People line Baker Beach near the Golden Gate Bridge on Sunday, March 22, 2020, in San Francisco. Some 40 million Californians are coping with their first weekend under a statewide order requiring them to stay at home to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
California braces for wave of coronavirus cases
02:33 - Source: CNN
Los Angeles CNN  — 

For California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the call that triggered state’s full crisis response came in the middle of the night on March 6, and he was waiting for it.

The state’s lab had been working through the night, and one of his cabinet secretaries was on the line telling him 21 of the 42 crewmembers and passengers tested for coronavirus aboard the Grand Princess Cruise Ship, which was idling in international waters off California’s coast, had tested positive.

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Newsom hung up and immediately called Donald Trump, his frequent adversary, reaching the President around 4 a.m. PT to discuss the alarming results and their next steps, according to California aides involved in the response. By 6 a.m., Newsom had fully activated the Golden State’s emergency operations center in the outskirts of Sacramento and begun orchestrating the unloading of more than 2,000 passengers – diverting them to hospitals, into quarantine and back to their home countries.

That early morning call marked a new phase in the collaborative relationship that Newsom has built with Trump behind the scenes. The governor has resolutely set politics aside. Though there has been “forcefulness” on both sides, Newsom has tried to cultivate what one aide referred to as a relationship defined by “mutual aid, respect, understanding” in the midst of disaster.

Cognizant of balancing Trump’s penchant for punishing his critics with California’s reliance on the federal government for personal protective equipment, ventilators, medical stations and emergency funding, Newsom has warmly praised the Trump administration for its assistance during his near-daily briefings while reeling off a dizzying litany of facts about the state’s readiness for the crisis.

In the past, the pair has sparred in public over everything from the cause of California’s wildfires to the state’s stringent environmental regulations. Last year, Trump mocked the 52-year-old Newsom as the “do-nothing governor in California”; Newsom, for his part, has insisted his state will stand up to “a bully.”

But their tone has shifted in the midst of this crisis, as states scramble and compete with one another for supplies with lives on the line.

Newsom convinced Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to send the USNS Mercy hospital ship to California’s aid by outlining a dire scenario in a letter to the president: “We project that roughly 56 percent of our population – 25.5 million people – will be infected with the virus over an eight-week period.”

At this delicate diplomatic moment, Newsom has nimbly steered around questions that would lead to direct confrontation with Trump, including their disagreement over whether life can return to normal by Easter.

“We are clearly operating under a different set of assumptions,” Newsom said when asked about Trump’s desires during a recent briefing. He added that in their “many” conversations in recent weeks, it has been clear to him that the President understands the “unique challenges” faced by states like New York, California and Washington state.

“I have no trepidation that whatever he decides to do from a national prism will not get in the way of our efforts here at the state level, to do what we need to do to hit this head on, bend the curve, get people back to work as quickly as we can.” Newsom has indicated that he does not intend to lift the stay-at-home order anytime soon.

President Donald Trump, right, greets California Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom as he prepares to tour wildfire damage in California on November 17, 2018.

A critical test

With his telegenic appearance, his reputation as a policy wonk and his well-documented ambition, California’s Democratic Governor has long been viewed as a likely presidential contender. His political future now hinges on how well California fares in this unprecedented crisis. He has faced the cameras as one of the country’s most proactive governors – the first in the nation to order that his state’s 40 million residents stay home.

For the moment, California has avoided the apocalyptic scenes that are unfolding in places like New York City, but officials warn that the situation will soon get much worse.

It is unclear how pervasive the coronavirus outbreak has been in California, because the state has lagged behind in test results, a problem that stems from the limited availability of tests and a shortfall of key ingredients like reagents and swabs needed to conduct them. (In one of his first coronavirus briefings, Newsom compared the test kits sent by the federal government to printers “without ink”).

As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, California had 3,006 cases of coronavirus and 65 dead. As the state has ramped up its testing capability the number of people who had been tested rose exponentially midweek, to 77,800, with results pending on more than 57,400 tests.

State officials said Wednesday that coronavirus cases in California are now doubling every three to four days, similar to the rate in New York, and that they expect a surge in patients within the next week or two.

As in other parts of the country, medical professionals across the state have sounded the alarm about the shortage of masks, gowns and gloves. Newsom said Wednesday that California has distributed 24.5 million masks, with another 100 million on order: “That is a significant number, but it is still insignificant to meet our needs.”

But the situation has put Newsom at odds with his longtime ally, the California Nurses Association.

“Our members have not received in their hands, the necessary protection to take care of patients,” said Stephanie Roberson, government relations director for the California Nurses Association. “We need the masks and currently, they are not getting to our members.”

Newsom’s day-to-day counts on the current availability of critical equipment like N95 masks was an example of one of the many metrics he has been tracking since the early days of the crisis. Given the complexity of the problems inherent in meeting the needs of a diverse state of 40 million, Newsom plunged into the logistical minutiae of the crisis from the beginning.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom looks on during a news conference with California attorney General Xavier Becerra at the California State Capitol on August 16, 2019 in Sacramento, California.

As someone who has struggled from dyslexia since he was a child, Newsom has tackled the coronavirus response, as he has many other policy topics, with a focus on mastering the information through his many conversations with experts repeatedly studying important policy points to internalize them.

He is perpetually armed with policy papers, covered with circled words, facts and scribbled notes, which one advisor described as the unique method Newsom uses to ensure the information sinks in.

John A. Pérez, the former California Assembly Speaker and current Chair of California’s Board of Regents, who identified himself as a fellow dyslexic, said he and Newsom use some of the same methods to absorb information.

“Neither of us is overly dependent on written material in the moment of delivering a message,” Pérez said. “It’s really figuring out how… how to internalize the facts so that you can really process them in your head, because you can’t always trust your eyes to process them on paper.”

“You just have to own the information, and really know it because you can’t process it on the page, the same way others can,” Perez said. “And as a result, I think you do more hard work.”

Newsom has gotten high marks from leaders across the state. But US Rep. Ro Khanna noted it was northern California mayors and county leaders who laid the groundwork for the statewide shutdown with their initial orders, which came three days before Newsom’s.

“I credit most our local mayors, Santa Clara and Alameda County leaders and the Bay Area for setting the example of how to tackle Covid-19,” Khanna said. He said that those city and county leaders “were first to act on a shelter in place, which I am glad our Governor has also called for. The shortage of ventilators and masks is unacceptable, period. Our Silicon Valley tech leaders, mayors and governor are stepping up to fill a vacuum in our national leadership. But we still need national leadership. No state can mobilize resources to the extent the federal government can.”

US Rep. Anna Eshoo, who represents Silicon Valley, credited Newsom with being creative through his use of executive orders and aggressive in his cold calls to business leaders.

“Gov. Newsom deserves an A plus, right along with the governor of Washington state, and Andrew Cuomo,” Eshoo said. “This has become a self-help undertaking, and that should not be the case…. I think he has risen to the occasion.”

Meeting the moment

Since that overnight call to Trump about the coronavirus cases aboard the Grand Princess, Newsom has embedded with his top aides at California’s emergency operations center in Sacramento. There, they ran through the worst-case scenario that could hit California and began unfurling the state’s pandemic plans.

Since then, aides and leaders close to the governor say he has been continually on the phone with a wide array of medical experts, CEOs, pharmaceutical companies and state officials attempting to troubleshoot the problems that were beginning to erupt in the state.

In the rush to “meet the moment” as Newsom often says, he and his team temporarily leased shuttered hospitals, including Seton Medical Center in Daly City (which began accepting up to 220 coronavirus patients on Wednesday) and St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, which can house an additional 366 patients when it comes back on line.

On Wednesday – the same day that unemployment claims in California hit one million people just more than a week and a half period – Newsom secured a commitment from Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo, along with some 200 state-chartered banks, credit unions, and servicers, to give Californians affected by Covid-19 a 90-day grace period to make mortgage payments. (In his briefing, he repeatedly called out Bank of America as the only one of the big banks that had not yet agreed to the 90-day period, part of his effort to nudge them along).

Newsom also exacted a promise from Tesla CEO Elon Musk to procure 1,000 ventilators, and tapped Apple’s Tim Cook to donate 1 million masks to the state of California. (Musk delivered more than 1,200 ventilators to Los Angeles this week and Newsom said he was “working overtime” with companies in his supply chain to try to start working up ventilator components).

Knowing the state had a stockpile of older ventilators that needed to be refurbished, the California governor reached out to KR Sridhar, the CEO of Bloom Energy which produces power fuel cells, who agreed to quickly get many of them back into use (after the manufacturer told state officials it would take a month).

Describing some of those efforts last week, Newsom said he had spoken to more scientists, researchers, engineers, Nobel Laureates and CEOs in the prior 48 hours “than I have quite literally in years.”

He continues to chide Californians who are not obeying the stay-at-home order, insisting that social pressure will be more effective than “the hammer” in coaxing them to stay home. After seeing pictures of younger Californians out on the beaches over the weekend, Newsom bluntly addressed them during one of his briefings.

“Those young people (who are) still out there on the beaches thinking it’s time to party. It’s time to grow up, time to wake up,” Newsom said.

Years of preparation

Though Newsom is younger than many of the other governors grappling with the coronavirus, he honed his crisis management skills over many years of government service – from his early tenure on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, to his stint as San Francisco’s lightning-rod mayor, and then as lieutenant governor under Jerry Brown, who was at first brusque and dismissive of the much younger Newsom.

He has touted his understanding of the pressures on small businesses from his own experience opening his own wine shop in 1992 on Fillmore Street in San Francisco (with the investment help of Gordon Getty, a longtime friend of his father’s), which he and his partners ultimately expanded into the profitable slate of restaurants and wineries known as the Plumpjack Group.

But coming from a politically connected family on his father’s side, the allure of politics proved irresistible to Newsom.

Willie Brown, the veteran Speaker of the California State Assembly and San Francisco mayor, helped Newsom get his start by appointing him to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1997.

Newsom rose to national prominence in the debate over gay rights a year after he succeeded Brown as mayor of San Francisco in 2004, when he began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples – a move that was halted by the courts. The controversial unions immediately became a national flashpoint.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom writes a speech in his office at City Hall in San Francisco in January 2005.

Some gay rights advocates worried that the brash San Francisco mayor had risked their carefully calibrated legal strategy nationally. When it erupted into a major presidential campaign issue, some leading Democrats, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, suggested it had contributed to John Kerry’s loss in 2004.

Feinstein, a mentor to Newsom, told reporters that November that she believed “it did energize a very conservative vote.” “I think that whole issue has been too much, too fast, too soon,” she said. “And people aren’t ready for it.”

Newsom was at the forefront on other progressive issues, including tackling homelessness in San Francisco throughout his tenure as mayor – and he has continued to champion the issue as governor, proposing more than $1 billion early this year to expand housing, healthcare, substance abuse treatment and mental health services for the homeless population.

His two years as governor have been defined in part by California’s defiance of Trump and the state’s pride in serving as the center of the resistance to Trump administration policies.

In Trump’s State of the Union speech this year, the President cited California as an example of a state with government systems that are “totally out of control, costing taxpayers vast and unaffordable amounts of money.”

Newsom responded during a February 11 appearance on ABC’s “The View” – “We’re going to stand up to a bully,” he said – arguing that the state was “prospering” with a $21.5 billion operating surplus and noting that one in seven of the jobs created in America since 2011 originated in California.

“We are the most un-Trump state in America, and we are also the most diverse state in America, 27% of our state foreign-born,” Newsom said. “It’s hard for him. And we’re also suing him. Sixty-seven lawsuits and we’re beating him across the board, over and over and over again.”

Now in a turn of fate, Newsom and the commander-in-chief are working together.