Good morning, California. It’s Monday, November 23.

Padilla vs. Yee

Remember the controversial $35 million contract that Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office awarded to a public affairs firm tied to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign?

The firm, SKDKnickerbocker, was tasked with leading a statewide campaign explaining new pandemic voting procedures. But California hasn’t paid the firm for its work — and SKDKnickerbocker may end up having to eat $35 million in costs, as I report in an exclusive story.

State Controller Betty Yee’s office has refused to authorize payment of the contract, despite personal appeals from Padilla himself. Hundreds of documents and emails I obtained through public records requests reveal a glimpse into the monthslong impasse between two of California’s most ambitious politicians — Padilla, considered one of the frontrunners for Kamala Harris’ Senate seat, and Yee, another Senate contender who is contemplating a run for governor in 2026.

Pressure appears to be building on Yee to approve payment. The secretary of state’s office recently asked the Department of Finance to transfer federal funds for the contract, though the department hasn’t yet acted on the request, said spokesman H.D. Palmer. The controller’s office maintains those funds were allocated to the counties, not the state.

  • Finance analyst Clint Kellum: “SOS is actually contracting at the state level to provide education and outreach on behalf of the counties because it’s more efficient.”
  • Rick Chivaro, the controller’s chief counsel: “Trying to get a definitive answer is a little like catching a greased pig.”

That isn’t the only controversy entangling the contract. One of the losing firms, Mercury Public Affairs, formally challenged the secretary of state’s decision, arguing that SKDKnickerbocker was given a “significant unfair advantage.”

For more, check out my report.


The coronavirus bottom line: As of 9 p.m. Sunday night, California had 1,102,033 confirmed coronavirus cases and 18,676 deaths from the virus, according to a CalMatters tracker.

Also: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. And we’re tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county.


1. Newsom family in quarantine

Newsom receives a COVID-19 test on Oct. 30, 2020, in Valencia. Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP Photo/Pool

Gov. Gavin Newsom, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom and their four children will be quarantining for the next two weeks following the exposure of three of the kids to a California Highway Patrol officer who later tested positive for COVID-19, Newsom spokesman Jesse Melgar said late Sunday night. Melgar said the entire family tested negative for the virus on Sunday and they will continue to be tested regularly. One of the children was already quarantining after being exposed to a COVID-positive schoolmate, Politico reported Friday. The family’s quarantine comes about a week after news broke that Newsom and his wife had attended a dinner party at the famed French Laundry restaurant — which itself carried risks. The odds that someone at the dinner had the virus were about 11 to 12%, CalMatters’ James Bikales reports. (Oh, and according to Willie Brown, the wine tab at the dinner was $12,000.)

2. Economic task force disbands

Tom Steyer at the 2019 California Democratic Party convention. Photo by Chris Stone, courtesy

Newsom disbanded California’s economic recovery task force Friday, even as more businesses close their doors or limit their hours amid reopening rollbacks and a new statewide curfew. Los Angeles County suspended outdoor dining Sunday, another blow to struggling businesses. Though the task force’s final report outlines general principles for revitalizing the economy — including leading with science and improving working conditions — it offers few specific initiatives apart from the California Rebuilding Fund, which will loan small businesses up to $100,000. The task force, co-chaired by billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, had long been accused of lacking transparency and a clear action plan.

Though the final report is full of glowing testimonies about the task force, not all of its members appeared to share those sentiments. Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger abruptly quit the task force in October, likely due to a disagreement over California’s reopening guidelines for theme parks. And as the state’s new curfew went into effect Saturday night, further limiting business for cash-strapped restaurants and bars, general frustration grew.

Not all business owners, though. Elon Musk, who got off scot-free after defying public health orders earlier this year, managed to evade Newsom’s latest coronavirus restrictions after the Department of Public Health deemed Tesla employees essential workers.

3. California NAACP president resigns

Alice Huffman at the California Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Alice Huffman, the president of the California NAACP, has resigned after a turbulent election season during which some Black leaders criticized her for endorsing ballot measures they said would harm African American communities, CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall reports. Huffman, who has led the California-Hawaii chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 20 years, will step down for health reasons on Dec. 1. This election cycle, she was paid $1.7 million by five corporate-backed campaigns that framed their positions using racial-justice messages and touted Huffman’s NAACP affiliation in ads, as Laurel first reported in September. All of the campaigns Huffman worked on were successful — even though her stance sometimes opposed that of the national NAACP and some local chapters.

  • Huffman: “With the victory at the top of the ticket securing the election of President-Elect Joe Biden, Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, as well as securing the reelection of our African American leaders in the California State Legislature, I can say ‘mission accomplished’ and now take a well deserved rest.”
  • Taisha Brown, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Black caucus: “Over the years, Alice basically went against everything that was in the best interest of Black people. And she used the NAACP to do that.”

4. Taxes too high, Californians say

Image via iStock

In another sign that California’s tax revolt is alive and well, a record 81% of voters said state and local taxes are high, up 20% from 2008, according to a poll released Friday by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies. Another 78% of voters said that California taxes were so high they were driving many people and businesses out of the state. The distaste for higher taxes likely drove the failure of Prop. 15, which would have hiked commercial property taxes and funneled revenue into local governments and schools. And although voters approved a majority of local tax measures to support schools in November, they defeated at least half of 236 local tax measures in the March primary, including one-third of school bond proposals.

  • IGS Co-director Eric Schickler: “While California voters generally endorse greater government involvement in many public policy areas, concerns about tax levels continue to be a major obstacle to generating the funds necessary to pay for those programs.”


CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California has an unexpected and welcome revenue windfall — which creates a political dilemma on what to do with it.

Spending not a solution: $2.7 billion in wasted affordable housing funds demonstrates that Democrats’ attempt to spend our way out of the housing crisis won’t work, argues state Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield.

More money to manage forests: We must support more funding for forest thinning and prescribed fire, argue Robert Dugan and Jeff Harris of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority.

Win for checks and balances: Sacramento’s defeat of the “strong mayor” ballot initiative signaled residents didn’t want to give one person too much power, writes Heather Fargo, the city’s former mayor.

Other things worth your time

Podcast: The pandemic’s effect on small businesses. // CalMatters

Third straight week of protests, violence between Trump supporters and counterprotesters at state capitol. // CapRadio

Bay Area sees racial shift in coronavirus: Positive tests down for Latinos, up for whites. // San Francisco Chronicle

More than 200 workers test positive for coronavirus at Golden Gate Fields. // San Francisco Chronicle

Rise in rare, severe gonorrhea complications concerns California health officials. // Sacramento Bee

Weary but determined, California’s family-owned farms fight through pandemic. // Los Angeles Times

Amid pandemic fears of student loss, UC enrollment remains flat. // EdSource

After the Bobcat fire, a century-old community hopes to rebuild its storied past. // Los Angeles Times

See you tomorrow.

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Follow me on Twitter: @emily_hoeven

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...