Column: The Republican mayor of San Diego was right to slap down Gov. Newsom

Steve Lopez
·6 min read
SAN DIEGO, CALIF. -- WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 30, 2019: San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is authoring many homebuilding proposals in San Diego, Calif., on Jan. 30, 2019. Big cities like San Diego in California that are proposing new ways to speed homebuilding. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer sharply criticized Gov. Gavin Newsom for attending a friend's birthday dinner at a Napa Valley restaurant while urging others to stay at home. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

I haven’t eaten at a restaurant in so long, I can’t even remember the last time.

Why not?

Because I trust the warnings of public health experts. Because I’m not sure it’s safe. And because after months of scolding people for ignoring commonsense warnings about limiting the spread of COVID-19, I’d be a hypocrite to do otherwise.

Just like California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

As everyone knows by now, Newsom and his wife dined with a lobbyist and several other couples at a birthday celebration held at one of the most expensive restaurants in California, even as the coronavirus is surging and as a lot of the voters who put him in office are out of work and struggling to survive.

How many times have we been advised by Newsom to play it safe, stay close to home and avoid unnecessary gatherings?

It was good advice, but if he’s not following it, can he expect anyone to trust anything he says?

And what about the blockheaded state legislators who flew to Maui for a conference, with the expenses picked up in some cases by their hosts, the nonprofit Independent Voter Project? One of the conference topics was on how to reopen states safely.

Here’s one way:

Don’t get on a plane and fly off to a hotel gathering on a tropical island, then return home and possibly expose others to the risk of infection.

We’re still confirming the names of the Maui Mai Tai Club, Democrats and Republicans alike, and when we nail that down I’ll be inviting readers to give legislators a good piece of their mind, with the best responses published in this space.

But let’s get back to Newsom, who apologized for his “mistake” and noted that he was dining outdoors.

Can we even trust him on that?

As The Times has reported, there are photos that show Newsom “inside a private dining room that appears to open up to an outdoor area, sitting almost shoulder to shoulder with other guests around a single table. No one can be seen wearing a mask.”

OK, he hasn't quite hit Trumpian levels of COVID stupidity, but shame on him, and good for San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who poked a stick in Newsom’s eye with a sharp tweet.

Faulconer noted that not only did Newsom enjoy a $350-per-person restaurant while Californians are digging cans of bean soup from the back of their cupboards, but the governor also sends his children to a private school that’s open for business while many of the state’s public school students are locked out of their campuses.

“His kids can learn in person. But yours can’t,” Faulconer tweeted. “He can celebrate birthday parties. 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.”

Faulconer is a Republican, Newsom is a Democrat. Faulconer is closing out his time as mayor and has considered running for governor in the past.

So I asked him Wednesday afternoon if he’s going to give it a shot in two years, when Newsom’s first term comes to an end.

“I am absolutely considering it,” Faulconer told me. “We need new leadership.”

That’s a steep hill to climb. Faulconer is a centrist in a state whose GOP is so far to the right, nearly 6 million Californians voted for Trump. It’s not clear they’d have the same enthusiasm for a moderate Republican. Then there’s the sizable problem of the lopsided Democratic advantage among the state's registered voters.

But we did have a moderate Republican governor not that long ago in Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it would be nice to see someone hold a mirror up to Democratic leaders in California, who can’t fix the state's housing crisis and can’t figure out a workable plan on homelessness, among a host of other problems.

And then there’s the ridiculously mismanaged payout of unemployment benefits.

Seems like a relatively simple task, especially in the state that invented computers. But it's been chaos, and it’s gone on for months, as thousands of Californians have waited desperately for someone, anyone, to come to the rescue. Does somebody need to host another conference in Hawaii to get legislators interested in finding a fix?

“What’s happening is that the Democratic establishment is failing our state,” Faulconer said. “Where’s the plan for schools to open? Where’s the plan to make sure the power doesn’t shut off when the wind blows? … Homelessness is skyrocketing, and it’s not acceptable to have people live and die on our streets.”

Earlier this year, Faulconer noted, when the state homeless population increased, San Diego’s decreased. He invited me to visit and find out more about his city’s approach, and I’m happy to take him up on the offer.

But I want to get back to the virus, because Faulconer’s issues with the governor go beyond his trip to the French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. Residents and business owners have been confused by mixed messages about what they can and can’t do, about how long some businesses will be open and how long it’ll be before they’re closed yet again, Faulconer said.

Newsom and state leaders are “failing because of the constant changing of the rules…. People are angry and want to know that we’re following a clear set of objectives,” Faulconer said. “I’ve been very vocal that we have to keep people safe and we have to do everything in terms of masking and social distancing, but people are at their wits' end.”

To be fair, that is the nature of a pandemic. It makes sense to adjust the rules, depending on surge levels, to protect lives.

But that’s why Newsom’s lapse is so egregious, especially as the number of cases and the fears of a greater shutdown are on the rise. He put all of us at greater risk because Californians who have refused to wear masks and resisted COVID-19 restrictions are only going to be more emboldened by his hypocritical messaging, as evidenced by those who showed up at this week’s Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting and lashed out at Newsom.

I don’t care how good Newsom’s dinner might have been.

It wasn’t worth it, and the whole state got indigestion.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.