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Newsom faces scrutiny despite rapid response to highway fire

Governor Gavin Newsom took his victory lap.

Wearing a brown jacket, jeans and a baseball cap as he stood on the 10 Freeway, the governor announced Sunday morning that all lanes of the highway would reopen weeks earlier than he initially estimated it after a massive fire closed a main thoroughfare in downtown Los Angeles. .

Southern California’s traffic nightmare ended later that evening, days before the busy Thanksgiving holiday.

“It’s a matter of pride,” Newsom said at a news conference with Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. “It’s about the government getting things done.”

The Newsom administration still faces questions as owner of the parcel where the fire started and engulfed the underbelly of a major metropolitan highway. The crisis gave Newsom an opportunity to respond to criticism that he was too enchanted with the national political scene as he rushed to solve a high-profile California problem, but the fire could present a political vulnerability for the governor if stronger state oversight is warranted. could have prevented the fire.

Newsom’s announcement comes less than two weeks after a poll showed his standing among California voters had hit an all-time low, a decline in popularity that followed a year of the governor’s travel to the Deep South, including Florida, and other parts of the country to attack conservatives. policies on abortion, immigration and LGBTQ+ rights are being trumpeted by Republican governors and to rally support for President Biden. The poll director blamed, in part, Newsom’s focus outside the state.

The governor had just returned from a whirlwind trip to Israel and China when a suspected arsonist started a fire under the highway and closed a crucial section of Route 10.

Newsom declared a state of emergency later that evening and held the first of several news conferences in Los Angeles the next day. Under the slogan “Fix the 10,” his office emailed reporters daily progress reports on ongoing work, ahead of the initial three-to-five-week deadline to make repairs. Newsom also installed a camera at the site to broadcast live video of the work in progress.

“Newsom is not stupid to waste or miss opportunities for considerable media coverage,” said Joseph S. Tuman, professor emeritus of political and legal communications at San Francisco State University. “I think he jumped into this as quickly as possible because he wants to be seen.”

Bass praised Newsom last week for traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he participated in a gathering of political and business leaders from around the world.

“Running the world, but being there for Angelenos,” Bass said. “This is the kind of leadership we needed in the state to ensure those stars are aligned.”

Questions have been raised about why the Newsom administration has not appeared to enforce a policy adopted by the California Department of Transportation in 2018 to prevent this type of fire following a similar incident in Atlanta.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) praised the governor’s response to the fire. He said he was confident that after an internal review, the Newsom administration would provide more information about state oversight of its leased parcels to put in place “robust accountability mechanisms to prevent such thing happens again.”

“This should never have happened,” Santiago said. “I mean, there are already protocols in place.”

The fire was reported early Nov. 11 after a pallet yard under Highway 10 caught fire, damaging the overpass and leaving officials scrambling to find a way to safely reopen the road as soon as possible. quickly possible.

Newsom and Bass drew a parallel to 1994, when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson pushed contractors to work around the clock to repair the Santa Monica Freeway after the Northridge earthquake destroyed two sections of the highway.

Joseph Rodota said that as Cabinet Secretary at the time, he recognized that the situation was crucial for Wilson.

“I remember thinking at the time, you know, this is when people are going to see Pete Wilson,” Rodota said of his call with Caltrans. “It’s his time.”

At the urging of his friends at the Hoover Institution, Wilson offered the contractors a $200,000 bonus for each day the project was completed ahead of schedule. It imposed a similar penalty of $200,000 for each day the work was delayed. The chosen contractor, CC Myers Inc., completed the project 74 days early and received a $14.5 million bonus.

Seeing an opportunity to bolster their re-election chances, Wilson and then-President Clinton argued over who should be allowed to take credit for this success. Wilson rushed to reopen the highway on his own in April, hours before Vice President Al Gore landed in Los Angeles to represent the Clinton administration.

Wilson’s handling of the event played a role in his campaign narrative as a competent problem solver. The governor, who was in political crisis before the earthquake, defeated Democrat Kathleen Brown with 55 percent of the vote in the 1994 California gubernatorial race.

Well into his second term, Newsom doesn’t need to convince California voters to elect him governor again. The crisis comes at a time when the Democratic governor is increasing his national profile and spending more time outside California while waiting in the wings for the 2024 presidential election.

News of Newsom’s declining popularity came shortly after he returned to his home state from abroad: 49% of California voters disapproved of his performance as governor, compared to 44% who did. approved, according to a survey co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. by the Los Angeles Times.

Berkeley pollster Mark DiCamillo blamed part of Newsom’s decline in popularity on his decision to take a larger role in national politics as the state’s biggest problems, such as homelessness and housing affordability, remain challenges for Californians. Democrats nationally, including Biden, have also seen their numbers plummet as inflation and two major wars deepen the sense of unease among Americans.

Newsom’s aides pushed back on his low ratings, arguing that other polls showed the governor doing better than in the Berkeley survey.

“I disagree with the idea that you can’t walk and chew gum,” said Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for the governor. “I think he can do both. I think he focuses on California when he talks about climate with the Chinese. I think he’s focused on California when he’s working on cleaning up the encampments. I think he focuses on California when responding to wildfires and I think he focuses on California when addressing a major artery that affects the second largest city in the country.

Newsom will leave California again at the end of the month to debate Republican presidential candidate Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida on their two different visions of America: California’s progressive model or Florida’s conservative way. Newsom challenged DeSantis to debate him for months before the Florida governor finally agreed to a November 30 date.

Newsom held debate preparation sessions last week between news conferences in Los Angeles and his appearances at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco. After meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and introducing Kamala Harris at an APEC welcome event, the governor returned to Los Angeles on Thursday to continue his leading role in the Interstate 10 response.

Although Tuman and others welcomed Newsom’s presence in Los Angeles, they cautioned that the governor needs to be careful in his words.

Newsom announced the cause of the fire as arson before the Department of Transportation made an official decision or completed its investigation.

He was also quick to say that the homeless encampments under the highway were not linked to the fire. Newsom is constantly vilified by the right for failing to solve California’s homeless problem; If linked to the homeless population, the fire could spark a new round of censure against the governor.

Newsom publicly accused Apex Development Inc., a Calabasas company to which the California Department of Transportation leases the property, as a “bad actor” for failing to pay rent and illegally subletting the site without the agencies’ permission. state and federal.

Henry E. Brady, a professor of public policy and political science at UC Berkeley, said the allegation that Apex was illegally operating the site gave Newsom “cover.”

“It’s not like the state decided to lease this to a gasoline manufacturer or a refinery or something. They tried to do something that made sense. But of course people were acting illegally,” Brady said. “It kind of takes the blame off of him.”

Apex attorney Mainak D’Attaray rejected Newsom’s claims, criticizing the governor and Los Angeles mayor for trying to deflect blame for their own policy failures. He said Caltrans inspects the land at least once a year and is “fully aware of the sublessees and their operations.”

“It is unfortunate that Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Karen Bass have used this incident to speculate and falsely characterize Apex and its leadership as “bad actors” to excuse their own failure to adequately address the public safety issues caused by unhoused people,” D’Attaray said in a statement, referring to encampments under highways.

Newsom said the state has opened an investigation into all Caltrans leases to ensure his administration is following protocols for inspecting its properties.

Times staff writers Thomas Curwen and Rachel Uranga contributed to this report.

Los Angeles Times

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