The onset of the coronavirus crisis has changed California's tone toward the current occupant of the White House. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.

In summary

Since the coronavirus pandemic, the Democratic governor of “the most un-Trump state in America,” as he once termed it, has been so conciliatory toward the president — and so unlike that of Democratic governors elsewhere — that he’s being praised by Republicans and Fox News. 

Democratic governors from coast to coast have criticized President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York calling it “absurd and nonsensical” and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington tweeting that his own state would fare better “if the Trump administration stuck to the science and told the truth.”

Yet here in California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has burnished his image as the leader of the anti-Trump resistance — routinely blasting the president’s approach to immigration, the environment, health care and civil rights — the response to Trump is the verbal equivalent of a thumbs-up.

“We’ve developed very strong relationships with our federal partners,” Newsom said Thursday, the latest in a string of positive comments he’s made about the Trump administration cooperating with California to stem the deadly virus and help passengers on the virus-stricken Grand Princess cruise ship. 

Even as he implored the federal government to send chemical ingredients needed to make test kits effective, Newsom showed no hint of feistiness. His
tone in recent weeks has been so conciliatory that he’s drawn praise from unusual corners. One of the Legislature’s most conservative Republicans, Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, credited Newsom and his staff for “providing detailed and timely updates” on the virus. And Fox News personality Tomi Lahren thanked Newsom for “putting politics aside” and collaborating with Trump.  

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“You could have easily taken cheap shots like many other Democrats but you didn’t,” she tweeted, “and I have a lot of respect for that.”  

The spate of bipartisanship may seem strange, but bipartisanship amid crisis has become a hallmark during Newsom’s short time as governor. Shortly after he was elected in 2018, Newsom joined Trump and then-Gov. Jerry Brown on a tour of fire-ravaged communities. They visited the devastated town of Paradise and later, in southern California, the president and governor-elect shared an awkward embrace in front of news cameras.

“I noted in my mind at that time that Newsom acted very much more like a statesman than taking the opportunity to be more political,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant.

“I am working to solve problems, not create problems,” Newsom said Thursday. “I’m willing to put aside our differences on a lot of issues to meet this moment, so I can meet the needs of the people of the state of California.”

Throughout the recovery from the deadly wildfires, Newsom praised the Trump administration’s response to California, taking a page from Brown who also pointedly cooperated with Trump in the face of crisis. Newsom took a similar tone when earthquakes hit the state last year.

“He is very good in these hyper-political times at not politicizing crisis issues,” Stutzman said, even though “just about every other aspect of how he’s governed is uber-political.”

For instance: Newsom signed a bill that trolled Trump by requiring that candidates for president release their taxes in order to appear on the California ballot. (It’s since been overturned by the courts.) In his inauguration speech, Newsom called out “the corruption and the incompetence in the White House.” He said he was “absolutely humiliated” by Trump’s stance on climate policy during a speech to world leaders at the United Nations, and routinely brags that California is the most “un-Trump” state in the U.S.

So why isn’t he more critical of Trump now, as the president has downplayed the risk of coronavirus and led a public health response that has failed to deliver adequate test kits throughout the country?

“I am working to solve problems, not create problems,” Newsom said Thursday. “I’m willing to put aside our differences on a lot of issues to meet this moment, so I can meet the needs of the people of the state of California.”

Nathan Ballard, a Democratic strategist who worked for Newsom as San Francisco mayor, said the governor is not only demonstrating sensitivity to the public, but also being pragmatic. 

“Let’s face it, he’s got to work with Donald Trump right now. He holds the keys to the federal treasury and he is a vindictive and impulsive man,” Ballard said.

Though the Trump administration has cooperated with California’s requests for disaster aid in the past — under both Newsom and Brown — it’s not hard to imagine that a war of words with the president could lead to a loss of federal dollars or assistance. Trump yanked almost $1 billion from California’s high speed rail project after the state sued over Trump’s border wall, for example, a move Newsom called political retribution.   

“There is no reason to give him another excuse to punish California for being too liberal,” Ballard said. “So right now is the time to pull together, and Gavin Newsom knows that.”

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Laurel Rosenhall

Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the statehouse. Her stories explain political dynamics in the Capitol and examine how money, advocacy and relationships...