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Inside the Capitol: California News and Analysis

Where to find news about how the California Capitol works—the players, the policies that affect how state government affects you.

Inside the Capitol: California News and Analysis

A huge twist emerged this week in the Capitol’s months-long reckoning over sexual harassment: A female lawmaker who helped spark the movement to end misconduct is taking a leave of absence while she herself is being investigated for sexual harassment.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia

An explosive report in Politico quoted a former legislative aide who accused Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of groping him during a softball game in 2014. It also included an anecdote from an unnamed lobbyist who described an inebriated Garcia making a sexual pass at him. Then came a follow-up story by Capital Public Radio reporting that Daniel Fierro, the former staffer who accused Garcia of groping, has ties to two male legislators Garcia has publicly lambasted for their alleged treatment of women.

Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, is the chair of the Legislature’s women’s caucus and has participated in the #MeToo movement by speaking out against a culture of sexual harassment in the male-dominated state Capitol. She denies the allegations against her but said she’s taking a voluntary unpaid leave “so as not to serve as a distraction or in any way influence the process of this investigation.”

Things are getting messy. And all that happened after I wrote this story about lawmakers struggling to figure out how to respond to the harassment allegations that are now sweeping the Capitol.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reviewing the documents the Legislature released last week about substantiated cases of sexual harassment from 2006 to 2017 by lawmakers and high-level staff. A few questions the records raised:

Disparate discipline (and record-keeping):

There is a confusing disparity in how employees were disciplined for sexual harassment. The records indicate that in 2009, one Assembly staffer was fired for talking about sex, while another lost three days of pay for groping a fellow employee—behavior the victim later described as aggressively reaching inside her blouse.

(The staffer the records indicate groped, Raul Bocanegra, went on to become an Assemblyman. He resigned last year after the incident, and other harassment allegations, became public.)

“There needs to be some transparency about what the degrees of harassment are and what the potential punishments are, recognizing that cases are different,” said Julie Snyder, a Sacramento lobbyist who was struck by the disparity when she reviewed the records.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said that the portions of the records that were publicly released don’t tell the full story of why certain people were fired. (Many of the pages were heavily redacted.)

“In some cases there were other things they did that factored into the broader reason for why they were terminated,” said Kevin Liao. “To just say the discipline varied because of sexual harassment is an incomplete telling of the picture.”

The logged complaints themselves lack uniformity. Though most were typed up on letterhead or disciplinary forms, one was written by hand on notebook paper. The notes were so difficult to make sense of that the Senate released them with a summary typed up the day the records went public.

“The integrity and timeliness of HR records is critical, and the fact that some records were written today and others were handwritten proves the point that the Legislature’s HR practices are problematic,” said a statement from Sen. Bob Hertzberg, the subject of the handwritten complaint that said he made an employee uncomfortable by pulling her close to him and dancing.

Who investigates complaints?

A consistent demand from victims and their advocates has been that investigations should be conducted by a neutral party—not by the Legislature’s administrators, who answer to politicians. The Senate responded late last year by hiring an outside law firm to investigate complaints.

But that makes the Senate the law firm’s client, so any information the investigation yields will be turned over to the Senate’s political leaders. It will be up to them whether to release the information.

This has frustrated Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat who is cooperating with the law firm’s investigation. Former Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, a Fresno Republican, has accused him of repeatedly hugging her in an aggressive and unprofessional way. Hertzberg—who long-ago earned the nickname Hugsberg—has publicly apologized, and told the Sacramento Bee that his intentions “have only been to foster a warm, human connection.”

Halderman said she was disappointed to learn that the Senate lawyers’ investigation of her complaint will not automatically be shared with her.

“No access will be given to me, whether it’s the part of the report that involves me or the report at large,” Halderman said. “If (Senate leaders) choose for whatever reason to push this aside, I’ve done all this for nothing.”

That concern leads to another unresolved issue:

How much will the public learn about confirmed perpetrators?

Back in 1975 the Legislature passed the ironically named Legislative Open Records Act , a law that says it doesn’t have to release any records about its investigations. And when reporters asked this fall for documents about harassment investigations, the Legislature refused to provide them. But after mounting pressure from the press, legislative leaders eventually changed course and released a limited set of records.

The Legislature’s administrators made clear, however, that in releasing the documents, they were not giving up their legal right to keep such information secret in the future.

“Please note we are not generally waiving applicable privileges and statutory exemptions with regard to Legislative Open Records Act requests,” top administrators wrote in letters attached to the documents.

Some of the records being provided don’t have to be disclosed under the law, their letters went on, “but are being provided nonetheless to facilitate open discourse concerning sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Two key lawmakers—Sen. Toni Atkins, the incoming Senate leader, and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Glendale Democrat who is leading a panel charged with crafting a new sexual harassment policy—both told me they want the Legislature to continue releasing investigations that name the people whose harassing behavior has been confirmed.

“We need objective criteria that everyone understands, and that would include perhaps the process of releasing these things to the press,” Friedman said, adding that it’s an issue her committee will tackle.

This post was updated at 4:01 p.m. to include a comment from Kevin Liao, spokesman for the Assembly Speaker’s Office.

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April 12, 2019 2:17 pm

Newsom team calls for less utility liability on wildfire—and ignites ‘a hornet’s nest’

Economy Reporter
Gov. Gavin Newsom presents his strike team’s report, which calls on lawmakers to consider reducing utility wildfire liability. April 12, 2019. Photo by Judy Lin for CALmatters.

In a comprehensive and already controversial report aimed at spreading the staggering cost of wildfires in California, an advisory panel to Gov. Gavin Newsom recommended on Friday that California ease strict liability laws that have already prompted the state’s largest utility to file for bankruptcy in this era of climate change.

The provocative—and politically challenging—recommendation was among three dramatic proposals by a “strike force” Newsom had tasked with drawing up a wildfire plan shortly after his January inauguration. Fire has been among the most daunting priorities for the nascent administration, which has had to deal not only with the aftermath of last year’s historically lethal Camp Fire in Butte County, but also with the Chapter 11 filing of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the huge and unpopular electricity provider whose equipment is a prime suspect in the blaze.

Newsom said he hopes the report facilitates a tough conversation among utilities, insurance companies, attorneys, wildfire victims and others for crafting solutions in the next 90 days, when the Legislature has a bill deadline.

“I’m of the opinion that in order to maintain safe, reliable, affordable service—utilities and electricity—to meet our climate goals, to protect the victims of these fires, that we’re all in this together and we all have a role and responsibility to play,” Newsom said at a press conference a the headquarters of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services just outside Sacramento.

Credit rating agency Moody’s Investor Services responded positively Friday.

“None of the proposed concepts will alone mitigate the risk for California’s utilities, but combined, the strategies start to exhibit more promise,” said Moody’s vice president Toby Shea. “The credit impact won’t become clear until legislative details addressing liquidity and cost recovery are finalized.”

PG&E, which is relied upon by most of Northern California to keep the lights on, filed for Chapter 11 reorganization on Jan. 29 in the aftermath of the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons, the two most destructive in state history. The utility cited up to $30 billion in liabilities since many blazes have been linked to its equipment.

Currently, under a legal standard known as inverse condemnation, utilities are liable for any wildfire damage traced to their equipment even if they were not negligent in maintaining it. While utilities want to reduce that standard, lawmakers, as well as insurance companies and local governments, have resisted changes because it would shift costs to insurers and wildfire victims.

Last year, the state did adopt changes under SB 901 that made it easier for utilities to absorb the cost of fire damages by borrowing money and charging customers to pay it back over many years, a process called securitization. However, the process could take a long time, leaving utilities without timely access to financing.

The report noted the credit rating agencies, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch, downgraded California’s three large investor-owned utilities, “opining that the measure failed to adequately address the risks to the utilities’ financial health posed by inverse condemnation.” PG&E’s bonds are in junk status and Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric are at close to non-investment grade ratings.

The strike team offered a trio of options to Newsom:

  • Create a state fund to provide utilities access to cash to pay wildfire damage claims while state regulators decide if the utilities can pass the cost to ratepayers. This would be a relatively minimal change of SB 901 to address utility concerns about accessing money.
  • Change the strict liability under inverse condemnation to a fault-based standard. This would be the most controversial and politically difficult since it would shift the risk to insurance companies and uninsured property owners where the utility was not at fault. Insurance companies could raise rates dramatically or stop offering coverage.
  • Establish a wildfire fund by pooling money from the investor-owned utilities to pay for catastrophic wildfire claims. The fund would be limited to paying out only when the fire meets the legal threshold for a catastrophic wildfire.

Newsom said he wasn’t going to share his opinion on whether to change inverse condemnation and believes lawmakers are prepared to start a new round of negotiations in the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Butte County where 85 people were killed.

“It’s a different world completely,” the governor said.

Assemblyman Chris Holden, who chairs the Assembly utility committee, said he’s prepared to work on new legislation. “All stakeholders will have to sideline their agendas and step up as Californians to fix this problem,” he said in a statement, “and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and do the hard work necessary.”

But, he added: “Inverse condemnation is a hornet’s nest. It’s a tough topic especially because of the constitutional questions around it. We would need a deeper and longer conversation around reforming inverse condemnation that I don’t see happening in 90 days.”

The report also recommends reforming the state’s investor-owned utility regulator, California Public Utilities Commission, and puts forth various options for PG&E as it works its way through bankruptcy proceedings, including municipalization.

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April 10, 2019 7:52 pm

Charter-mageddon: Lawmakers advance a raft of union-backed charter school curbs

K-12 Education Reporter
Charter school advocates and teachers unions mass at the Capitol on April 10, 2019, as state lawmakers considered dramatic curbs on charter schools. Photo for CALmatters by Dan Morain
Charter school advocates and teachers unions mass at the Capitol on April 10, 2019, as state lawmakers consider dramatic curbs on charter schools. Photo for CALmatters by Dan Morain

As charter school advocates rallied en masse and California’s teachers’ unions flexed their political muscle, a cluster of bills that would dramatically curb the growth of charters in the state cleared the Assembly Education Committee on Wednesday. The votes were the first in what figures to be a lengthy, high-stakes battle this session between two of the state’s most powerful education interests.

That the legislative panel passed Assembly Bills 1505, 1506 and 1507 on Wednesday wasn’t surprising—the authors of the trio of bills sponsored by the California Teachers Association made up two-thirds of the panel, which is chaired by a longtime public school teacher and former member of the CTA’s policymaking assembly.

But the hearing, which featured more than five hours of impassioned debate and testimony from hundreds of people, offered a glimpse of just how consequential the charter proposals are to teachers unions and charter advocates.

While the two sides have battled for decades—typically to a draw—the political momentum has shifted in favor of organized labor this session.

A wave of high-profile teacher strikes this year in Los Angeles and Oakland put the spotlight on unions’ claim that the growth of charter schools, which are mostly nonunion, has financially stressed traditional public schools, siphoning enrollment and public funding.

And following the strikes, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who won office with the support of organized labor, signed fast-tracked legislation that requires charter schools to follow the same open-meeting and conflict of interest laws as school districts. The new law and other charter restrictions had been vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The three bills heard Wednesday aim to make the most significant changes to California’s charter school law in the 27 years since its inception. Depending on the viewpoint, the bills either make long-overdue and necessary reforms to how charters are overseen, or mark the beginning of the end for charter schools in California.

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, a Democrat from Long Beach who chairs the Assembly Education Committee and authored AB 1505, said his bill “returns local control to school boards.”

O’Donnell and other legislators stressed that the bills would not close any existing charter schools, adding, “if you’re a good charter operator, there is nothing for you to worry about in this bill [AB 1505].”

“Some charter schools have exploited every loophole in the law, and this bill begins to close those loopholes.”

Charter advocates had a different take.

“Today, we could not be more clear: This package of bills is poison, and we will not go quietly,” Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, told a crowd of supporters before the bill hearings.

Combined, the bills would give local school districts the sole power to authorize charter schools, create state and local caps on the number of charters allowed to operate, and put strict limits on charter school locations.

  • AB 1505, authored by Democratic Assemblymen Patrick O’Donnell and Rob Bonta, would repeal the ability for charter applicants to appeal denials from local school boards at the county or state level as is currently allowed. Local school boards would have the sole power to authorize charter schools, and they would also be allowed to consider the fiscal impact of charters in deciding whether or not to authorize them.
  • AB 1506, authored by Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, would set state and local caps on the number of charters allowed to operate based on how many are operating by the end of 2019. (Currently, there are more than 1,300 charter schools in California, with majority of them concentrated in Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area.)
  • AB 1507, authored by Assemblywoman Christy Smith, a Santa Clarita Democrat, sets strict limits on school locations and is in response to the practice of small school districts authorizing charter schools dozens or hundreds of miles outside of their geographic boundaries.

A fourth bill sponsored by the state teachers’ union, Senate Bill 756, was not heard Wednesday, but calls for a five-year moratorium on charters unless the Legislature passes specific charter reforms by 2020.

The latest legislative battle over charter schools comes as Newsom has directed state schools superintendent Tony Thurmond to lead a panel to study the financial impact charter schools have on school districts with recommendations due by July 1.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat from San Diego, cited this ongoing study as her reason for not voting in support or opposition of any of the three charter bills Wednesday. She noted that the fate of the bills was “a done deal because four of the six members of this dais are co-authors of these bills.”

“There’s no question that after 26 years, there’s a need for a serious discussion about charters in California,” Weber said as the committee debated AB 1505, later adding, “I can’t support it [AB 1505] until I get more information.”

McCarty, the author of the charter cap bill, noted that previous charter legislation battles have drawn out through the end of session, and that “we’ll be going at it, as we know, until the end of summer, end of August, early September.”

“The report that the governor and the [state superintendent] are working on will be out within a couple of months and allow us to take a look at their findings and recommendations and potentially bridge them into the proposals that we have here,” McCarty said.

As Wednesday’s hearings unfurled, the scene at the Capitol was raucous. A line of hundreds of teachers, parents, students, administrators clad in red (in support of teachers unions) and yellow (supporting charters) snaked outside the packed Assembly hearing room where legislators debated the charter bills. Opponents outnumbered those in support.

Earlier in the day, the charter advocates and unions held dueling press conferences, and charter proponents rallied and chanted outside a union event.

Tammy Stanton, CEO of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, arrived at the Capitol at 10 a.m. to secure one of the limited seats to the 1:30 p.m. hearing.

“This bill package threatens our existence,” Stanton said. “It repeals our right of due process and allows a school district to close us down if they cannot manage their own fiscal house.”

Steve McDougall, president of the Salinas Valley Federation of Teachers, said he had left Salinas at 4 a.m. to testify at the hearings.

While unions and charter advocates have feuded for years, McDougall pointed to Newsom as the potential difference-maker after years of legislative gridlock.

“He’s our hope, that he will sign bills such as 1505, 1506 and 1507 and move forward and let everybody play by the same rules,” McDougall said outside the Assembly hearing room. “It’s public money, public funds. Everybody should be playing by the same rules.”

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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April 9, 2019 6:11 pm

Factions take shape as California advances nationally watched police shooting bill

Political Reporter
Stevante Clark, whose brother Stephon Clark was killed by Sacramento police in 2018, lobbies at the Capitol for a bill to limit police use of deadly force. Photo for CALmatters by Laurel Rosenhall

Even as a landmark California bill meant to prevent police shootings passed its first committee Tuesday, the fault lines among Democrats began to emerge, suggesting the measure will likely change as it moves through the Legislature. How much, though, was not yet clear.

After emotional, standing-room-only testimony from Californians whose loved ones have been killed by police, and a sheriff’s deputy who survived being shot by a gunman who killed her colleague, the Assembly Public Safety committee passed Assembly Bill 392 on a party-line vote. But three of the panel’s six Democrats said they were dissatisfied with the bill in its current form. They asked civil rights groups that support the bill and law enforcement groups that oppose it to keep working toward common ground.

“It is incumbent upon each of us to look at the safety of the public, both law enforcement and the community members that are out on the streets every day,” said Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a Democrat from Orinda.

“The pendulum has swung too far in one direction such that we aren’t protecting and holding accountable those who are taking life from our community members. I do have serious concerns that the text of this (bill) swings the pendulum too far in the other direction, because the sanctity of the life of our law enforcement is equally as important.”

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said she would work to reach a compromise before the bill reaches the Assembly floor.

“We are committed to having a piece of legislation that makes a difference and that does provide a balance,” said the San Diego Democrat whose bill would change the legal standard for justifying police use of deadly force.

Her bill—which is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and numerous civil rights groups—was prompted by the death last year of Stephon Clark. He was not armed, but Sacramento police killed him after mistaking the cellphone he was holding for a gun. Last month, the Sacramento district attorney announced she would not press charges because the officers acted legally.

Clark’s case has re-ignited anger among many that black and brown men are unfairly targeted by police, a message that was carried into the Capitol by scores of Californians who packed the hearing room and spilled out into the hallway, wearing T-shirts commemorating slain loved ones, or emblazoned with the hashtag #LetUsLive.

Weber’s bill would make sweeping changes to the laws that determine when California police can use deadly force. It says police could shoot only when it’s necessary to prevent death or serious injury, and would require they use other tactics in many situations.

That would go beyond the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court, which says police can use force when a reasonable officer in the same circumstance would do the same thing. Law enforcement groups said that a law that deviates from the reasonable standard would subject officers to greater danger while performing an already dangerous job.

“I was fighting for my life and fighting to protect complete strangers when I chose to stand between the gunman and the employees and patrons. The thought of having to second guess my actions in that moment is frightening,” said Julie Robertson, a Sacramento deputy sheriff who watched her colleague get killed by a gunman when they responded to a disturbance at an auto parts store last year.

“My only intention is to protect and save lives. How is it that I would be questioned and judged by the ones who live so distant from the dangers we inherently face each day?”

Though law enforcement groups are largely opposed to Weber’s bill, several said they would keep working with her to find common ground. Police groups have backed competing legislation, Senate Bill 230, that focuses on updating department policies on the use of force and increasing training for officers. It will likely get its first hearing later this month.

Follow this issue as it moves through the Legislature this year with CALmatters’ podcast, Force of Law.

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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March 28, 2019 7:25 pm

Destination El Salvador: Newsom’s first international trip as governor is a counterpoint to Trump

Health and Welfare Reporter
Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel, at a Los Angeles clinic founded by Salvadorans where he discussed his upcoming trip to El Salvador. Photo by Elizabeth Aguilera for CALmatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, at a Los Angeles clinic founded by Salvadorans where he discussed his upcoming trip to El Salvador. Photo by Elizabeth Aguilera for CALmatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom says he’s heading to El Salvador for his first international trip to explore the reasons Central Americans are fleeing their countries. But he’s also aware of the political symbolism of the trip, which is designed to highlight what Democrats regard as California’s more compassionate approach in sharp contrast to the Trump administration’s aversion to the waves of asylum seekers at the U.S. border.

The new governor announced his plans at a Los Angeles health clinic, surrounded by state politicians and community leaders from El Salvador and other Latin America countries. California is home to the largest group of Salvadorans outside of El Salvador, who constitute the largest group of Latino Californians after those from Mexico.

“As a country we’ve lacked a rational policy in Central America, and we are paying the price today,” Newsom said. “You cannot solve the migrant issue by building walls, it is so much more multifaceted and complex. It’s not just violence, it’s not just poverty, it’s about environment and all of these complex issues.”

He said he intends to invite other border-state governors and other leaders across the nation to help “push back against the dominant narrative that is so destructive in this country that the president of the United States has been advancing.”

The morning of Newsom’s announcement, President Trump tweeted his complaint that Mexico and Central American countries aren’t helping him solve what he has described as a border emergency:

While immigration policy is set by the federal government, Newsom said the state can take the lead in understanding and addressing the reasons why people are fleeing their countries, and also help those do arrive in California with shelter and assistance navigating the asylum and immigration system.

He has already allocated $5 million for community organizations that are helping asylum seekers, such as a migrant shelter in San Diego.

Democratic Assemblywoman Wendy Carillo of northeastern Los Angeles, who is the only Salvadoran elected state official, said this is an opportunity for California “to set a tone as to what it really means to be for human rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights—and to really set a new pathway for our state and country’s relationship” with El Salvador.

Central American leaders in Los Angeles said the governor could improve the migration crisis by helping bring more economic opportunity to the region, and working with leaders on the problem of violence.

“The only way we can solve this is looking at this long term, and investing in our country,” El Salvador, said Carlos Vaquerano, executive director of Clinica Monseñor Oscar Romero, where the meeting was held. “A young person that has opportunities and a job and a good education—they have no reason to want to leave.”

Citing the incidence of crime in El Salvador, the U.S. State Department in January again warned U.S. citizens to reconsider visits to the country. The average per-person income is $8,000.

Newsom said he can envision the state establishing programs in El Salvador, and in Central America, to build trade and promote commerce. He said previous governors, including Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown, had robust trade offices in those countries at one time, and he would like to do the same.

“America needs leadership nationally, and California will assert itself if this administration is walking away,” he said.

The governor’s office has not yet publicly released a schedule of Newsom’s four-day trip, with scheduled events beginning April 7.

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March 28, 2019 5:18 pm

After weeks of Trump trolling, California’s Capitol hits mute on the Mueller report

Political Reporter
The White House at Night (stock image)
California Democrats have been taunting the White House freely—but on Russia, the tone has shifted markedly in the past week.

Not so long ago, it seemed that the anti-Trump rhetoric emanating from California’s Capitol had reached peak snark.

The month of March brought not only the usual mean tweets between the president and Gov. Gavin Newsom, but also a sarcastic note to Vice President Mike Pence from the Democratic Speaker of the Assembly and committee passage of a Trump-trolling proposal mandating that all 2020 presidential candidates show us their tax returns.

So it was notable last week, when the long-awaited report from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III landed, that the response from California’s state leaders was more or less . . . crickets.

News that the special counsel had concluded the president had not colluded with Russia in his election generated gushers of punditry elsewhere. But here on the Western front of the so-called resistance, all was quiet.

In the hours and days following Mueller’s revelations, prominent Democratic state leaders took to Twitter to talk about abortion access, college funding, homelessness, gun violence—almost anything, it seemed, other than Russia.

Not until Tuesday did Newsom publicly comment on the news nearly every other Trump critic in America was talking about.

“I take a backseat to no one in terms of my desire to see this full un-redacted report made public to the American people,” Newsom said in a brief exchange with reporters following a forum on affordable housing, adding that the four-page summary from U.S. Attorney General William Barr “didn’t tell me much.”

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon was, when asked, similarly dismissive of the biggest news from the nation’s capital, saying he, too, wants to see Mueller’s full report, but that the investigation “has very little to do with… California’s interaction with the federal government.”

Just a week earlier, Rendon had made a public show of responding to a routine communication from the White House with a letter needling Trump and Pence.

“Thanks to your policies,” Rendon wrote, “voters in California added five Democrats to the Assembly in the last election. In addition, one Republican has decided to jump to the Democratic Party, citing the President’s extreme positions.”

Neener-neener, by the way, was a departure for Rendon. Over the last two years, he’s criticized other Democratic legislators for supporting what he saw as symbolic gestures that did little more than show their animus against the White House. But there’s a new governor in California and with him, a more combative spirit in the Capitol toward the White House, generally.

Jerry Brown was selective about taking pot-shots at Trump, and refused to use the word “resistance.” Newsom jabs at the president more frequently and overtly campaigned on the R-word. It may wind up costing the state. The Trump administration threatened to take back billions of dollars the federal government gave California to build a high-speed train—days after Newsom poked at the president during his state-of-the-state speech, by saying he intends to scale back the project but is “not interested in sending $3.5 billion … back to Donald Trump.”

However, the conventional wisdom among California politicos has been that baiting Trump has little downside for politicians in a big state dominated by Democrats vying for a piece of a crowded spotlight.

Rendon dismissed the suggestion that Newsom’s jousting style had any influence on his letter. But he acknowledged that campaigning against Trump helps Democrats win in California, where a recent poll shows just 29 percent of adults approve of the President. (By contrast, the Public Policy Institute of California reports, 45 percent approve of Newsom and 46 percent approve of the Legislature.)

“Asking Republicans to defend a president who’s pretty much a white supremacist, who has locked up children and separated them from their families, I think doing that at the same time as passing good policy tends to be a pretty good recipe for winning elections,” said Rendon, who helped Democrats flip several Assembly seats last year and secure a historically large margin of power.

Clearly, the approach for California Democrats has tilted toward meeting fire with fire when it comes to the president’s barbs. And they are now gearing up to try to win back the White House.

But talking about Russia, apparently, isn’t going to be part of the plan.

“People in California are worried about what’s going to happen here in California,” Fiona Ma, the Democratic state treasurer, said this week at the Sacramento Press Club.

George Lakoff, a retired UC Berkeley linguistics professor who has written that conservatives are better than liberals at effective political messaging, agreed that Newsom and other state leaders are right to focus on California issues.

And when they do discuss Mueller’s findings, he adds, they should emphasize the difference between the special counsel’s voluminous report, which has not been released, and Barr’s four-page summary.

“They should say, ‘The Barr report cannot be trusted and we haven’t seen the Mueller report,’” Lakoff said. “That needs to be said over and over. The term ‘Barr report,’ not the ‘Mueller report,’ needs to be out there.”

Want to submit a reader reaction? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Dan Morain with any questions, [email protected], (916) 201.6281.

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March 27, 2019 9:00 pm

Did Newsom “defy” the will of the people on executions? New poll says no

Political Reporter
Gov. Gavin Newsom surrounded by legislators at the 2019 State of the State address in the Capitol. Photo by Andrew Nixon, Capital Public Radio
Gov. Gavin Newsom at the State of the State. Photo by Andrew Nixon, Capital Public Radio

Ever since Gov. Gavin Newsom decided to halt capital punishment in California earlier this month, his political foes—and even a few supporters—have been lambasting him for his “arrogance” in “defying,” “thwarting,” and “kissing off” the state’s voters.

Two weeks later, a new poll which suggests that his moratorium might be more in line with public sentiment than maybe even he suspected. And that’s just one of several questions that found a majority of Californians aligned with their new governor—although they also say they’re already paying more than they ought to be in taxes.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California survey, a majority of likely voters favor life imprisonment with no possibility of parole over the death penalty as a punishment for first-degree murder—58 to 38 percent. When the pollsters asked all California adults, including those who are either not allowed to or not inclined to vote, the share preferring capital punishment dropped to a mere 31 percent.

That’s the lowest level of support for the death penalty since the institute began asking nearly two decades ago, said its president Mark Baldassare. With one exception.

“Republicans were the only group of all the demographic groups—region, race, ethnic—where support (for the death penalty) actually went up,” said Baldassare. “Partisan polarization is increasing and it’s increasing on this question as well.”

Newsom announced his freeze on executions earlier this month, saying that he could not “sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings,” particularly given the possibility that some could be innocent.

That’s inconsistent with Newsom’s statements on the campaign trail when he told CALmatters that he didn’t “want to get in front of the will of the voters” on the issue. In November 2016, California voters rejected a ballot proposition to end the death penalty—53-to 47 percent—while also voting to expedite the legal appeal process from death row. Voters nixed a similar abolition attempt in 2012 by a comparable margin.

Today’s poll suggests that a similar measure could fare differently—and voters may soon have an opportunity to find out. The day after Newsom announced his moratorium, Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Democrat from Marin, introduced another constitutional amendment to end capital punishment. If passed by two-thirds of both state legislative chambers, it would go on the 2020 ballot.

While the poll offers good news for Newsom, it does come with a caveat. Voters could very well support life imprisonment over the death penalty but still disapprove of the governor’s unilateral moratorium. The pollsters did not ask about the policy shift specifically, which was announced just as the survey was starting.

Either way, Newsom seems to have plenty of goodwill to fall back on. More Californians approve of the new governor than disapprove of him—a net positive of 9 points among likely voters and 19 points among all adults surveyed.

The vast majority of Californians also seem to support even the governor’s most contentious and expensive policy plans, including his proposals to boost funding for the earned income tax credit, housing construction and wildfire preparedness, to offer subsidized health insurance to  low-income undocumented immigrants below the age of 26 and to reduce the scale of the high-speed rail project.

“People are giving him the benefit of the doubt right now that he knows what he’s doing,” said Baldassare.

While many of these proposals carry big price tags, 60 percent of respondents nevertheless said that their tax bills are already “somewhat” or “much” larger than they ought to be.

Other notable findings from today’s poll:

    • A record low number of voters consider the amount that state and local governments spend on public sector pension benefits to be a “big problem.”
    • Disapproval of President Donald Trump sits at 67 percent of all Californians. A poll at this time last year put the number at 65 percent.
    • By a slim margin of 45 to 40 percent, Californians believe that Sen. Kamala Harris should not run for president, with 15 percent undecided. Half of political independents fell into the “no” camp.
    • Only 21 percent support President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to fund additional wall construction along the southern border.

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March 18, 2019 8:31 pm

Connected Bay Area recruiter gets no bid contract as online community college staffs up

Senior Editor
Bay Area executive recruiter Carolyn Carpeneti has been awarded a $500,000 no bid contract to help staff up the California online community college. Carpeneti has a daughter with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

California’s new online community college director, hoping to quickly establish her executive team, pushed Monday to grant a no-bid contract of up to $500,000 to an executive recruiter who is a friend and long has been a part of San Francisco’s political scene.

Heather Hiles, president of the nascent online college, has a goal of starting classes this fall. The community college board approved Hiles’ choice of executive recruiter Carolyn Carpeneti, even though some community college board members abstained, contending the contract should have been put out to competitive bid.

“I felt like she was far and away the best qualified,” Hiles said. Citing her goal of starting classes in a matter months, she added: “If I don’t get it staffed up, I can’t get it built.”

Before becoming an executive recruiter, Carpeneti was a political fundraiser whose clients included then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Brown and Carpeneti became romantically involved and had a daughter in 2001In 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “nonprofit groups and political committees controlled by the mayor and his allies” paid Carpeneti $2.33 million over a five-year period.

In the early 2000s, Carpeneti did consulting work for former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, then-Gov. Gray Davis, and former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, among others.

“That’s not my concern,” Hiles said of Carpeneti’s relationships. “My concern is who is best qualified.”

In an interview with CALmatters, Carpeneti said she shifted to executive recruiting more than a decade ago, and has focused on recruiting in the tech and educational fields. She called Brown a good friend and father, but said he has had no role in her executive recruiting business. 

Over dinner with Brown on Saturday, she said, she mentioned the potential of her online community college gig. He had never heard of the online college, or the contract.

Carpeneti did, however, say that her relationship with Hiles was key to her hiring.

“I highly admire her,” Carpeneti said. “She is the reason why I even took on this contract. I really believe in the mission. If the right people are in place, … this can be a beacon for the rest of the nation.”

Hiles came to the community college system from a venture capital fund. She is a Yale graduate, founder of digital portfolio platform Pathbrite and a former official at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Hiles also is connected to San Francisco politics, having overseen communications for Gov. Gavin Newsom while he was running to succeed Brown as mayor of San Francisco in 2003. Newsom subsequently appointed Hiles to a seat on the San Francisco Unified School District board.

Gov. Jerry Brown pushed for creation of the online college, viewing it as key to helping train 8 million-plus underemployed and unemployed Californians who are not able to gain new skills by attending traditional brick and mortar campuses. Many of the students likely will be women, Hiles said.

Carpeneti and her firm, The Leadership Group, are supposed to recruit six top executives, including ones who will oversee product and marketing, and finance and administration; plus others identified as “chief learning officer,” “chief of workforce programs,” “chief success officer” and “chief people officer.”

Carpeneti’s goal is to have the people in place by May. Her pay would be capped at $92,000 for each person she recruits. The contract says she will conduct a new search for free if the recruits leave before serving in their positions for one year.

“We’re moving fast and trying not to break things,” Tom Epstein, president of the community college board, said at Monday’s hearing.

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March 13, 2019 6:42 pm

Utilities pushed toward fire prevention as Edison is blamed for Thomas Fire

Economy Reporter
Firefighters battle the Thomas Fire on Dec. 4, 2017, in Ventura County. Photo by Gene Blevins for the Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG

Pressure mounted on California utilities Wednesday to shift priorities to fire prevention, as investigators determined that Southern California Edison power lines sparked a major 2017 blaze that later resulted in a deadly mudflow.

A joint investigation of federal, state and local authorities found the Thomas Fire—like megafires last year and the year before in Northern California areas served by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.—was sparked by utility equipment.

In the Edison case, a so-called “line slap” brought power lines into contact with each other, creating an electrical arc that caused molten metal from the lines to ignite surrounding vegetation. The fire, which started Dec. 4, 2017, and raged for 40 days in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, destroyed more than 1,000 structures, killed two people and led to a massive mudslide that claimed 20 more lives.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the finding puts Edison on the hook for more than $1.3 billion in insurance claims from fire victims and for $400 million in claims from the mudslides. Edison will have to work with insurance companies to handle thousands of claims.

Heightened fire risks in the era of climate change are already battering utilities in the market, as rating services, concerned about soaring liability, have lowered their bond ratings and increased their borrowing costs.

PG&E has filed for bankruptcy, admitting last month that its transmission line likely triggered the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest blaze in state history. That utility, the state’s largest, recorded a $10.5 billion charge in anticipation of damage claims for that Butte County fire.

Edison can take advantage of a state law passed last year that makes it easier for utility companies to absorb the cost of fire damages by borrowing from the state and charging customers to pay back the bonds over many years, a procedure called securitization.

Under SB 901, the state can take into account the financial health of the company; a five-member Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery would help regulators decide whether utilities can pass costs onto customers. In January, PG&E opted to file for Chapter 11 reorganization rather than wait for the state to establish that regulatory approval process, contending that bankruptcy was its only option as access to capital dwindled.

But on Wednesday, the Southern California utility argued that SB 901 isn’t enough, arguing in a statement that utilities need more liability relief “to address the critical issues of fire prevention, enhanced suppression efforts and fair cost allocation rules.”

Meanwhile, legislators representing the communities impacted by the Thomas Fire said they’d like to see utilities do more on their own to address their historic failure to invest in fire safety.

“The Thomas Fire and the January 9th Debris Flow have left serious scars in our community,” said Assemblywoman Monique Limόn in a statement to CALmatters. “I am hopeful the full report will include concrete steps on how we can prevent this in the future.”

“Best practices, best available technologies, they are out there,” added Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson. “It’s just that, frankly, PG&E in particular but Edison to some extent have failed to commit to these more protective kinds of infrastructure and I think now they will be required to do so. It’s my hope they will because to protect the safety and security of life and property and our economy, it’s going to be critical they do so.”

Jackson noted that after San Diego Gas & Electric was unable to pass costs from a 2007 blaze onto customers, it invested heavily to protect its equipment and hasn’t experienced a major wildfire since.

“Clearly,” she said, “we need to hold Southern California Edison responsible and make the victims whole and ensure that they take all the preventative steps possible to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

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March 12, 2019 7:51 am

Saying death penalty no longer “an abstract question,” Gov. Newsom halts executions in California

Political Reporter
Gov. Gavin Newsom says he wants “to give the voters a chance to reconsider” their endorsement of California’s death penalty.

Updated Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order today putting a moratorium on the death penalty in California and shuttering the execution chamber at San Quentin, a move that overrides a decision the state’s voters made in 2016 to maintain capital punishment.

While campaigning for governor last year, Newsom said he was fervently opposed to the death penalty but didn’t “want to get ahead of the will of the voters” and wanted to “give the voters a chance to reconsider.”

This morning, he said he changed his mind because his decision whether to permit executions had become more urgent. The state’s  lethal injection protocol was getting closer to being finalized and two dozen death row inmates had exhausted their appeals.

“I’ve had to process this in a way that I didn’t frankly anticipate a few months ago. It was an abstract question. (It became) a very real question,” Newsom said at a press conference in the Capitol.

“I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings.”

Under the governor’s reprieve, all 737 people on death row will remain in prison and, on paper, sentenced to death. But executions will be halted as long as Newsom remains governor. A future governor would have the power to change their fate.

Newsom’s executive order argues that the death penalty is unfair, applied disproportionately to people of color and people with mental disabilities. It says innocent people have been sentenced to die, including five Californians since 1973 who were found to have been wrongfully convicted. 


His move is part of a larger swing in California away from tough-on-crime policies. In the last decade, Democrats who control state government and the state’s largely liberal voters have embraced policies to eliminate the use of money bail, reduce some non-violent felonies to misdemeanors and legalize marijuana.

But the death penalty so far has been politically untouchable—repeatedly favored by voters despite their progressive tendencies on other issues. In 2016, California voters passed a ballot measure to expedite executions and defeated a measure to end the death penalty. Voters also defeated a 2012 measure to end the death penalty.

A leading supporter of the death penalty said Newsom’s action is legal but “contrary to basic democratic principles.”

“The decision of whether we will have the death penalty or not is one the people have made over and over again through the initiative process,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for capital punishment.

“It’s improper for an executive to use the reprieve power to frustrate the people’s position.”

GOP Assemblyman Tom Lackey said Republicans were looking for a way to reverse Newsom’s action but hadn’t yet figured out how. He criticized Newsom for changing his position from the campaign but ruled out an effort to launch a recall.

“He’s said conflicting statements. That’s how you lose trust,” said Lackey, of Palmdale.

It appears Californians may yet have another chance to weigh in.

Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine has introduced a measure that would, if approved by two-thirds of the Legislature, put the question on the ballot in 2020. He said having a governor campaign against the death penalty could make the difference in convincing voters to repeal it.

“We’ve never before had that type of leadership on one of these initiatives,” said Levine, of San Rafael. “We are going to learn from those failures….How do we do this right? How do we administer justice properly?”

Death penalty opponents urged Jerry Brown to grant a reprieve when he was governor, but he never did, despite his personal opposition to capital punishment. They have been lobbying Newsom to do the same since he was sworn-in in January.

Now they have their sights set on the next goal, said longtime anti-death penalty advocate Natasha Minsker: “The next step would be to go further and convert death sentences to life without parole.”

Watch Newsom’s comments on the death penalty here:

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March 6, 2019 7:17 pm

Meet California’s new environment czar, who walked the state to ‘reset’

Environment Reporter
Jared Blumenfeld at a recycling event. Photo via U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Jared Blumenfeld at a recycling event. Photo via U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

What better way to decompress from a stressful federal government job than by trekking 2,600 miles on foot from Mexico to Canada?

That’s what Jared Blumenfeld, the new head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, did three years ago, setting out on the arduous and beloved Pacific Crest Trail that traces California’s searing deserts, rugged mountains and sparkling coastline. Turns out the dust on his boots afforded him just the perspective he needed to take on the job Gov. Gavin Newsom gave him in January.

“I had a healthy reset,” Blumenfeld said recently about his four months on the trail. “What you realize is the complexity of the environmental issues. We have so many people talking about environmental issues, but we say it in a way that most people don’t understand.” People want to be part of the solution to environmental problems, he said.  “What I got from a distance was (the importance of) bringing these messages home in a way that’s digestible and actionable.”

Blumenfeld’s work perspective also shifted, from his job as the regional administrator for the federal EPA during the Obama administration to its mirror agency in Sacramento.

Blumenfeld, who has law degrees from the University of London and UC Berkeley, left his federal job in May 2016, a few months before his appointment was set to expire.

The agency he now manages oversees a half-dozen departments that regulate matters including air and water quality, which are among the state’s most contentious issues. Those issues have put California on a collision course with the Trump administration, which is undoing dozens of federal environmental protections, including some that originated in the Golden State.

Perhaps the most consequential battle is over Obama-era rules tightening future car emissions and gas-mileage standards to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants; the regulations were crafted by California but adopted nationwide. The federal government announced it would roll back those rules and revoke California’s right, first granted by Washington decades ago, to set its own air-pollution standards. Such a move would significantly affect the state’s ambitious climate policies.

Blumenfeld, 49, said the state needs the federal government as a partner on these issues, but when it came to hammering out a compromise on the auto standards, it was a one-way conversation. The feds announced last week that they had broken off negotiations with the state.

“They did not negotiate,” he said. “It was a little spurious to say they ended negotiations. They never began. The rule that was passed by the Obama administration has been rewritten based on very spurious and kind of junky science by the Trump administration.” (Federal officials produced research that they said showed the regulations as set would make cars less safe and be difficult for automakers to meet.)

In a wide-ranging conversation, Blumenfeld also said:

  • The state will vigorously defend its right to waive some federal emissions regulations and set its own, stricter standards. He expects the fight to be resolved in court. “We do have law and precedent on our side,” Blumenfeld said. “But we do live in bizarre political times, and that does have an influence on how the highest court may look at this issue.”
  • He brought together the state agencies he oversees and provided marching orders to step up enforcement of California’s environmental laws and impose fines when called for. “The regulated community is frustrated that in some cases the enforcement is happening in some parts of the state, but it isn’t in happening in others,” he said. “Consistency, clarity and prioritizing enforcement are important.” He had criticized California for lax enforcement of water laws in an opinion piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle last year.
  • Blumenfeld worked for Newsom in San Francisco as environmental director for the city. Then-mayor Newsom took him and other key aides to Hunters Point, a highly polluted former Navy shipyard, and into the community to talk to residents affected by residual problems. Newsom told the aides, “I don’t want you sitting in your offices. I want you to get out and help people.” The nexus of environmental damage and public health will be a focus of the new governor, Blumenfeld said.

The enviro-czar didn’t just spend his time hiking while on hiatus from government service. He founded a green-tech consulting company and started a podcast, Podship Earth. The native of Cambridge, England, who retains a trace of his British accent, said it’s now time to get back to work.

“Previous governors came up with great laws and targets, and the Legislature does the same,” he said. “Our job is to implement those. Let’s not just jump to the next shiny-cool environmental thing that we could do. Our first order of business is to look at what we’re doing and make sure we’re doing it according to the plans that are already there.

“We have politicians in every level of government who care deeply about the environment,” Blumenfeld said. “California offers hope and inspiration on how to solve problems, from an innovation perspective but also politically. It’s exciting to be in California right now.”

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