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‘It’s all fallen apart’: Newsom scrambles to save California — and his career

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‘It’s all fallen apart’: Newsom scrambles to save California — and his career

Halfway through his first term, the Democratic governor of the nation’s most populous state is scrambling to control a pandemic that has crippled the southern half of California since Thanksgiving. The pandemic has given Republicans, long sidelined in this heavily Democratic state, a rare opportunity to wound him. And Newsom is laboring to keep the state — and his own political future — intact.

“People are really pissed off,” said Ted Costa, the anti-tax crusader who was the original proponent of the Davis recall. He signed Newsom recall papers last week in the parking lot of a Home Depot in Thousand Oaks. “Things can get hot quick, and I don’t know if Newsom realizes what happens when a groundswell hits.”

For Newsom, an ambitious Democrat with a national profile, the extent of the problem is unclear. The last Republican to win a gubernatorial election in California was Arnold Schwarzenegger, and that was nearly 15 years ago. When Newsom won the governorship in 2018, he carried the state by nearly 24 percentage points. His public approval rating last year stood at 60 percent.

Yet the pandemic has worsened in recent weeks. And the frame of reference through which Californians view Newsom is about to change dramatically when Joe Biden replaces Donald Trump in the White House. No longer benefiting from a reliable foil in Washington, the bar of public approval for Newsom — and for Democratic governors across the country — is likely to be raised.

“For the last couple of years during Newsom’s tenure, people have been saying the nation’s going in the wrong direction and the state, compared to the nation, is going in the right direction,” said Mark Baldassare, a veteran pollster and president of the Public Policy Institute of California. Now, without a Republican president to judge Newsom against, he said, “It certainly changes that point of contrast.”

Newsom has met the surging virus and its economic fallout with a series of proposals intended to help the most vulnerable Californians and to get schoolchildren back into classrooms. Last month, he proposed a $2 billion effort to reopen elementary schools for the state’s youngest students, with additional protective equipment and testing. Earlier last week, Newsom proposed giving the state’s low-income workers $600 “rapid cash” grants. And in a boon for his political fortunes, the state’s budget, despite dire predictions, is so healthy that Newsom released a budget proposal on Friday that calls for record spending while adding billions of dollars to the state’s reserve accounts.

But good news has been rare in California, and Newsom has not been without blunders. He came in for a drubbing after attending a dinner party for a top political adviser at the upscale restaurant The French Laundry — a liability not only because Newsom enjoyed his night out as he was discouraging Californians from gathering for the holidays, but because the location was so posh. Californians who might otherwise have stopped mocking him for that episode weeks ago have only had more reason for frustration amid the pandemic’s worsening conditions.

“In the city of Los Angeles and in our county, Covid-19 is now everywhere and infecting more people than ever,” the city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, said at a grim news conference on Thursday night.

Garcetti, a Democrat who has come under public pressure similar to that facing Newsom, has blamed the federal government — not the state — for delays in vaccine distribution. But Newsom is facing criticism from others for being too slow to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine, something the federal government has left up to states.

“I don’t think Californians can understand why we have hundreds of thousands of doses sitting there, and they’re not being administered,’’ said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who advised Newsom’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign and was a senior adviser to Davis. “California’s been through nearly 10 months of hell, and now there’s potentially a light at the end of tunnel with these vaccines — but it doesn’t do anybody any good if they’re not administered.”

“You’ve got to get these vaccinations in people’s arms,” he said.

Like other Democrats, Newsom has faulted the Trump administration for the slow vaccine rollout, joining the Democratic governors of seven other states last week in pressing federal health officials to release more doses. And in the new administration in Washington, Newsom will have some help. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who this month will be sworn in to fill the seat of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, said in an interview that he plans make “Covid, Covid, Covid” his top priority — and will work immediately to get Newsom whatever help he needs.

At the federal level, Padilla said, “We know that vaccines have been approved, but we’re still nowhere near where we need to be in terms of the volume of production.”

For Newsom’s political purposes, the sooner the better. For years, Republicans’ messaging on taxes, regulations and social issues has fallen flat in gubernatorial politics here, a reflection of California’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate. But the coronavirus has come as a bonanza for Newsom’s critics, providing an opening for anti-Newsom broadsides that might resonate beyond the Republican Party’s base.

“In the midst of this pandemic, with so many people hurting and now out of work, … we have 500,000 Californians that can’t get an unemployment check,” said former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who this week launched a gubernatorial exploratory committee. “How many parents are frustrated, when they look to see that the majority of private schools are up and running and operated and yet we haven’t been able to safely reopen our public schools? That’s unacceptable.”

He and other Republicans have been casting Newsom as directionless on pandemic — a narrative that has been assisted by the increase in cases despite restrictions. “Look, all we heard — all year long — from Gavin Newsom was that once we have the vaccine, all problems will be solved, the lockdowns will end and we can get back to normal life here in California,’’ said Jennifer Kerns, a conservative talk show host and former state GOP spokesperson. “And that’s not been the case.”

Joe Rodota, a former Republican strategist who left the party due to Trump’s influence and once served as deputy chief of staff to former Gov. Pete Wilson, said, “It’s all fallen apart.”

Against that backdrop, the push to recall Newsom has been gaining steam. Though recall efforts are mounted routinely against governors and rarely qualify for the ballot, proponents of the anti-Newsom effort said Tuesday that they had surpassed 1 million signatures — about two-thirds of the number they need to force an election later this year — in part by soliciting signatures by mail from Republicans and independent voters. The effort drew a $500,000 donation recently from an Orange County donor who objected to Newsom’s orders limiting religious gatherings due to the coronavirus.

Dave Gilliard, the Republican strategist who helped orchestrate Davis’ recall in 2003 and is advising the Newsom recall effort, put the odds of qualifying for the ballot at about 80 to 85 percent.

“It’s really taken off in the last couple of months,” he said, attributing the increase to what he called “the French Laundry surge.”

Newsom’s advisers are paying attention to the recall effort, doing interviews and casting the recall proponents as “pro-Trump extremists.” Dan Newman, Newsom’s chief political adviser, said “the recall effort is primarily fueled by the same hatred, misinformation and lack of respect for democracy that led domestic terrorists to storm the Capitol.”

Lacing into Faulconer and John Cox, the Republican defeated by Newsom in 2018, Newman said, “Trump’s California acolytes like Kevin Faulconer and John Cox are marching in lockstep with the president, blindly following his example by refusing to accept and respect the will of the voters.”

But Newsom’s advisers are not advertising or holding press conferences, privately disinclined to give air to an initiative they believe is unlikely to qualify without a significant infusion of additional money. Proponents of the recall need to collect roughly 1.5 million signatures by March; ensuring they have enough valid signatures means they will likely need to collect far more than that number.

And if the recall initiative does qualify for the ballot, actually recalling Newsom will be a much taller task. Republicans make up less than a quarter of California’s electorate. And by the time of any recall election, which would not come until months after signatures are submitted, the mood of voters — by then potentially vaccinated — may dramatically improve.

For now, Davis said he expects Newsom to focus heavily on promoting the vaccine, which he said should “give people the sense that this pandemic is eventually going to end.” And overall, given the challenges of the pandemic, Davis said Newsom has “done a remarkable job.”

“There’s a reason why his public approval ratings are still in the mid- to high-50s,” Davis said. “He’s totally transparent. He explains why he’s going to do something. He tells you whether it was accomplished and, if not, why not. And I think there’s an endearing quality about him that voters like.”

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Zuckerberg: Facebook to stop recommending political groups in bid to ‘turn down the temperature’

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Zuckerberg: Facebook to stop recommending political groups in bid to 'turn down the temperature'

A clampdown on political amplification: During the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call on Wednesday, Zuckerberg called the decision “a continuation of work we’ve been doing for a while to turn down the temperature and discourage divisive conversations.”

The Facebook chief also said the company is considering taking new steps to limit the amount of political content users see in its News Feed.

“Politics has kind of had a way of creeping into everything, and I think lot of … the feedback that we see from our community is that people don’t want that in their experience,” Zuckerberg said on the call with investors.

Under pressure: Tech companies are facing immense political scrutiny for the role social media platforms played in the insurrection at the Capitol.

Dozens of Democrats last week called on Facebook and other social media companies to overhaul their recommendations and algorithms to reduce the spread of incendiary, divisive and violent content on their platforms. The lawmakers railed against the companies, saying that by creating a “digital echo chamber,” they had contributed to the radicalization of those who stormed the Capitol.

“Perhaps no single entity is more responsible for the spread of dangerous conspiracy theories at scale or for inflaming anti-government grievance than the one that you started and that you oversee today as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer,” they wrote in a letter to Zuckerberg.

The issue has also drawn bipartisan concern. A group of Senate Republicans and Democrats in 2019 teamed up on legislation to require platforms to give users the option of experiencing sites without algorithmic recommendations.

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Black Veterans’ group calls for representation at VA

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Black Veterans' group calls for representation at VA

The letter comes as Veteran’s Affairs Secretary-designate Denis McDonough is scheduled to testify at a confirmation hearing on Wednesday afternoon. McDonough, a former chief of staff and deputy national security adviser under President Obama, said in an op-ed for the Military Times that he is committed to revitalizing the department, particularly as it relates to its ability to address the health concerns of an aging veteran population. Still, his nomination vexed a number of veterans’ advocacy organizations, whose leaders said they would prefer a veteran be picked for the job.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has been weathered by a number of internal staffing and regulatory issues. In addition to its track record of quick turnovers in top staff positions under President Donald Trump, the agency has faced accusations of retaliation against employees who have reported instances of malfeasance under the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.

The group, however, said that a large number of the issues at the VA disproportionately impact veterans of color.

The push to install Black leaders at the VA comes on the heels of Biden’s first series of executive orders advancing racial equity — an issue that minority-led organizations across the issue advocacy spectrum have been especially attuned to. Victor LaGroon, the president of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council and the letter’s sole signer, pointed to the role that voters of color played in securing Democratic wins up and down the ballot. Given the large number of Black veterans who were part of that group, he said, they should be represented both in top cabinet positions and mid-level staff.

“It is great to see the general [Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin was recently approved and appointed and sworn in,” LaGroon said in an interview. “But that’s one person who will now be working at SecDef. How many people under him will be men of color?”

Member organizations within the council supported the letter on behalf of disabled, woman and LGBTQ veterans. They expressed concern about patterns of discrimination against their members in the past and optimism about improvements to the Veterans’ Affairs Department under President Joe Biden. LaGroon said he is optimistic that the new administration will heed their suggestions and plan to present officials with suggestions for who they feel should fill those roles.

The group also expressed concerns about the patterns of discrimination against Black veterans in their letter. Racial inequities within the department are often swept under the rug when there are few people of color in leadership positions, it argues.

“There’s always been deficits as far as representation across the board,” LaGroon said. “Whether it’s from clinicians, where veterans are getting primary and specialty care, whether it’s a difference in the quality of care that veterans get… obviously, some VA centers or hospitals are better than others.”

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A top MAGA gathering finds life complicated after Trump

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A top MAGA gathering finds life complicated after Trump

Senior Trump adviser Jason Miller said that Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago abode is less than 2.5 hours away from the Orlando hotel where this year’s conference will occur on Feb. 25-28, is not currently scheduled to make an appearance. Meanwhile, a senior American Conservative Union official would not answer whether Pence, who drew MAGA world’s ire for certifying Joe Biden’s election, had been invited to speak at this year’s conference. A spokesperson for the former vice president did not respond to a request in time for publication.

ACU chairman Matt Schlapp said he is convinced this year’s conference will be no different from past years. “CPAC is going great,” he told POLITICO on Tuesday, before then saying that his quote needed to be attributed without his name. Schlapp did not address questions about why some sponsors were not continuing their CPAC sponsorship. But after those questions were posed and additional questions were sent to CPAC sponsors — including whether the Jan. 6 Capitol riots impacted their thinking about sponsoring again this year — ACU General Counsel David Safavian accused POLITICO of “tortious interference with business relationships” and attempting “to ‘cancel’ both CPAC and the American Conservative Union itself.” The group then tweeted a copy of a letter from Safavian that included a litigation threat.

“We fully intend to explore our legal rights to hold Politico fully accountable for what we see as tortious conduct,” the letter stated.

How well CPAC goes this year will provide one of the first public indications about the health of the MAGA movement with Trump out of office and with the Republican Party divided over just how loyal to the former president it should be.

One year ago, CPAC was in a far different place. The 2020 gathering was, for a brief moment, a crowning achievement for the conference’s organizer, Schlapp. Delivering a 90-minute, chest-beating victory speech, Trump showed up to hype his survival of his first impeachment. Vice President Mike Pence came as well. Indeed, more than 30 Trump aides and officials in all spoke at the conference, ranging from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to senior White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

But within days, the appearances were overshadowed by news that an attendee who’d been in direct contact with Schlapp had tested positive for Covid-19. Organizers were forced to warn nearly 100 conference-goers of potential exposure and the president’s chief of staff went into self-quarantine, though only one actual case ended up being traced to the event.

The pandemic is even more of a complicating issue this year, compelling Schlapp to move the event to Florida precisely because there are fewer restrictions on such gatherings in that state. Whether guest speakers will follow him down there will determine much of the conference’s success.

A full agenda and list of speakers will be posted two to three weeks before the conference begins, according to the CPAC website, but several past speakers contacted by POLITICO said they were still deciding whether to attend given the added distance and the possibility that Congress could be in the middle of negotiating another coronavirus relief package in late February. An aide to Donald Trump Jr. said he would “probably” attend the conference, as he has done in past years, but that it was not currently on his schedule.

CPAC organizers did announce three speakers for the upcoming conference after POLITICO began inquiring about the lineup. In separate tweets on Tuesday from the @CPAC2021 Twitter account, it was revealed that former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell, former Deputy White House National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a rumored 2024 hopeful, would all deliver remarks at the conference next month. No other speakers have been publicly announced as of the time this article was published.

For those planning this year’s CPAC, the main questions are not just whether Trump will be there, but how much his presidency and future should dominate the proceedings. Members of the planning committee began meeting virtually in November, after the 2020 election, and were expected to convene at least five times before the conference begins.

“Do we pull the Nancy Pelosi option and try to expunge Trump from public life or do we try to build on the movement he created and make it tenable? It’s messy,” said a person involved in the CPAC planning process.

So far, this person said, this year’s theme is expected to focus on the fundamentals of conservatism as opposed to any individual political figure — borrowing a page from the Obama years when conservatives lacked an ally in the White House. Topics are likely to include the rule of law, protecting the legislative filibuster and the current structure of the Supreme Court, and defending the Electoral College, among others.

As for this year’s sponsors, some of whom spent as much as $250,000 in past years for exclusive benefits and branding opportunities, several said they were still evaluating the benefits or had decided not to sponsor at all due to mediocre returns on the investment or changes to the conference structure. Gryphon Editions operations manager Michael Hawkins said his company did not plan to sponsor the conference this year after being informed that the CPAC bookstore, which has been set up for attendees in past years, would no longer be available due to Covid-19 precautions.

“They don’t want everybody huddling around,” Hawkins said.

Laura Merriott, president of the anti-abortion nonprofit Save Unborn Life, said her group “didn’t get much response [from] donors last time” after paying between $1,000-$3,000 for a sponsorship and creating a pop-up exhibition.

“It doesn’t pay for itself when you go and set up and you don’t get” enough new donors to make it worthwhile, she said.

Other past sponsors — including the Washington Examiner, Republican National Committee, Turning Point USA, Heartland Institute and Save our States — said they had yet to make a decision as of last week about sponsoring again. Gerrit Lansing, president of the GOP fundraising platform WinRed, said his company would forgo a sponsorship this year, unlike last year, because they “don’t need to” be a sponsor.

“I didn’t even know they were having a CPAC this year,” he added in a text message.

Three previous sponsors who responded to POLITICO inquiries — the Heritage Foundation, Fox Nation and Let Them Live — do plan to return as sponsors this year. “It’s a great venue for us to reach potential donors and supporters,” said Let Them Live executive director Nathan Berning. Twenty-five other sponsors who sponsored CPAC last year did not respond to requests for comment on if they will sponsor again this year, while two additional sponsors were unable to be reached.

Besides canceling its bookstore, where speakers and up-and-coming conservative personalities at past conferences could sell their latest books to fans, it is unclear if CPAC organizers plan to implement further restrictions to protect attendees of this year’s conference from contracting Covid-19.

The Orlando Hyatt Regency, where the conference will be held, requires guests to wear protective face coverings inside the complex, but neither the hotel nor conference organizers specified whether social distancing practices would be implemented or an attendee cap imposed. According to its website, the Florida Department of Health currently encourages people in the state “to avoid congregating in groups larger than 10.”

Meridith McGraw and Tina Nguyen contributed reporting.

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