California governor Gavin Newsom has been in the news regarding his Covid-19 policies, though probably not as he intended. Though state guidelines prohibit gatherings with more than three households—even for Thanksgiving—Governor Newsom was spotted on November 6 at the renowned French Laundry restaurant for a friend’s birthday party, where at least 12 people, apparently six couples, were present.
Newsom’s office tried to play down his transgression by claiming that the dinner party took place outside, and that public-health guidelines were followed. Pictures have surfaced, however, showing that the meal was served indoors. And despite requirements to maintain six feet of distance between households and to wear masks between bites of food, as California policy demands, the pictures show everyone seated closely and no one wearing a mask, including Governor Newsom.
People recoil at hypocrisy, but this represents something more serious. Newsom was not simply acting holier-than-thou, preaching one thing from the pulpit while doing the opposite behind closed doors. His was the hypocrisy of power; he has forced people, under penalty of law, to follow restrictions that he personally ignores. There have been real consequences to the lockdown in California: jobs lost, businesses ruined, children going without education, rising depression, mounting protests. And yet the effects of these regulations were apparently of no concern to the governor as he enjoyed a dinner costing $350 per person—excluding the $150 supplement if you choose Wagyu beef instead of lamb chops.
The hypocrisy of power is becoming too common during the pandemic. Nancy Pelosi was caught getting her hair done indoors in San Francisco, when indoor hair salons were closed; Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot was busted doing the same. The husband of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer was caught trying to get his boat for their lakefront vacation home, just days after the governor told everyone not to travel.
The strongest reaction to Newsom’s transgression has not come from anti-maskers, long fed up with Covid-19 restrictions. Rather, it comes from people who have trusted their leaders and followed the rules. They have been good soldiers, sheltering in place, social distancing, and giving up their own gatherings for what Newsom told them was the greater good. They now find themselves feeling like political chumps, as James Meigs recently described it: the people who play by the rules, only to watch others flout them—and get away with it.
Newsom’s hypocrisy extends into politics. He faces a petition drive for a recall election, but the state attorney general argued against extending the time necessary to gather signatures due to Covid-19—though Newsom issued an executive order granting additional time for counting ballot-initiative signatures due to the epidemic. In an irony, however, a judge recently ruled in favor of the recall drive due to the extenuating concerns of the pandemic. Recall supporters will get an extra 120 days to gather enough signatures to force a new election.
In solidly Democratic California, it’s unlikely that Newsom would be recalled. There are many people willing to look past his hypocrisy: for every person expressing concern with the governor’s behavior, another thinks a 12-person dinner is no big deal compared with, say, a Trump rally of thousands. California voters may surprise, however—they widely rejected a slate of left-wing initiatives on election day, even as they voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden. In 2003, California became the only state since 1921 to recall a governor, and of the 12 state legislature recalls in the past 25 years, three were in California. Kevin Faulconer, the successful and popular outgoing mayor of San Diego, has used the negative press around Newsom’s dinner all but to declare his run for governor, either in 2022 or if the recall occurs. But regardless of Newsom’s fate, California deserves leadership that does not demonstrate the hypocrisy of power.
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