Newsom takes aim at DeSantis: 'We'd have 40,000 more Californians dead if we took his approach'

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Earlier this week, as the hypermutated Omicron variant propelled U.S. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations to record highs, two of America’s most prominent governors — California Democrat Gavin Newsom and Florida Republican Ron DeSantis — unveiled their budget proposals for their new year.

And while neither mentioned the other by name, both took the opportunity to disparage the other’s COVID-19 policies in the process.

“Across the nation we see students denied an education due to reckless, politically motivated school closures, workers denied employment due to heavy-handed mandates and Americans denied freedoms due to a coercive biomedical apparatus,” DeSantis said Tuesday during what one pundit described as his “first 2024 speech.” “These unprecedented policies have been as ineffective as they have been destructive.”

Asked by Yahoo News to respond to Republican attacks, Newsom didn’t mince words.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom briefs the media on his COVID-19 emergency response package.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom briefs the media on his COVID-19 emergency response package. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

“They're performance artists, some of these people,” the governor snapped. “All you have to do is watch Fox and then just decide to plug in. I mean, it's about the easiest thing I've seen in politics. It's just, ‘What's the ticker on Fox primetime?’”

“With respect, we'd have 40,000 more Californians dead if we took [DeSantis's] approach,” Newsom continued.

“I do not look for inspiration to that particular governor … to not only the pandemic, but to other policy, including the absurdity that was his ‘woke’ initiative and the laughability around stopping something that doesn't exist, around critical race theory — just playing in and placating the right-wing punditry. It’s the CPAC primary. It’s rather absurd. And that's why I respectfully submit that so much of this is pure performance. ”

This week’s split-screen divide between DeSantis and Newsom reflected deeper disagreements over the role of government that have surfaced during the pandemic — and may one day resurface if the two politicians, who many believe harbor higher ambitions, ever meet on the presidential campaign trail.

While DeSantis railed in his speech against what he called “authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions” — and never once uttered the words "coronavirus," "pandemic" or "vaccines" — Newsom requested $2.7 billion to address the Omicron surge by expanding testing, boosting hospital staffing, making it easier to hire substitute teachers and giving workers more paid time off if they get sick.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a joint legislative session in Tallahassee.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a joint legislative session in Tallahassee. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

Making use of a massive budget surplus, Newsom also proposed spending another $2 billion to address his state’s homelessness crisis (on top of the $12 billion in last year’s budget); investing $22.5 billion over the next five years to fight climate change; paying health care expenses for every low-income adult in the state regardless of their immigration status; and devoting $102 billion to help schools deal with the ongoing pandemic and expand early childhood education and child care programs.

Yahoo News caught up with Newsom on Wednesday after a COVID event in Paramount, Calif., to discuss his differences with DeSantis; his feelings about the “bashing” of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert; his plan to combat Omicron; his ambitions for 2022 — and whether he has any interest in the White House himself.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Yahoo News: Let's talk about Omicron. We're now averaging 100,000 cases a day in California — more than twice the previous peak. Hospitalizations have risen 150 percent over the past two weeks, and they're now higher than any previous peak except last winter's, with no clear end in sight. Even deaths are up 67 percent.

Yet I've noticed a difference with this wave: You're doing a lot to help hospitals and schools and testing sites, as we heard today, but you haven't issued any new restrictions or mandates.

As San Francisco Mayor London Breed recently put it, “We know this is a really tough time. But ... we are learning to live with COVID, and that means everyone assessing their own risk; it means making smart choices. ... It does not mean imposing new restrictions."

Do you agree with Mayor Breed — and if so, does that represent a shift in your thinking?

Gavin Newsom: No, it represents a greater understanding. All of us have a greater understanding of this disease in this respect: that there are ebbs and flows; there are waves and peaks and valleys. And there's sort of a predictability as it relates to acuity. That is always assessed in real time but understood only in hindsight.

That said, mitigation strategies have become more sophisticated and targeted. Making sure that if our priority — and it is — is to keep our kids safely in person for instruction, that we're doing masking; that we're requiring staff to get either tested or vaccinated; that we’re doing the same with health care workers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to students in a seventh grade science class at James Denman Middle School in San Francisco.
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to students in a seventh grade science class at James Denman Middle School in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

So rather than the early days of this pandemic, where you saw it around the world — not just here in California, across the country with stay-at-home orders and social distancing — now with vaccines, with an understanding of the distinction between an N95, a KN95, a surgical mask versus a cloth mask, a sophistication on a third boost, not just two vaccine doses — now I think we're in a position where, yes, [the mayor] is correct.

Yet Republicans continue to say that Democrats like you are in favor of endless lockdowns.

They're performance artists, some of these people. They're not interested in facts or evidence. They assert points of view that they’re having an increasingly hard time proving — but by the time that all the evidence is in and the dust settles, they're already on to the next crisis and accusations. We see this over and over again. If they had any objectivity and reflection as the quote-unquote pro-life party, explain to me the reverence of the approach to states like Florida in particular, states like Texas — and the fact that tens of thousands of people more per capita died in those states than states like California that took a science- and data-driven approach.

Our economy, to the extent they care about that, from an output perspective, outperformed those states at the same time, in the midst of the pandemic. So their assertions fall flat on the evidence unless they're made situationally without any context, like when the numbers have flatlined after a huge wave.

Now they say nothing’s on fire. But wait a minute — you just burned down the forest! Come on. It happens over and over and over again without accountability.

On that note, another governor unveiled his 2022 budget proposal yesterday: your friend Ron DeSantis from Florida. He used his speech as an opportunity to call Florida “the freest state in the United States” and to bash Democratic-run states like California for their “blind adherence to Faucian declarations" in the form of "authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions.”

“We were right, and they were wrong,” he said.

Meaning the mandate and restriction to prohibit local decisions that he forced on local government? Is he referring reflexively to himself?

A retail shop window sign informs customers to keep their masks on indoors.
A sign in a shop window. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

You’re talking about his ban on mask mandates.

I am.

My question is this: Given the fact that even you no longer favor new mandates or restrictions, does DeSantis have a point?

No. With respect, we'd have 40,000 more Californians dead if we took his approach — arguably even more, with the density and population of this state. And it would've been much, much worse in Florida if they didn't get the blowback from all the local folks. Mayors saying no, schools saying no: “We need to require masks.” Had they not done that, it would have been a complete free-for all — which is what [DeSantis] wanted.

When it came to the pandemic, the most important thing — the thing that I thought was table stakes — was to keep people healthy and save lives.

Florida now ranks 16th nationwide for total COVID-19 deaths per capita, with 292 per 100,000 residents. California is 37th, with 196 per 100,000. The two states were roughly tied until well into 2021. Are you saying that DeSantis — and more specifically his policy choices — is to blame for that divergence?

My only observation is that if your mantra is freedom, people have freedom “from,” not just freedom “to.” We want to save lives — and demonstrably, on a per capita basis, the evidence is rather overwhelmingly in favor of an approach that is different from Florida’s.

So is economic output. Our state — not just last year, during the pandemic, but over the last five years — is the fastest-growing economy of all Western democracies. With respect. But no, the other side's not interested in evidence.

[Editor's note: According to a fact check by the Sacramento Bee, California is not dominating “every [economic] category” compared with Florida, as Newsom has claimed.]

Waiter Juan Rodrigues, left, asks patrons to show their vaccination cards before entering the Fred 62 restaurant in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Waiter Juan Rodrigues asks patrons to show their vaccination cards before entering the Fred 62 restaurant in Los Angeles. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

I appreciate our approach to entrepreneurialism, capitalism, inclusion, and social, racial and economic justice. I do not look for inspiration to that particular governor and his approach — to not only the pandemic, but to other policy, including the absurdity that was his “woke” initiative and the laughability around stopping something that doesn't exist, around critical race theory — just playing in and placating the right-wing punditry. It’s the CPAC primary. It’s rather absurd. And that's why I respectfully submit that so much of this is pure performance.

I like Ron. This isn’t personal. I just love my state [laughs].

You have to admit DeSantis is clever, though. He’s the only Republican who comes anywhere remotely near Donald Trump in the 2024 GOP primary polls.

It's not even clever. All you have to do is watch Fox and then just decide to plug in. I mean, it's about the easiest thing I've seen in politics. It's just, “What's the ticker on Fox primetime?” Trump did it to great success.

And by the way, I have tremendous respect for Dr. Fauci. Critique is fair game. But the Fauci-bashing is childish. As Fauci said himself at the hearing Tuesday, it’s all about electoral politics and raising money and awareness and brand identity within the base of the party.

[Turns to staffer] All these questions! He knew. Talk about Florida and you'll get under my skin [laughs].

Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House chief medical adviser and director of the NIAID, shows a screengrab of a campaign website while answering questions from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to COVIA-19 and new emerging variants on Jan. 11.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House chief medical adviser, shows a screengrab of a campaign website for Sen. Rand Paul. (Greg Nash/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Let’s switch to schools. In 2020 and 2021, California schools were closed longer than almost anywhere else. Was that a mistake?

Well, it was hard. Remember at this time last year, we were literally getting body bags from outside the state of California. We had a massive surge, and that peak was extraordinarily challenging. We drove a very aggressive budget in December last year to open our schools, but the headwinds and the pushback in the legislature and the districts pushed back that start date. I was very, very vocal in wanting to lean in. And so my position is yes, I wish we had gone back earlier. We pushed that agenda.

Eventually we were able to break with the legislature and we were able to extend the school year, address learning loss, add high-dose tutoring targeting those that have the most acute learning loss — Black and brown students. Over 90 percent of all the schools expanded their summer options.

There's been a lot of talk about how Democrats will continue to be punished for school closures, that some voters who otherwise might have voted Democratic — specifically parents — are fed up with the party and the public-school system.

For me, the focus is on what to do now — on moving forward. But look, I'm a parent — four kids, in, out, in, out, in. Then a couple kids got sick, so everybody out. Zoom school, no Zoom school. It's been infuriating for every parent, across the spectrum.

But again, facts matter. If you care about keeping your kids in-person for instruction, then you care about health policy and data on masking and vaccinations. That's why California had one of the lowest closure rates this school year of any state in America: 0.3 percent of the total school closures nationwide, even though we have 12 percent of the nation’s schoolkids.

Kindergarten teacher Ana Zavala instructs students amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Washington Elementary School in Lynwood, Calif.
Kindergarten teacher Ana Zavala with her class at Washington Elementary School in Lynwood, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

You had red states, predominantly, that were preaching the importance of keeping schools open but had more school closures because of outbreaks. Because they didn't follow the science and the math.

I mean, the surgeon general of Florida says, “We're not gonna test in schools.” That sentiment is still out there — if we don't test, then our numbers look good. If we don't quantify someone who dies of this or that but tested positive for COVID, then we don't have to say we had a COVID death, which then proves our ideological point.

We're not taking that tack. We want to know, warts and all — transparency, across the spectrum. And I think that's a better approach. It will allow us to keep schools open without surprise and without health problems.

Do you think kids will be able to take their masks off in school after the Omicron wave subsides? For many people, that will be a marker of when we're finally getting back to normal.

I have a 5-year-old that won't even take his mask off when he is going to bed.

I do too.

It’s the strangest thing.

For us, it’s when we’re in the car. It's sad that it’s so normal for them.

And that can’t be normal. So, yes — we'll know it when we see it. In fact, Dr. [Mark] Ghaly [secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency] and I were just specifically talking about the progress he's made in the last few days on our endemic plan.

Tell me more about that. What’s going to change in California when we reach so-called endemicity — when the emergency phase of the U.S. pandemic is over?

We recognize that day is gonna come sooner than many think. We really feel that in a number of weeks Omicron is gonna peak and then we're gonna plummet. You’re already starting to see that in New York a little bit. And so we just want to be prepared and get ahead of that.

How so?

I'm not prepared to illuminate more on that. Before we remove all the masks and all enjoy all the post-Super Bowl festivities, we need to maintain our vigilance a little bit longer. But we are looking forward to that day.

Visitors wearing face masks walk down Main Street USA at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
Visitors wearing face masks at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

As part of your new budget, you’re seeking to extend Medi-Cal to all undocumented immigrants regardless of age. Next year, New York City will make 800,000 legal permanent residents — that is, noncitizens — eligible to vote in municipal elections. Would you consider doing the same in California?

I haven't thought about it. I saw [New York Mayor] Eric Adams answering a question about it, and that was the first time I thought about it in four or five years. I'm not prepared — I haven't fought that through. That's not where I am today.

More broadly, though, do you believe the time has come to extend more rights to undocumented immigrants?

Yes. It’s just — we're as dumb as we wanna be. I don't even wanna say “comprehensive immigration reform” 'cause I wanna slap myself. And I wanna slap everyone out of their — not physically harm, but slap them out of their stupidity. Sixty-eight percent of people here in California without documentation have been here over a decade. They’ve contributed $2.5 billion in taxes to the state. Ten percent of our workforce. It's [agriculture] workers, it's health care workers, it's construction workers, it's professional services. It's across the spectrum.

All of these mixed-status families — children that have health insurance, but a 35-year-old mom with breast cancer who does not. Who does that service? It costs more money, the status quo. Overwhelmingly so. Our neglect to treat something early, as opposed to then addressing it later. It costs the taxpayers, it costs you, it costs me — more premiums and more co-pays.

Migrant workers clean fields amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease in the Salinas Valley near Salinas, Calif., in 2020.
Migrant workers clean fields amid the COVID outbreak in California's Salinas Valley in 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The former governor of California understood this — Ronald Reagan. Back in the day, we had Republicans who understood it. But now one thing so many of these Republicans have in common is there's zero backbone.

I'm not just talking about [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz, who clearly was not born with one. That was demonstrably evidenced by his remarkable Tucker Carlson appearance, which will go down in history as really, truly one of the great political appearances. Just jaw dropping. But also all of these other Republicans — I recall [Florida Sen.] Marco Rubio and others — who had a moment of enlightenment on immigration [after the 2012 election] but are now running, not walking away from it. They don't have the courage to lead because it may lead to them looking for new career opportunities.

Your point being that in the absence of actual reform on the federal level, states like California have to take matters into their own hands.

I remember this as mayor of San Francisco — if you don't want us to be a sanctuary city, solve the damn problem. Don't demagogue it. The reality is, we are having to do what we have to do because the cards are dealt. We're in the “how” business. We're pragmatists. We're not on the couch. We're not a pundit. We're not sitting there talking about the way things should be. We’re dealing with the way things are. And that's the challenge.

Speaking of pundits, some have mentioned you as a possible presidential candidate. My editors want me to ask if you’re open to running someday. Is it safe to assume you’re not going to answer that question if I ask it?

Yes, I will, 'cause I'm not that person. No, thank you.

Not open to running?

Come on. No, I mean, I have my old friend [Kamala Harris] — and you can say what you will — but my gosh, we've been down many paths together over the decades.

I don’t mean running against Biden or running in 2024 — running someday.

No, Kamala is the next in line. We have a whole new generation. And by that time I will be taking care of your kids [laughs]. I’ll be some adjunct professor somewhere.

Vice President Kamala Harris stands onstage with California Gov. Gavin Newsom in San Leandro, Calif.
Vice President Kamala Harris onstage with Newsom in San Leandro, Calif., on Sept. 8, 2021. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

GIven the situation in Washington right now — Biden’s entire agenda is stymied; Build Back Better looks like it’s dead; voting rights is probably a nonstarter — it’s reasonable to ask why anyone would want to be a president instead of a governor. Is the system just too broken?

The entire Build Back Better bill? We just did it on Monday. Literally, the fifth-largest economy in the world. There are 12 big things in Build Back Better — 11 of them were implemented in my budget.

You mean things like universal pre-K and climate change?

The United State of California [laughs].

It sounds like you’ll be getting on the secession bandwagon next. When are you going to call on California to leave the Union?

If Trump comes back, ask me that question again.


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