Abcarian: The worst thing about Gavin Newsom's French Laundry dinner? It was with a lobbyist

Robin Abcarian
·5 min read
Gov. Gavin Newsom said California will review the safety of all COVID-19 vaccines approved by the Trump administration before allowing them to be released to the public.
Gov. Gavin Newsom acted hypocritically in attending a birthday party during a COVID-19 surge, but his apology was impressive. (Office of the California Governor)

I have three questions about Gov. Gavin Newsom's hypocritical foray into Yountville.

Why did Newsom attend his friend's birthday party on Nov. 6 when he was telling his constituents to do one thing (dine in alone), while he and his wife did another (dined out with friends)?

How sincere was his subsequent apology following the very public spanking he received after the San Francisco Chronicle broke the news that he’d broken the rules?

And why does our governor hang out with a lobbyist who is trying to influence him on behalf of clients?

Taking the last one first, yes, I know that the birthday boy, Jason Kinney, 50, and the governor, 53, go way back. Kinney is a longtime political operative who bounces back and forth between government, political campaigns (he was the spokesman for 2016’s Proposition 64, which legalized cannabis for recreational use in California) and lobbying. That’s the way California’s unsavory political revolving door works.

But it's Kinney's role as a lobbyist that sounds alarms. For people in his job, it’s important to show the world you’ve got the governor’s ear. Doing so can help bring in business from companies eager — or desperate — to get the governor’s attention.

Thanks to Politico we know, for example, that Kinney’s lobbying firm represents several small amusement park operators who have been pushing the governor to let them reopen their rides. (They were allowed to briefly reopen before COVID-19 cases spiked and the restrictions were reinstated.) His firm’s biggest client is Marathon Petroleum, which, according to Politico, “is a member of a powerful oil industry organization that battled proposals to ban hydraulic fracturing.” In September, Newsom made what some think was a halfhearted call to ban fracking in the state.

“The buzz this weekend among lobbyists," wrote Politico, "was how Kinney couldn't have asked for better advertising of his close ties to Newsom."

So, for anyone keeping score, a governor violating pandemic restrictions to attend a birthday dinner for a lobbyist may be a terrible look for the governor, but it's a brilliant business move by the lobbyist. Was Newsom played? I guess it depends on who squealed to the Chronicle about the party.

Now, about that virus and Newsom’s evident hypocrisy.

The lobbyist’s birthday party took place in a courtyard at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s iconic and spectacularly expensive restaurant that draws foodies to Yountville, a tiny town in the northern Napa Valley. Twelve people attended, including the governor and his wife. I've eaten there a couple of times and have always left the restaurant feeling as if I had taken part in a holy ritual of food fetishization. The food is tasty, but the precious vibe is a little over the top for me.

Anyway, the gathering made for extremely bad optics. We have a governor who has been urging us to stay home and recently put out guidelines prohibiting gatherings, even outdoors, of more than three households.

Were more than three households represented at the dinner? If there were six couples, then yes.

The governor, who has been among the state’s most vocal advocates of playing by the pandemic rules that he himself has created, blew it. He did not, in his own tired phrase, meet the moment. I mean, they do say the food at the French Laundry is to die for. But is it?

Newsom understood right away how bad that dinner looked. He had just foolishly handed his opponents ammunition on a silver platter.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican toying with challenging Newsom in 2022, pounced: “He can celebrate birthday parties,” tweeted Faulconer. “But you can’t. He can dine on a $350 meal at one [of] California’s fanciest restaurants during the worst recession in generations. But you definitely can’t. Can you believe this? I can’t.”

Never mind that our outgoing president has never apologized for hosting super-spreader events at the White House and at political rallies that epidemiologists say have resulted in serious illness and death.

We expect more of Newsom and apparently, so does he.

On Monday we witnessed one of the most abject non-adultery-related apologies in recent political history.

“I made a bad mistake,” Newsom said. “Instead of sitting down, I should have stood up and walked back, got in my car and drove back to my house.… The spirit of what I'm preaching all the time was contradicted, and I got to own that. And so I want to apologize to you.… We’re all human, we all fall short sometimes.... When that happens, you got to pay the price. But you also own the mistake, and you don't ever make it again, and you have my word on that.”

Newsom also made the point — and I am not sure most people got this — that he paid for his own dinner.

That's a relief, because if he hadn't, he'd be in violation of the California law that says lobbyists can only cover $10 of a public official's meal.

At the French Laundry, I'm guessing a sawbuck wouldn't even cover the cost of one of the signature embossed clothespins that diners get to take home as a souvenir.

@AbcarianLAT

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.