Lawmakers Vent After Being 'Blindsided' by Newsom

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Gavin Newsom speaking
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference in March 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

There’s a natural push and pull between California's governor and the Legislature, no matter who’s in charge.

But tensions seem especially high since news leaked last weekend that Gov. Gavin Newsom was lifting the state's COVID-19 stay-at-home orders for all regions on Monday, a move that seemed to catch many lawmakers off guard.

While it’s not unusual for legislators to privately have gripes about the governor, Newsom's announcement pushed some of those grievances out into the open.

Several lawmakers openly complained on Twitter about learning Newsom was relaxing COVID-19 restrictions via social media, rather from the governor’s office.

Assemblyman Chad Mayes, I-Yucca Valley, said many of his colleagues are tired of feeling like they’ve been left out of the loop.

“There is this very, very real frustration, not just among Republicans, but also among Democrats in the Legislature, that the administration has not done a good job of reaching out to them to be able to communicate with them on the decisions that are being made," Mayes said.

It’s not just about Newsom’s abrupt lifting of the stay-at-home orders.

Lawmakers have skewered Newsom’s Employment Development Department for mismanaging unemployment claims during the pandemic. They’ve complained the governor was making decisions unilaterally while the Legislature was in recess because of COVID-19.

Mayes said lawmakers have a right to be informed and included.

“The Legislature is a coequal branch of government and the new administration has really sidelined the Legislature as related to the pandemic," he said.

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Democratic Consultant Robin Swanson said Newsom risks losing support for key proposals, like the budget, if he doesn’t improve his relationship with lawmakers. Luckily for him, Swanson said Newsom recently hired a senior staffer, Jim DeBoo, who has a long history in the Legislature.

“I think that the governor's going to need to rely on those relationships and really strong communication with those members to move his agenda forward," Swanson said.

Obviously, DeBoo's arrival has not led to a quick turn around in the governor's office, which has long faced criticism for its lack of communication and go-it-alone style.

Still, Swanson acknowledged Newsom is facing some unprecedented challenges right now.

And state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, agreed.

“The governor is drinking water from a fire hose and has been for a couple of years now between a once-in-a-century pandemic, an economic collapse, record-setting wildfires, a collapsing utility and PG&E and so forth," Wiener said.

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Wiener said there are always times when communication could be better. But he said it’s healthy and normal for there to be tension between governors and lawmakers. And Wiener brushed off comparisons to Newsom's poor relationship with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors when Newsom was mayor.

"That Board of Supervisors went out of its way to poke then-Mayor Newsom in the eye to oppose anything that he was for," Wiener said. "So it was a very different kind of dynamic. And I don't see that dynamic at all in the governor's relationship with the Legislature."

When asked in a press conference Monday about whether he left the Legislature out of the loop on his decision to lift the stay at home order, Newsom said sometimes he needs to act quickly.

"Do we delay that for a long, protracted, comprehensive outreach or do we just move forward?" he said.

Whether or not lawmakers accept that explanation, or look for ways to reassert themselves, will become more clear in the coming weeks. And with a possible recall of the governor on a future ballot, Newsom will need all the friends he can get.