As service workers struggle to get by in the coronavirus pandemic and many of us Californians forgo dining out, the governor and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, spent the evening of Nov. 6 celebrating the 50th birthday of a lobbyist friend at the French Laundry.
That’s the three-star Michelin-rated restaurant in the Napa Valley town of Yountville, where the wine list includes a bottle of cabernet sauvignon for $50,000 and the tasting menu is available for $350. A photo from the gathering showed the governor and his wife, without masks, sitting at a crowded table for 12, with members of more than three different households.
Newsom has apologized. On Sunday, his office announced the Newsom family is in quarantine after three of their children came into contact with a California Highway Patrol officer who tested positive for covid-19. But a week after the San Francisco Chronicle’s state capitol reporter, Alexei Koseff, broke the French Laundry story, our foodie governor still faces withering charges of hypocrisy. California’s covid guidelines urge restaurants to limit the size of single-table seatings and to avoid mixing of households, so Newsom technically might have been complying with recommendations, but the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do stench was unmistakable.
The governor no doubt would dearly love to, as he would say, flip the script.
The list of Harris’s potential Democratic replacements is long: California Secretary of State Alex Padilla; California Attorney General Xavier Becerra; Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis; California State Senate Leader Toni Atkins; Reps. Karen Bass, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter; and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia. Any one of them would be an intriguing pick. Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, who gave Newsom his start in politics, is pushing the governor to replace Harris with someone who is Black.
But in a state where 40 percent of the population is Latino, Newsom probably is leaning that way. Garcia, the least well known of the potential choices, has faced the ravages of the pandemic. His mother and stepfather both died of covid-19 this summer. But he has no experience mounting a statewide campaign.
Becerra has won statewide and made his name by suing the Trump administration more than 100 times. But he is not particularly close to Newsom and is a likely candidate for governor in 2026, along with many others.
The 47-year-old Padilla, considered by many the front-runner, was quick to endorse Newsom’s 2018 run for governor. And he has a compelling personal story. In an interview last week, Padilla told the story of his parents coming separately to California on one-year work visas from Mexico. They met in Los Angeles, got green cards, married and raised three children in the working-class community of Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. His father worked as a cook at the Du-Par’s restaurant chain and his mother cleaned houses.
Padilla, who entered kindergarten not speaking English, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an engineering degree. He says he became politically engaged in 1994 — as many Latinos did — when Californians passed Proposition 187, the initiative aimed at cutting public spending on undocumented immigrants, including public schooling and nursing home care.
As he saw it, backers of the initiative, led by a Republican governor, Pete Wilson, were telling Mexican Americans that “the state and economy are tanking and it’s the fault of people like your parents,” Padilla told me last week.
He won a Los Angeles City Council seat in 1999 and a state Senate seat in 2006. A central part of Padilla’s 2014 campaign for secretary of state was his pledge to add a million voters to the rolls in this first term. California’s voter registration data show there were 17.7 million registered voters when he took office, 73 percent of eligible voters; now, there are 22 million registered voters, 88 percent of those eligible — result of legislation he backed ensuring that everyone who gets a driver’s license is registered to vote.
Padilla may be the front-runner, but Newsom could come up with a surprise, even as he no doubt seeks someone capable of winning Harris’s seat outright when it’s on the ballot in 2022.
Consider his choice for a California Supreme Court justice. Shortly after President Trump selected Amy Coney Barrett as his third Supreme Court justice, Newsom opted for Martin Jenkins as his first state Supreme Court justice. Both jurists are Catholic. The comparisons end there.
Presidents and governors often seek to cement their legacies by appointing jurists who are on the younger side of middle age. Barrett is 48. Jenkins, a retired state appellate court justice who was Newsom’s legal affairs advisor, is 67. He’s also Black and gay. He also could turn out to be a moderate, having been appointed to lower-court posts by three Republican governors.
Filling a Senate vacancy is one of a governor’s most important decisions. In this instance, the politics of choosing for a Senate possibly split 50-50 carries an added weight. The smart money is on Padilla, but Newsom could well surprise with his announcement in the coming weeks. It would certainly help rinse the French Laundry story out of the news cycle.
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