Good morning, California. It’s Friday, September 17.

Newsom takes new tack

Actions speak louder than words.

It’s a message that Gov. Gavin Newsom appears to be trying to send to voters after defeating an attempt to oust him from office — and with yet another election next year. Newsom on Thursday signed into law a package of bills to boost housing production, including two of the year’s most controversial proposals: one that would curb single-family zoning in most neighborhoods statewide and another that would allow local governments to build up to 10 units on single-family lots near public transit.

But he did so with little fanfare: Instead of holding a ceremony with the bill’s authors and supporters, replete with congratulatory speeches and signatures — as he did both over Zoom last year and in person this year — he simply issued a press release.

The subdued behavior is a marked change from recent months, which saw Newsom riding roller coasters, juggling lottery balls and holding massive rallies to promote his programs and, well, himself. But the governor’s first public appearance after surviving the recall was a restrained speech on election night that lasted less than five minutes. The next day, he visited an Oakland school and quietly awarded fire prevention grants — actions presumably in line with those the Sacramento Bee editorial board asked for in a Wednesday column.

  • The editorial board: “Californians are fed up with problems not getting solved, and paying more for almost everything — from housing to gas to electricity. Residents want sound leadership to deliver not just words, but actual achievements on thorny issues like housing costs and homelessness.”

But when it comes to housing and homelessness, there’s never a shortage of challenges.

A Thursday report from State Auditor Elaine Howle found that California could lose as much as $337 million in federal rent relief if it doesn’t accelerate the distribution of money to struggling renters ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline. That’s the same day California’s eviction moratorium is slated to expire — ending protections that lawmakers extended partly because of delays in disbursing $2.6 billion in rent relief.

Though the state has taken steps to streamline access to the money, it hasn’t kept pace with residents’ needs: As of Sept. 8, the California Department of Housing and Community Development had $993 million worth of unprocessed applications, according to the audit. In a formal response, the department disputed Howle’s finding that it could lose federal money and noted that it had asked Howle to delay releasing the report until after Sept. 30, when a clearer picture of risk would emerge.

The audit is the second in less than a month to critique the department’s management of federal funds. In late August, Howle issued a blistering report on its handling of $316 million for people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. 

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 4,387,926 confirmed cases (+0.2% from previous day) and 67,187 deaths (+0.3% from previous day), according to state data.

California has administered 48,219,430 vaccine doses, and 68.6% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters is tracking the top 21 bills state lawmakers sent to Newsom’s desk.

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1. It’s hard to run against no one

Gov. Gavin Newsom gives a speech following his projected victory in the recall election at the California Democratic Party headquarters in Sacramento on Sept. 14, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Newsom gives a speech at the California Democratic Party headquarters in Sacramento on Sept. 14, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Contrary to popular belief, conservative talk show host Larry Elder wasn’t the frontrunner among the 46 candidates vying to replace Newsom in the recall: He finished far behind “none of the above.” Of the 9.5 million ballots counted so far, a whopping 45% didn’t choose a replacement candidate — exactly the strategy promoted by Newsom and the California Democratic Party, CalMatters’ Ben Christopher reports. That bumped Elder’s actual share of the vote down to 26% — with about 2.9 million ballots left to count, Secretary of State Shirley Weber said Thursday. In a Thursday TV appearance, Elder cast doubts on whether he would challenge Newsom again in 2022, saying, “It’s hard for me to see that were I to have a rematch the outcome would be a whole lot different. But I may change my mind over the next coming days.” 

Meanwhile, the power of the gubernatorial office was reaffirmed Thursday when California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar said he plans to step down to lead a foreign policy think tank, giving Newsom yet another vacancy to fill. It will be Newsom’s second appointment to the state’s highest court: Last year, he picked Martin Jenkins, the court’s first openly gay justice

In other election news, amid some Californians’ persistent concerns about voter fraud, Carl DeMaio — a recall backer and leader of the conservative group Reform California — this week submitted a proposal for a 2022 ballot initiative that would tighten voter identification laws.

2. Schools mull vaccine requirements

Keoni Gist, an RN with Kaiser Permanente, gives a coronavirus vaccination shot to Kaylan Black, a 16-year-old Envision Academy student, Saturday, July 31, 2021, at a clinic co-sponsored by Beebe Memorial Cathedral in Oakland. Photo by Karl Mondon, Bay Area News Group
Registered nurse Keoni Gist gives a vaccine to Kaylan Black, a 16-year-old Envision Academy student, on July 31, 2021 in Oakland. Photo by Karl Mondon, Bay Area News Group

Two days after California became one of only three states to see its coronavirus transmission levels fall from “high” to “substantial,” the Golden State is back in the worst tier, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The abrupt shift — likely due to the agency counting three days of previously unreported cases from Los Angeles County — illuminates one of the most fundamental and frustrating aspects of the pandemic: the constant back-and-forth. Next week, the school boards of Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified school districts will decide whether to mandate vaccines for staff and eligible students — a move backers say will help them avoid precisely this kind of whiplash. Los Angeles Unified and Culver City Unified have already announced vaccine requirements for eligible students.

In other health care news, Peter Lee, the leader of California’s health insurance marketplace for the past decade, said Thursday that he plans to leave his post in March 2022. Lee’s departure from Covered California — which is at record enrollment levels — is “the health policy equivalent of Lebron leaving the Cavs,” in the words of Andrew Kelly, an assistant professor at Cal State East Bay’s Department of Public Health.  

3. All hands on deck to protect sequoias

A sign announces the closure of Sequoia National Park, where the KNP Complex Fires are burning, Sept. 14, 2021, in Tulare County. Individually named the Colony and Paradise Fires, the blazes are burning near the Giant Forest, home to more than 2,000 giant sequoias. Photo by Noah Berger, AP Photo
A sign announces the closure of Sequoia National Park on Sept. 14, 2021 in Tulare County. Photo by Noah Berger, AP Photo

Within 24 hours, flames from the KNP Complex Fire could reach the iconic Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park — home to five of the 10 largest sequoias on the planet, including General Sherman, the biggest of them all, fire officials said Thursday. To mitigate the possible damage, crews were wrapping the magnificent trees with fire-resistant aluminum material and digging protective lines around their trunks.

Although rain is forecasted today in the far reaches of Northern California, strong winds over the weekend and on Monday could drive rapid fire growth, according to UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain.

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CalMatters commentary

A holistic approach to housing and homelessness: California is poised to invest $10 billion to accelerate housing production and $12 billion to tackle homelessness, writes Lourdes Castro Ramírez, secretary of the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.

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Looking for a Gold Rush town named Chinese Camp. // New York Times

See you Monday.

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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...