Good morning, California. It’s Tuesday, September 21.

Big 2022 campaign issue

Fires move fast, but politicians move faster.

Early Monday, Assemblymember Marc Levine of San Rafael announced plans to challenge fellow Democrat and State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara in 2022, charging that Lara hasn’t done enough to prevent Californians living in fire-prone areas from losing their home insurance. Hours later, Lara issued a one-year moratorium blocking insurance companies from dropping coverage for more than 325,000 homeowners affected by fires raging across the state.

  • Levine: “This can’t be a backwater job at a time when this is the one position that has the ability to affect the most Californians.”
  • Lara: “Climate change-fueled wildfires continue to devastate homeowners and communities. My moratorium orders help provide short-term relief as we address the root causes of these ever-intensifying natural disasters.”

To put the destruction stemming from California’s fires into perspective: From July 1 to Sept. 10, the state spent $849.1 million fighting major fires, H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance, told me. And last week, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services asked Congress to appropriate at least $7.7 billion for California’s wildfire response and recovery efforts, as well as tax relief for those affected by the blazes.

Later this week, the California chapter of the national group Elected Officials to Protect America will call on Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a climate emergency — citing the state’s devastating drought and the more than 2.3 million acres scorched by wildfires so far this year — and push him to accelerate the phaseout of fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, Monday’s hot, dry winds pushed the KNP Complex Fire in Sequoia National Park closer to the Giant Forest, but the beloved forest — home to General Sherman, the largest tree on the planet — remained relatively unscathed. However, the Windy Fire in Sequoia National Forest began to attack other ancient groves containing trees over 1,500 years old.

Evacuation orders and warnings remain in place for many Californians living near the national park and forest, with the blazes threatening more than 2,000 homes. And PG&E customers in portions of at least nine counties and one tribal community saw their power shut off on Monday as the utility attempted to mitigate fire risk amid the dry and windy conditions.

PG&E, whose equipment is suspected of starting the monstrous Dixie Fire that leveled the town of Greenville, said it now plans to cut power more aggressively in fire-prone areas when issues are detected.


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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 4,422,085 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 67,612 deaths (+0.01% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 48,448,279 vaccine doses, and 69.1% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters is tracking the results of the Newsom recall election and the top 21 bills state lawmakers sent to Newsom’s desk.


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1. Key EDD hearing up in the air

The California Assembly chamber. Photo via Creative Commons

Californians who want to know how much progress the state unemployment department has made on crucial reforms will have to wait until lawmakers can find a room in which to hold the hearing — a process complicated by COVID safety protocols that require physical distancing and a lack of available large meeting spaces amid construction at the Capitol. Though the hearing was never officially rescheduled after it was postponed twice in August, Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, a Los Angeles Democrat and chairperson of one of the committees holding the Employment Development Department hearing, told me, “My colleagues and I will return to Sacramento in September to ensure that it is done.” That now seems unlikely.

The latest delay hampers lawmakers’ ability to execute on their stated goal of evaluating the federal government’s Sept. 4 cutoff of expanded unemployment benefits for 2.2 million Californians. It also means there will be less oversight of EDD’s new policy of automatically paying benefits to certain claimants, a process the department itself acknowledged could lead to fraud. And it means that Californians won’t immediately get answers about why EDD’s backlog of unresolved claims increased last week for the first time in seven weeks.

For the record: This item was updated with clarifications from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s office.

2. Schools grapple with vaccine mandates

Nicole Jessie brings her daughter to the Valley Specialty Center in San Jose for her second COVID shot on July 27, 2021. Photo by Anda Chu, Bay Area News Group

West Contra Costa Unified School District, one of the largest in the Bay Area, canceled a vote scheduled for today on whether to mandate vaccines for staff and eligible students. The superintendent decided to postpone the meeting after speaking with the district’s attorney and learning more about the “gaps” in Los Angeles Unified’s recent vaccine requirement, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The move underscores the legal and logistical challenges facing schools as they hammer out vaccination policies — and as more kids become eligible for the shot. Pfizer and BioNTech announced Monday that their coronavirus vaccine is safe and highly effective in children ages 5 to 11, meaning that if it wins emergency-use approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, millions of elementary school students could be inoculated by Halloween.

Coronavirus case rates are declining among California’s children more slowly than in the adult population, though kids’ hospitalization rates are far lower, according to a Mercury News analysis. Wednesday, Oakland Unified is scheduled to vote on a vaccine mandate for staff and eligible students.

3. Port logjam imperils supply chain

The Port of Los Angeles. Image via iStock

Yes, it’s only September, but you may want to start doing your holiday shopping now. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle about 40% of U.S. imports, have so much backlogged cargo that they’re expanding employee work hours in an attempt to build a 24/7 supply chain, the Los Angeles Daily News reports. Every day last week, the two ports set a new record for the number of ships waiting to unload electronics, toys, clothes, furniture and other goods. What’s causing the massive logjam? COVID safety protocols, a surge in people shopping online and a persistent worker shortage, especially of truckers to transport the items away from the ports, experts say. The situation has gotten so dire that companies such as Target have chartered private container ships to make sure people get their orders on time.


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CalMatters commentary

Toward a multiracial democracy: To defeat the recall, we followed Georgia’s playbook and showed the importance of engaging voters of color, write Christina Livingston of Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment Action and Luis Sanchez of PowerCA Action.

Importance of infrastructure bill: California’s congressional delegation should support this proposal to bring desperately needed relief to a parched California and the West, argue Dan Errotabere, a San Joaquin Valley farmer, and John Monroe, a Sacramento Valley farmer.


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Other things worth your time

After California recall, Democrats fret over Latino vote. // Wall Street Journal

Opinion: Republicans caught in California’s recall trap. // The Hill

Editorial: California’s new ethnic studies bill isn’t quite ready for prime time. // Los Angeles Times

California schools prepare for thousands of Afghan refugee students. // EdSource

Los Angeles County sees massive surge in babies born with syphilis. // Los Angeles Times

California’s reboot of troubled Medi-Cal puts pressure on health plans. // California Healthline

Kaiser Permanente union in California nearing strike. // Healthcare Dive

President Biden nominates lifetime federal judges for California district courts. // HuffPost

How California leaders are trying to redefine domestic abuse in courtrooms. // Sacramento Bee

San Diego’s DA touts justice reform. Not all reformers are buying it. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Some Los Angeles firefighters have lengthy commutes – as far away as Florida. // Mercury News

San Diego Police Department pledges to increase number of women recruits by 2030. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Lawsuit could block Sacramento’s $100 million homeless shelter and tiny home plan. // Sacramento Bee

The Bay Area’s COVID homeless hotel experiment: Successes and uncertainty. // Mercury News


See you tomorrow.

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