I thought I might nominate Donald J. Trump for this year’s Black Bart Award. But it’s time to retire our lame-duck President’s number. Instead, I nominate California’s Governor Gavin Newsom–for his often good, sometimes bad and, once-in-a-while really stupid impact on the Golden State.
On the plus side, or the negative–depending on where you stand politically, Newsom has managed not to totally alienate President Trump. Despite Trump’s incessantly bashing the Golden State—political punishment for its blue hue, he hasn’t spewed a whole lot of angry tweets in Newsom’s direction. Trump, you could argue, likes Newsom better than the state he governs. And no matter what your political persuasion, you’ve got to admit that this somewhat curious relationship has been more useful than an unceasing poke in the eye—especially when federal assistance is needed.
Newson has shown movement (sometimes chaotic) on several progressive agenda items (e.g. fracking and prescription drug costs). But unresolved major state issues, like the homeless crisis and the affordable health care conundrum, continue to haunt his tenure.
Newsom got decent reviews for his dealing with California’s catastrophic wildfires. And his leadership in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic earned him media kudos. California became the first state to impose a lockdown on its citizens, and the Governor communicated regularly with Californians (in his policy-wonk way) to focus them on the reality of the virus and the actions necessary to prevent its spread.
But faced with growing public and media criticism of his moves and their impact on the state’s economy, culture, and communities—indeed, on every aspect of California life–Newsom blinked. Under pressure, he began to loosen corona-mandated restrictions. Now, with California ravaged by a fierce surge in Covid-19 cases, there is more—and louder–criticism being aimed at Newsom. Did he lockdown the state too much and too soon? Did he open the state back up too fast and too early?
On top of that, as Governor Newson announced stricter Covid-19 protocols for already overwhelmed Californians, he made the acutely stupid decision to attend a birthday dinner with several, mostly unmasked, friends at the haute French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley.
Why stupid? Californians’ cynicism and distrust in government are already high. The French Laundry Caper fed into that. It tarnished the Governor’s credibility, moral authority, and governmental responsibility to deal effectively with the pandemic at this critical time.
In the midst of our current economic and health crises, at this time of intense distrust of politics, government and science, Newsom’s hypocritical behavior may well have undercut the ability of California’s elected officials—and scientific experts–to demand needed restrictions and behavior modifications from citizens.
The founder of the Black Bart Award, Joel Fox, explained, “There are no specific criteria to follow in making the selection…Perhaps, the nominee took one courageous act, or committed a dastardly deed that had great repercussions, or performed heroically in difficult circumstances.”
It was a “dastardly deed”—the arrogance, hypocrisy and—yes—optics of the French Laundry Caper, that got Gov. Gavin Newson his nod.