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Letter from California


Governor Gavin Newsom declared independence from the Trump administration this week, announcing on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show that "the nation-state" of California had signed contracts with a group of non-profit organizations and a California-based manufacturer for a monthly delivery of 150 million N-95 masks and 50 million surgical masks.

“We decided enough is enough: let's use the power of the purchasing power of the state of California as a nation-state,” Newsom said, hinting that California could effectively supplant the federal government by selling PPE supplies to other Western states.

While Newsom anticipated having enough protective equipment to help nearby Western states, House Oversight Committee documents revealed a breakdown in the national supply chain resulting in a few thousand masks and ventilators being sent to states clamoring for millions. As the virus spread throughout the region surrounding Washington, D.C., the Federal Emergency Management Agency received requests for 5 million masks, along with shields and ventilators, from the five-state region that includes the District of Columbia. By March 30, FEMA was supplying only roughly 10 percent of the region's demand. One chilling statistic: the state of Maryland requested 15,000 body bags and by the end of March, had received none.

If it were a country, California, famously, would have the world’s fifth-largest national economy, just behind Germany. As historian Kevin Starr noted, the state has its own culture: innovative, optimistic, nature-worshipping, at times triumphalist. And now, as national governments in the U.S. and Britain stumble through a series of deadly missteps, California has become a case study on how to fight a pandemic.

Characteristically, for the epicenter of tech, California was an “early adopter” of stringent measures to halt transmission of coronavirus. San Francisco mayor London Breed, who has been criticized for her handling of the homeless problem during the crisis, declared a state of emergency in late February and banned large gatherings a few weeks later. Newsom and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti lagged Breed by only a few days on issuing shelter-in-place orders. By April 13, San Francisco had counted 13 deaths, a far lower number than comparable cities, and California, despite its massive population, is far behind New York with 22,000 cases and 630 deaths.

Some of the state's ability to withstand the pandemic is pure luck — and bad urban planning. Geographically, California i is roughly five times the size of New York. The bulk of the state's population is in Southern California. the region’s notorious urban sprawl, long vilified by planners, transit engineers, environmentalists, and cultural historians like Mike Davis, has turned out to be a boon. In the pandemic, New York’s European-style sidewalk culture enshrined by urbanist Jane Jacobs, has been the city’s undoing: New York has nearly nine times the number of confirmed cases, 14 times the number of deaths. In California, and especially in Los Angeles, we stayed home earlier and isolated more easily.

Timing also favored California. Traditionally, northern and southern California have been separate fiefdoms competing over the state’s precious water and disdaining each other’s cultural tics. But in the last decade, New Money materialism of tech billionaires has shouldered aside San Francisco’s establishment-cum-Beatnik vibe and Ronald Reagan’s Southern California has turned blue, or at least purple. California politics are less polarized these days and that's given Newsom the ability to act in concert with his Southern California counterparts, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Like Breed and Newsom, Garcetti acted swiftly. On March 15, he became one of the first city leaders to close restaurants, bars, gyms, and entertainment venues. Two days later, Bay Area counties initiated “stay-home” orders, and two days after that, Garcetti and Newsom both announced stay-at-home orders and the closure of all “non-essential” businesses, making Newsom the first U.S. governor to issue a statewide stay-at-home directive. Garcetti didn’t flinch from closing beaches and hiking trails when cabin-fevered Angelenos couldn’t maintain proper social distancing.

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While negotiating with his own suppliers, Newsom has been careful to smooth over his previous differences with President Donald Trump. Despite superficial similarities—powerful, well-connected fathers, raised in privilege, a shared entrepreneurial streak in the hospitality industry—the two men could hardly be more different. The fourth-generation scion of a San Francisco family with longstanding ties to the Bay Area power structure, Newsom launched a business at the age of 26 in partnership with his friend Billy Getty, staked by Billy’s father, Gordon, heir to the Getty oil fortune. Newsom’s Plump Jack Wine and Spirits took off, becoming a conglomerate with three retail locations, three wineries and a vineyard, restaurants, bars, event spaces, and a boutique hotel.

Unlike Trump, Newsom didn't have a millionaire father to bail him out if his business went belly-up; when Newsom was a teenager, his father, appellate court judge William Newsom, came close to bankruptcy. Newsom wasn’t a Rhodes scholar like Los Angeles mayor Gil Garcetti, but the determination from those difficult years has always belied his pretty boy looks: “I will outwork you. I will read more, I will think more, I will reflect more. I just will,” he told a New Yorker reporter.

Also unlike Trump, Newsom’s early ambitions always included a political career, and he began—like so many other San Franciscans, including Kamala Harris—as a protégé of the legendary Willie Brown, one of the most powerful California Assembly speakers and later mayor of San Francisco. As San Francisco mayor, Newsom was an early supporter of same-sex marriage, and championed statewide initiatives to legalize cannabis and outlaw the death penalty. While he was criticized for being too close to real estate developers, Newsom's early life made him sensitive to the city's growing problem of income inequality: his signal achievement was using a tax on restaurants to fund Healthy San Francisco, an effective and popular precursor to the Affordable Care Act.

Yet in 2010, Newsom's career seemed stalled. His marriage to city prosecutor Kimberly Guilfoyle had ended messily in 2006 (yes, that Kimberly Guilfoyle) and he had flamed out the previous year in a gubernatorial challenge against returning former governor Jerry Brown. He ran for lieutenant governor and after eight years in that traditionally do-nothing office, defeated a nondescript Republican to become governor.

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While Newsom and Garcetti are achieving hero status, San Francisco Mayor London Breed has been criticized for her treatment of San Francisco's homeless population. Despite her bootstraps biography — Breed, 45, grew up in a housing project in San Francisco’s rough Western Addition neighborhood — Breed's answer to the danger faced by San Francisco's large homeless population was to leave them on the streets or herd them to the Moscone conference center, instead of commandeering hotel rooms where they can self-isolate. Already three of the homeless at Moscone have been diagnosed with the virus. At one of the city's shelters, 70 cases have been diagnosed.

It’s as if San Francisco and Los Angeles have traded places. In Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti has shared billing with Newsom as the West Coast’s Comforter-in-Chief, genially fumbling as he put on a face mask in a TV interview and instituting safety measures well in advance of federal directives. Before he was elected Los Angeles mayor in 2013, Garcetti, the son of longtime L.A. district attorney Gil Garcetti, had been a three-term council member representing Hollywood and the gentrifying bohemias of Echo Park and Silver Lake. For roughly half his council tenure, he also served as council president, a combination of parliamentarian, power-broker, and council advocate in dealings with the mayor.

Well-bred, well-educated, and well-traveled, Garcetti was affable but ineffectual in those years, particularly in dealing with rampant development and the city’s bourgeoning homeless crisis. Yet Garcetti, a former Rhodes scholar and Naval Intelligence reservist, possessed intellectual heft, and it did not go unnoticed. In 2010, President Obama offered him a chance to become his “urban czar” overseeing Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and the Department of Transportation.

Instead, Garcetti doubled down on his hometown of Los Angeles. As mayor, he won the 2028 Olympics, saved the expansion of the airport, and grappled with the city's homeless problem. After his 2017 re-election with 81.4% of the vote, GQ magazine touted Garcetti, who is both Jewish and Mexican-American, as a possible 2020 presidential contender. Garcetti didn’t join the crowded field, but after serving his second term, he won’t be able to run for mayor again. These days, when he’s asked about his national ambitions, he’s less liable to dismiss the idea.

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In January, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti endorsed presidential candidate Joe Biden. In 2014, then vice-president Biden had backed Garcetti's bid to raise the city's minimum wage. The endorsement came at a time when Biden's campaign was flagging.

Writing in 1949 as California approached its centennial year of statehood, journalist and historian Carey McWilliams called us “the great exception.” As America's national government falls down on the job, that phrase has taken on new meaning.

What if the exception doesn't prove the rule, but becomes the rule? A few years ago, the idea of California seceding was bandied about; a notion more metaphorical than real. But what about an America that works as well as California? While 62-year-old Andrew Cuomo’s bravura press conferences have inspired a boomlet of presidential draft talk, if you look to 2024, Gavin Newsom at 52 and Eric Garcetti at 49 are even better poised to fill the gap between septugenarian candidates and energetic but inexperienced firebrands like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her posse.

Hey, it's California. Anything can happen.

Joel Bellman writes on politics and culture. A former radio and print journalist, he served as press deputy for three Los Angeles County supervisors.