on environmental, health, immigration, economic and social problems.

Use her final few years and considerable seniority for the benefit of her home state and leave the partisan fights to those better suited to mount the tip of the spear.

Xavier to Capitol: I’m baaack. We’ve been impressed with Becerra since long before he was installed as California Attorney General.

He’s the real deal when it comes from working his way out of obscurity on the strengths of his intellect, skill and instincts. We’ve always regarded him as a potential governor and figured the perch of AG was just about ideal as a launching pad for a statewide race for the top job.

But with his background in Congress fighting for affordable health care and his more recent lawsuits against Trump, on issues ranging from immigration to pandemic policy, he was also seen by Joe Biden as a tremendous asset for the new administration.

At first blush, we were surprised to see him accept the spot of Secretary of Health and Human Services, which has historically been kind of a lesser, cubby-hole of a cabinet position.

But in the Age of Coronavirus, no cabinet position is going to be more important or high-profile in the next couple of years than the Secretary of HHS which, under Biden, appears to be the cabinet’s coordinator for pandemic policy.

After Becerra. Losing Becerra to Washington will open up a hugely important statewide post that Newsom will have to fill on a temporary basis.

We don’t expect it because there is no love lost between the Newsom and Jerry Brown camps, but former Gov. Brown, also a former AG, would make a terrific temporary appointee, leaving the seat open in 2022 for whoever wants to break into that career stream – someone who would defend immigrant rights, choice of abortion, coastal protection and environmental policy and other interests vital of California.

This has the advantage of putting someone in the top legal post who will spend absolutely zero percent of his or her time trying to build a political apparatus for future re-election to the post but will be fully concentrated on the issues that California confronts in the courts.

And in those cases where California must join or lead other states in helping share national policy, Brown would step in with an instant mountain of respect from other AGs around the country.

Senator Alex -Meh. To the surprise of no one – and to the disappointment of Black leaders who wanted an African American appointed – Gov. Newsom named his longtime ally, friend and fellow Ace Smith client Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill the seat in the U.S. Senate that is vacated by Kamala Harris’s election as vice president.

As the fist Latino from California ever to serve in the Senate and as an able and intelligent politician, we expect Padilla will represent California with distinction. He may not be the single best available choice for the job, but Newsom was smart to name a Latino leader with statewide bona fides and credibility.

Newsom then promptly nominated Assemblymember Shirley Weber to the Secretary of State post, a gesture to Black leaders who lobbied hard for another African-American to succeed Harris.

Mr. Speaker Kevin McCarthy? Joe Biden thumped Trump in California, but the 2020 election overall was good news for state Republicans, as voters backed conservative policies in conflicts over a host of ballot measures on taxes, affirmative action and criminal justice reforms, while the GOP reclaimed four of seven suburban House seats in the state which they’d lost in 2018.

Although newly re-elected as House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi now holds only a tiny majority in the House. Before the Insurrection, pro-Trump Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield aggressively was  positioning his caucus with an eye to 2022 and the congressional mid-terms, when the president’s party historically loses seats.

It will be intriguing to watch to see if McCarthy tries to soften his four years of bully boy fealty to Trump with his sudden, new-found desire for “healing.” Cough, cough.

Bottom line: The poison and violence Trump and his minions already have injected into the nation’s culture by refusing to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s election, however, will likely fester and putrefy our politics for generations.

Trump’s Re-elect Strategy: Fear BLM More than Covid

Saturday, August 29th, 2020

trumpspeech (2)Now we know Donald Trump’s strategy for re-election: use pure, un-distilled racism to overcome Joe Biden’s multi-national coalition. It’s George Wallace on steroids.

“Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens,” Trump said in his final speech to the Republican National Convention. “And this election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life or allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.”

It’s the suburbs versus the inner city, homeowners versus vandals, white versus black.

Early in the RNC convention, Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump student organization, described Trump as “the bodyguard of Western Civilization.” This was the single most succinct distillation of the racist message of the convention – that Trump is the only thing standing between God-fearing, white, suburban Americans and the dark-skinned, anarchist, rapist plunderers who seek to overrun your peaceful neighborhoods, rape your daughters and burn your houses to the ground.

In the face of a pandemic that threatens the lives of every family, urban and suburban — an actual attack that Trump has utterly failed to defend against — Trump and the RNC are trying to get white voters to believe that the real threat comes from Black Lives Matters and the dark-skinned hordes who threaten your neighborhood, your family and your home.

Look away, as the Dixie anthem urges, from the 180,000+ deaths that I have allowed because of my incompetence, Trump argued. Focus, instead, on the “drug overdoses, depression, alcohol addiction, suicides, heart attacks, economic devastation, job loss” created by Biden and the “vandals, arsonists, anarchists, looters and rioters” he supports.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Because Biden, Bernie and Black Lives Matters are coming to get you.

Trump has no interest in or ability to expand his vote beyond the coalition that in 2016 captured the traditional Republican states and barely squeaked out an electoral college victory by winning Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

This time, his goal is to maintain those states and keep Wisconsin. That would give him a two-vote victory in the electoral college. So, using Kenosha to scare voters in Milwaukee – and suppress the black vote there – is all that matters to him.

Why Trump’s Convention Will Be Purely Negative

Monday, August 24th, 2020

buchananIn 1992, at the GOP national convention, Patrick Buchanan declared, “There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”

It was a bone-chilling call to fascism. If you were in the hall in Houston, your hair stood on end. It was a terrifying vision and it backfired: by November, Bill Clinton and Al Gore had won that war. And the rabid forces Buchanan had set loose went into hibernation for 24 years as “regular” Republican and Democratic administrations governed in Washington.

Then came Donald Trump in 2016, who — tapping into those racist, misogynist, xenophobic and authoritarian impulses that had been tamped down all those years — eeked out a win in the Electoral College by the narrowest of margins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, setting loose the screeching, flying monkeys, snarling beasts and poisonous insects that had been stashed away in America’s Pandora’s Box.

Principled conservatives — those who believe in freedom, personal responsibility, free markets, protection of American interests and government by compromise and negotiation – have fled the Republican Party, leaving it hollowed out of ideas and dedicated only to the adoration and preservation of its leader. That is who will rally tonight and throughout the week.

Donald Trump will speak all four nights but not as president. Joe Biden stole that platform from him last week with a remarkable presidential address at the DNC, in which he flipped the narrative, turning himself into the incumbent and Trump into the challenger.

Trump – although he has been in the White House for three-and-a-half years – has been reduced to gripe, grievance and whinge while Biden is laying out purpose, program and possibilities. Trump’s party has literally abandoned is platform, replacing it with a manifesto for the pitchfork brigade that seeks only to crush the liberals, infuriate the news media and exult the loose-screw conspiracies of Qanon.

Trump has proved he will not or – as the malignant narcissist that he is – cannot expand his base of voters. All that is left as a strategy is to reduce the overall vote and the Biden-Harris vote in hopes of turning his 40-45% base into a majority in the Electoral College. Trump cannot add; he can only subtract.

philjerryPat Buchanan’s culture war is upon us but this time without the deep-seeded principles that guided Buchanan himself. This time is it just a bloody pitched battle between decency and indecency.

For a full-fledged discussion by your Calbuzzers looking forward to the GOP convention, click here.

Biden Should Go Positive — Decency for a Change

Wednesday, August 12th, 2020

decencyNow that he’s got California Sen. Kamala Harris for his running mate, former Vice President Joe Biden has one key task: Sell himself to voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. With a Harris as his running mate, hopefully he’ll boost the black vote in Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia over Hillary Clinton’s disappointing showing in 2016.

To that end, Phil and David Trounstine have produced a positive ad with the goal in mind of attracting the attention of the Biden campaign to the message it hammers home: Hard head. Soft heart, Joe Biden for President. Decency for a Change.

This is not an ad for TV. Pros should put that together. It’s a suggestion for how an ad might be shaped and what its fundamental message should be. Calbuzz is pleased to show it to our readers and, hopefully, to the Biden campaign. Here’s a link to the ad.





Why Joe Biden Should Pick Kamala Harris for Veep

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

bidenharrisThirteen Tuesdays before Election Day (that’s 91 days until Nov. 3, for those keeping score at home) the most intriguing political question of the week is who will become Joe Biden’s Joe Biden.

The Veep Speculation Sweepstakes is in high gear, with the former Vice President and presumptive Democratic challenger to Donald Trump having signaled he will announce his selection of a running mate soon. So Newsmakers reached out to ace California political analyst Phil Trounstine, our partner at Calbuzz, to join in a workout of heavy duty punditry.

Biden pledged in his last primary debate with Bernie Sanders that he would select a women for vice-president and, since the police killing of George Floyd ignited the Black Lives Matter protests, he has come under increasing political pressure to choose a Black woman, who also would represent the most loyal cohort among Democratic voters
We’ve been out of the prediction racket since the early days of the President Hillary Clinton Administration, so rather than forecasting who Biden will choose, we kicked around the question of who he should choose, based on a series of oft-used criteria of choice for a running mate who can aid in victory, variously, by:
  • Helping win a state or a region (as elite Easterner John F. Kennedy chose the Texan Lyndon Johnson in 1960).
  • Healing an ideological rift in the party from the nominating campaign (as when conservative Ronald Reagan selected the more moderate George H.W. Bush in 1980).
  • Juicing turnout among a particular demographic (viz. Walter Mondale’s bold, if wildly unsuccessful, pick of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984).
  • Buttressing a weakness in the presidential nominee (Biden bolstered Barack Obama in 2008 with both Washington experience and foreign policy chops).
  • Doubling down on a strength (with Al Gore on the ticket, Bill Clinton in 1992 sent a clear message that the Democratic Party was moving towards the center and away from traditional liberalism).
  • Doing no harm (the most important qualification of all, famously ignored when Bush I inexplicably opted for Dan Quayle in 1988 and John McCain even more improbably decided on Sarah Palin in 2008).

Based on those touchstones — and the more ineffable standard of being prepared to take over as president in an emergency — the Calbuzzards ended with this ranking of the nine women most widely reported to be on Biden’s list:

Kamala Harris. The California Senator notoriously tried to rip Biden’s face off on the issue of school segregation during a primary debate, and some among the nominee’s inner circle fear she’d be more focused on advancing her own 2024 ambitions than pitching in as a team player. But Harris’s substantive if brief presidential bid makes her one of the few among the veep field who’s been scrutinized seriously by the national media, a process that showed her record as a professional prosecutor can play as both a strength and a weakness, depending on the ideology of the voter looking at her.

Close readers of Calbuzz will note that in recommending Harris as Biden’s No. 1 pick, we are cutting directly against our longtime critique of Harris as a politician with positions, not convictions, a successful climber who has almost always done only what is best for herself at virtually every turn. We don’t retract any of that. But it’s  also our view that from the standpoint of electing Biden, Harris is the most useful pick. And with the right seasoning — acting as No. 2, taking direction from the president and handling tasks given her — Harris could develop into someone who is a believable president. She’s the right age, demographic and gender; she has a national following and reputation; she’s experienced and deft on the campaign trail, and she just might help boost the Black vote in Milwaukee, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Karen Bass. The Los Angeles congresswoman, the first African-American woman to serve as Speaker of the California Assembly, who now heads the Congressional Black Caucus, emerged as a surprise contender in recent weeks, buoyed in large part by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other allies in the House. Bass is a model inside legislator and bridge-builder, but she came up as a lefty community activist in the Rodney King era and her days as a fanboy of Fidel Castro could prove dicey in Florida, where Biden could snuff Trump’s re-election hopes, and the headline of an introductory interview on network TV this week – “I am not a communist” – won’t likely help her chances.

Keisha Lance Bottoms. The mayor of Atlanta has won high marks nationally, not only for her leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic, including her widely-publicized clash with Georgia Governor and Trump acolyte Brian Kemp over the issue of requiring face masks in public, but also during the protests that erupted in her city after the death of George Floyd. She endorsed Biden early, but going from serving two-and-a-half years as a mayor to one heartbeat from the presidency is a stretch, particularly for someone who’s never been examined on the national political stage.

4-Susan Rice. The former UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor under President Obama has more foreign policy credentials than all the other candidates combined and if Biden was looking for a governing choice exclusive of politics, Rice would top the list. But she’s a longtime inside player in Washington who has zero experience in exercising the very different skill set of a candidate, not to mention that, along with Hillary Clinton, she was the public face of the Administration amid the fallout from the terrorist attack that killed the U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, a debacle that Republicans and Trump would love to re-litigate in the last three months of the campaign in an effort to change the subject from the pandemic, the protests and soaring unemployment rolls.

5-Val Demings. A House member from Florida, Demings has an inspiring personal story of working herself up from poverty to a distinguished career in law enforcement, including service as the first woman to become chief of the Orlando Police Department. She served as one of the Democrats’ managers of the Senate impeachment trial of Trump, but like Harris, her long record as a cop not only might help Biden with moderate and conservative voters but also could turn off younger and more progressive parts of the Democratic party, not least because of a record of excessive force allegations in the Orlando department, and a lack of transparency about them, some of which occurred during her tenure as chief.

Gretchen Whitmer. The governor of Michigan was widely touted in the media as a possible running mate in the early days after Biden clinched the nomination, but has faded as the Black Lives Matter protests seem to have made it more likely he will choose a woman of color. Although her leadership during the pandemic earned generally high ratings from state voters, she also has been the focus of angry protests against her stay-at-home orders, and her lack of testing in national politics might represent too high a risk for a politician from a state Biden absolutely can’t lose in his bid for 270 electoral votes.

Michelle Lujan Grisham. The governor of New Mexico, Grisham is a former member of Congress who, amid the Democrats’ 2018 “blue wave” election, became the first Latina of her party in history to be elected a state’s chief executive. A strong advocate of abortion rights, climate change action and gun control, Grisham potentially could help boost Latino voter turnout in Arizona and other key states, but Biden would likely face considerable disappointment from Black voters if he passed over Harris, Bass, Bottoms, Rice and Demings to choose her.

8-Tammy Duckworth. The Illinois Senator lost both her legs in combat as an Army helicopter pilot during the Iraq war and her extraordinary personal story also includes being the first woman with a disability elected to Congress and the first U.S. Senator to give birth in office. Daughter of an American father and a Thai mother, she was born in Thailand, and Republicans could be expected to try to raise “birther” arguments against her candidacy, which could prove a distraction to the Biden campaign.


Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts Senator ran a spirited Democratic primary race against Biden, but her progressive platform on issues from taxes to health care and climate change make her popular with the party’s left-wing, so she could help turnout among those who backed her or Senator Bernie Sanders. Biden has adapted some of her stances since the primary, but despite polling that shows her pick would be popular, she’s a long shot, not least because she is close in age to the 77-year old Biden, throwing light on one of his big weaknesses.


Watch the Calbuzz conversation by clicking below and…the podcast version is here.

Images: Karen Bass and Kamala Harris have (oneblog.com); Harris (NBC News); Bass (ballotpedia); Bottoms (Atlanta Magazine); Rice (Wikipedia); Demings (Wikiepedia); Whitmer (michigan.gov); Grisham (twitter); Duckworth (Wikipedia); Warren (Twitter).