“Every day, I’m humbled by what I don’t know about this virus.”
A conversation with Gavin Newsom
Gavin Newsom marks the last week of January as the moment when he first began to confront the complex — and vastly unknown — issues emanating from COVID-19. That’s when 195 Americans, who had been evacuated from Wuhan, landed in California and were taken to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County to be monitored. What he didn’t know was that the coronavirus would soon consume almost all of his attention and almost certainly define his tenure as governor of California.
With the White House offering inconsistent guidance during the crisis — toggling between denial and panic, claiming full authority at one press conference, relinquishing it the next — it has fallen on governors to take the lead, and few governors have embraced this role more than Newsom. He was the first to impose a shelter-in-place order and among the first to declare a state of emergency and stream a daily press conference.
By many measures, his policies have been a success. Few California hospitals have been overwhelmed by a surge of COVID-19 patients — the biggest concern that public-health officials had during the initial stages of the pandemic. Perhaps more telling, California’s case fatality rate is the second lowest of the most populous states in the country. (Only Texas’s is lower.) But those measures don’t take into account the economic calamity that California now faces. Unemployment stands at 15.5 percent and is rising. Thousands of businesses that were forced to shut down may never reopen. In mid-May, Newsom presented a budget that anticipated a $54.3 billion shortfall, requiring deep cuts that will have a devastating effect on numerous programs, especially the state’s education system.
Newsom’s detractors believe that the state’s economic condition is the direct result of his policies. Among other things, they claim, he overreacted, he didn’t take into account California’s regional differences, and, when he did reopen the state, he did it too slowly. Newsom believes he had no choice: If he hadn’t moved forcefully, the virus would have raced through the state and killed many more people than it has. It’s a debate California will be having for a long time. We discussed all of this and more during two conversations that took place on April 24 and May 16.
What follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.
KIT RACHLIS On February 19, you gave your State of the State Address. No reference to COVID-19 appeared in the speech, and then one week later, patient zero, a Northern California woman, became the first known person at the time to contract the virus from within the U.S. When were you told about patient zero? Was this your “Oh shit” moment, or was it something else?
Governor Newsom Yeah, it is remarkable to think that the crisis we were attending to in my State of the State was the homeless crisis. You’re right, not an utterance in this space. But I’ll back up. In January, we got the first phone call from the federal government requesting our participation and cooperation in bringing in flights from mainland China. We originally committed to one flight — to repatriating Americans from Wuhan province — but it ultimately turned into six flights because other states were unwilling to participate in the repatriation.
That broadened our understanding of this pandemic. I say that in this context: There was a lot of local opposition to the repatriation flights, concern about people going on this Air Force base and then going back into the community, and questions raised about protocols and processes. All of these were legitimate concerns.
That really began the process for us. PPE — those weren’t three letters that I had spent a lot of time repeating. We had to talk about what are the protocols if someone is tested positive. How long do they need to isolate? What’s the spread of this disease? What’s coronavirus? What’s the family of coronavirus? What’s going on in Asia? What’s really happening in China? So we started to work with the CDC, in what they call ASPR, a multiagency task force, which is the Health and Human Service umbrella organization, and we started to develop the protocols, in terms of the flights themselves, the quarantine and isolation issues.
So for me, there was no patient-zero event. Those flights were a frame of consciousness. The first meetings were held in my office at the Capitol, led by our Office of Emergency Services director, Mark Ghilarducci, and then by our Health and Human Services secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaly. Those conversations became more focused when the Grand Princess presented itself as another repatriation challenge. That’s when this issue came into even clearer focus for the state.
RACHLIS How did the Grand Princess change your understanding?
Newsom Here’s how the cruise ship originally came to the fore. I got a call from Ana Matosantos , who runs our agencies, and she said, “We have a number of people who got off a cruise ship from Mexico in San Francisco. We don’t yet know how many, but a number of the crew have tested positive for COVID-19, and we presume there may be passengers in the state of California who disembarked that ship and have tested positive.”
We immediately went to work to get the manifest, and in the process of doing so, I was also told that this cruise ship had already taken off and was working its way back from Hawaii to California with a similar crew, likely infecting other passengers, presenting an even greater sense of urgency to figure out the scope of the problem. As this was happening, it started to become a big news story, particularly in Northern California, all over the Bay Area. What the hell to do with this cruise ship? What are we going to do with the passengers?
So I made my first call on this crisis to the president. I said, “Mr. President, we’ve got this cruise ship on the coast, 3,500-plus folks. Most of the crew are foreigners. A lot of the passengers are foreigners, but they’re also from dozens of other states. We think close to half are from California. We want to do our part, but we can’t do this alone here. The CDC director’s been great, HHS has been helpful, but I really need your support here, because we need your fundamental approval to bring this into the bay and begin to isolate these individuals, to test everybody, and to bring them, we hope, on the military bases, like we did with the repatriate flights.”
We didn’t have the hotel rooms, we didn’t have the infrastructure, and no city wanted any of the folks. Nobody. We had to find a location to bring the ship in. It was sitting there off the coast in international jurisdiction. We wanted to bring it into national jurisdiction. That’s why I had to get the support from the president. He made a public comment that was well covered, about not wanting to bring the ship in because the numbers would go up.
Privately, he told me in the conversation I had with him that morning — which, by the way, was 4 a.m. my time, 4:30 a.m. my time, because I got woken up by my team, saying, “We need to call the president. We need to get permission. We need to deal with this.” He told me, “I’ll do what you want to do.” It was just an interesting moment when everybody started attacking the president’s comments even though privately he had told us we could bring it in. And that’s when we brought the Grand Princess in. That really started to socialize COVID-19 in this state in a very, very acute way.
RACHLIS Can you walk through the drafting of the statewide stay-at-home measure?
Newsom Yeah, that statewide order was being written in real time — we didn’t know it — with the Grand Princess. I can assure you, every health director in the Bay Area was very focused on COVID-19 when the Grand Princess started to arrive. That really led to their first effort to move as a group. Everybody concerned, no one really having a sense of what this was, what this wasn’t, deep anxiety about even one person coming into the region. What are you going to do? I mean, I can’t tell you the sleepless nights of that first week.
We worked with the private sector to procure hotel rooms, and then the community got upset about it. “How dare you provide hotel rooms without security and health officials?” Then we started bringing patients into hospitals, and they were outraged. “What are you doing? Now we have to shut down wings of our entire system, and we don’t have PPE.” You started learning about N95s versus other procedural masks. All of this starts. It’s all happening. Meanwhile, the rest of the country is out there, doing their thing.
We’re starting to develop a strong relationship with our federal partners because they’re feeling the pressure as well. I mean, it was just ASPR, CDC, the Trump administration, no one playing politics, everybody trying to do the right thing and provide resources. No ventilator conversations. No N95 conversations. None of those things. They were all, “How do we keep people safe and isolated?”
Testing was all done at the CDC. We would send it back there; it was like the black-and-white movie days. It was like a Wells Fargo 1850s courier, a horse and buggy. We would send the tests back to CDC, and days later, Atlanta would get back to us and say, “Here are the test results.” That would guide those early decisions. That was just a few months ago. It feels like 20 years ago.
The point being, that the Grand Princess cruise was really the inflection point. I remember talking to all the health folks in San Francisco, and they started talking about the fact that they wanted to quote-unquote shut down the city. No one really knew what that meant back then. And London Breed was very anxious to do that. Other county health officials were anxious, so there were early conversations about, “Look, if you guys do this, let us get on top of this together, because if you’re going to lock down your city, I need to get all this prepared.”
There were all these sort of technical conversations. The counties were very gracious to not go as quickly as I think they even wanted to in those first 24 hours, in order to answer these tougher questions. Then they took an extra few days to get together as a group, and to their eternal credit, that really initiated a totally different conversation all across the state and certainly in my office. It set things up for us to come out with the state order.
RACHLIS In the midst of all of this, did you reach out to folks beyond the administration? Was there a former professor or a faith leader or a family member whose counsel you sought or bounced ideas off or consulted with?
Newsom I have a pretty remarkable support group here. I mean, this was an everything-else-collecting-dust, everything-shifting, canceling-meetings, clearing-the-calendar, all-hands-on-deck situation. Focus on the Grand Princess, realize the multitudes of complexity around every single decision, every passenger, work with consul generals to get these folks charter flights back to their home countries, meet with other governors who were refusing to take even their own folks. I guess it’s a way of answering, “No.”
I remember I talked to Willie Brown before the stay-at-home order, because he’s just such an extraordinarily superior chronicler of what the zeitgeist is in the region, and he gave me the temperature of how things were going. My family was directly impacted. I have a blind trust, but I’m not blind. Every business I had was shut down and laid off every employee — hundreds and hundreds of employees. My entire life. These are my babies: my wine store, my restaurant, the things that I built from scratch before I got elected to office, and all of them just shut down. I remember my sister called me crying, saying, “We’re doing a GoFundMe page for an employee that’s been with us 25 years.” And she says, “You have to donate.” And I’m like, “Jeez.”
This is just a couple days after the local stay-at-home order. So when people say, “Did he understand the magnitude of the decision? Does he understand the needs of business and how this is impacting real people’s lives?” Trust me, on all those levels, I have deep appreciation. So when we did it statewide, I went in not only with an intellectual recognition of what the Bay Area had done but a very personal understanding in a very granular way of how it translates to people and to businesses, large and small, and the impact it would have on their lives and their future and their dreams.
RACHLIS What’s a typical day these days?
Newsom My day begins with the kids, one or more, coming in screaming that one or more of the other kids took their toys, didn’t give them enough cereal, woke them up. So that’s between 5:50 and 5:53 every single day, when the light starts appearing. Inevitably, they come in. They’re told not to; they run in. And I, at that point, am already on my iPhone. I look forward to getting my morning briefing, which comes in at the latest every day at 7, sometimes around 6:30, and that’s the first thing I do. I look at the ICU numbers, death numbers, and hospitalization numbers. I look at those three numbers, and that’s when the day starts, 6:30, 7.
I sort of prepare, catch up, trying to read, never getting through all these articles. I have someone who every morning is up at 3 or 4 in the morning and who has to do nothing else but give me buzzing clips. By 6:30 in the morning, he’s already sent in what he thinks are the most important clips.
Emails are just comical. There are so many. There are multiples of hundred. I’m just an operator forwarding emails, not even opening them up. People write me two-page emails, and I say, “Thanks. T-H-N-X.” They’re probably going, “Hey, you jerk, I just spent two hours writing you an email, the best you can do is THNX?” The closer they are to me, the more they just respect and understand me, that I have thousands of emails, that I can’t get back to everybody. And phone calls — they’re even more difficult than emails and texts. I try to clear the decks as close as I can to read the essential articles.
I get in, and at 9:30, we do our formal meeting, which is all-hands — all the agency directors, all the emergency, all the health folks. At 10:30, I have my senior staff meeting, and we will go over our news conference at noon, what we’re now seeing, what the president may have tweeted, or what some other governor may have said in their morning press conference, what’s leading the national news, what to anticipate in terms of questions that may come up in the news conference at noon.
Whatever the connective tissue is of the day, I try to connect with real people who are impacted by it. So one of the rules is if I’m making an announcement about distance learning, or I’m making an announcement about foster kids, then at 2, I have a Zoom conference with foster kids or with parents who are trying to distance learn. So the whole thing is to connect the real people and their stories and lives to the announcements, so that I have a deeper understanding of what we are advancing. We’ll do one of those every day.
Then I have a series of Zoom calls: tribal, faith-based leaders, the Latino caucus, the California Medical Association, the nurses, the doctors — whatever you can imagine. There are quite literally hundreds and hundreds of groups that we try to convene. Two days ago, it was all the former governors. I did an hour with Wilson, Schwarzenegger, Davis, and Brown. Then after that, we had a presentation from Janet Yellen and Tim Cook about the economy, and we had all our economic advisers. So we’ve got a pretty disciplined cadence every day.
I try to see the kids — it’s the hardest damn thing — for dinner, then I just go right back to work in my home office. I was watching more TV at first, but it was becoming such a rabbit hole of distraction — what this governor said, or what that one said, or how we were right. So I blacked that out. I confess I watch a little late-night Brian Williams and a little hour here and there to catch up. I’ll watch Fox, not just MSNBC, not just CNN, at the end of the day. It’s the last thing I do before I go to bed. It is really to try to anchor an understanding of where the public is, but from every lens. That helps support my next step.
RACHLIS One of the most notable things about the pandemic is that there has been no national mourning for those who have died, perhaps because there have been so many, perhaps because we’re still in the midst of the crisis. How do you carry those numbers that you look at every morning? How do you take them beyond being statistics?
Newsom No one does this more magnificently from my perspective than the governor of New Jersey. He’s a good friend — Governor Phil Murphy. We were talking about this, and he goes out of his way to highlight every week some of the individuals whose lives were lost, and their families, to bring home the human toll. I started it here, because I was inspired by his example. I consistently try to make the point every day when I announce those numbers that these are families torn asunder, torn apart. They’re not statistics, and that’s important to do.
I think all of us need to do more and do better, particularly as we get to a point where 100,000 Americans will have lost their lives. A milestone. I think it’s incumbent upon us nationally, not just at the state and local level, to take the time to mourn. At the same time, you’re in the midst of this crisis, and you’re also telling mourners that they need to socially distance, and that’s horrific — it’s not just the nation that’s having a hard time mourning, but families are having a hard time mourning. When the dust starts to settle, we have a responsibility to highlight the magnitude of the suffering and try to help soften the edges of the pain that people are experiencing.
RACHLIS What was your worst day or worst moment of the past months?
Newsom I could completely BS you and say it’s been anything but a grind. But it’s a grind every day. I’ll tell you, these moments come every day, because there’s a deep sense that if you’re not humbled by it, you’re not human. There’s a humility because of your own feeling of inadequacy to meet everybody’s needs. What comes at you every single day is a deep overwhelm, and every day you feel that way. It’s like a coral reef. It keeps amassing on top of each other. So every day becomes even more challenging than the next, because you realize you still have to attend to last week’s work.
I think the hardest part is when you get in contact with those real people. I get on those calls, and I’m thinking I’m having a good day, and — I’ll give you a specific. The other day we made an announcement about 7, 8,000 Chromebooks. My wife and I spent weeks making phone calls, raising tens of millions of dollars. We got 108,000 wifi spots. We really felt like it was pretty good work, and then we meet with a mother who starts breaking down … look at me, I’m breaking down … sorry … who’s got five kids with autism, with special needs, and she says, “I appreciate everything you’ve done today. None of it’s going to help me and my kids.” You sit there, and you’re like, you’ve got to feel unworthy, and you feel awfully, just overwhelmed, because you see her and how overwhelmed she is, and you’re like, goddammit, I’m not living up.
So those are the days, those moments, where, Jesus Christ, a lot of people count on you — and there are a lot — and there are people in the shadows you won’t otherwise hear from, and all I think about is, “Who else am I not hearing from? What the hell else is happening out there that I’m not addressing and fixing?” It’s tough anyways, forgive me. But those are the moments.
RACHLIS It appears that your decision for Californians to embrace social distancing a week or two weeks earlier than other states has saved many lives. What were the particular challenges of coming up with a one-size-fits-all plan for a state that’s as big and as unwieldy and as diverse as California?
Newsom It’s that you realize it’s a wonderful thing having gone through the last few decades as a former parking and traffic commissioner, former county supervisor, former mayor, former lieutenant governor, current governor, future ex-governor. Being able to have a sense of how this state works, not from the top down but from the bottom up. And in deeply respecting local decision-making and understanding school boards, city councils versus county supervisors. The needs, desires, aspirations of elected officials, not just appointed ones. That experience has really helped inform the fact that if, if we have a command and control structure out of Sacramento, it’s never going to work.
It’s really about creating conditions at the local level, where local officials feel empowered to represent the needs of their constituency. I don’t think the statewide order would have ever worked had the counties not already started to walk down that path. It was critical for their voices to be heard first and for them to lead it. And it wasn’t just the counties. It was also mayors — Mayor Garcetti, Mayor Liccardo. Many of the mayors were leading. We said, “Look, if you feel you need to go further and you want to tighten things up, you should.” That, I think, was important. They have the legal authority to do this, but it was also important for them to know that we understood they had to have the moral authority. I think that helped guide things.
Also, I will say this: It’s why it’s so damn important that we have a relationship with the White House. Our president’s voice, particularly in more conservative parts of this state, is profound. Look, just because we say something, doesn’t mean people do something. All we have is trust, and our capacity to achieve any results is at the speed of trust. And so, having the Republican leadership, Shannon Grove and Marie Waldron, on our committees, reaching out to them and having them know that they can reach out to me, working with Kevin McCarthy and working with the White House — I think all of these matter in California, where 25 counties went for Trump. Twenty-five.
RACHLIS You’ve not been publicly critical of Trump during this crisis. Has that been a deliberate decision on your part?
Newsom Yeah, it has been in this respect. I’m not hard-wired to wake up every morning and criticize others. I’m hard-wired as a default to work with others. So I have to look at not just this pandemic but at issues related to wildfires, where we have to rise above our political inclinations, and we have to focus on public safety. I’ve been doing this very intentionally for over a year and a half as governor. So while it may have been tempting to criticize the president, from my perspective, it was unnecessary in terms of advancing our mutual goal, and that was to protect 40 million Californians. He has been, and so far remains, a good partner to this state in terms of our efforts to date. So far.
RACHLIS I’d like to go back to the moment when you first met him. That was when he arrived in Paradise after the terrible fire there and lectured the state about the need to “rake” the forest floor. If I understand correctly, it was on the flight from Northern California to Southern California that the two of you unexpectedly bonded. Can you tell us how that happened?
Newsom Well, you spend five, six, seven hours together under extreme circumstances on Marine One and Air Force One, in a car, you meet people who are suffering, families devastated, that’s an opportunity to engage on human terms, not political terms. That was our first introduction, not political, very human. On that basis, there’s a spirit of collaboration, cooperation, that’s expressed in those quiet moments, and so that sort of kicked off a relationship anew.
I say anew, because it was a hard-hitting campaign. He supporting my opponent; I not being shy in expressing my point of view, being on the receiving end of dozens of his tweets and responding to those tweets. But we put aside all of that, and it allowed us to weather many other moments of criticism back and forth, and lawsuits, and get us to a place where we’ve been, at least, for the last 90 days. We’ll see.
RACHLIS When you were formulating California’s response, were there any advisers or Cabinet members who argued for a less sweeping plan, what might be called the Swedish or early United Kingdom plan, a herd-immunity plan? Was there anybody offering a counterview that needed to be grappled with?
Newsom Remarkably, the answer is no. No one was pulling back, except in one case. There was dissension about what to do about the schools, because there was real anxiety about our ability to feed these kids and to educate these kids. We deeply recognized the urgency for small school districts and rural school districts that didn’t have access to broadband and did not have the resources that some of the larger urban centers have in terms of food banks and community supports. There was real concern and real anxiety in that space. Perhaps of all the areas, that was the most difficult for the internal team, because we were not naive. I’m still working on this. This is a month later, and we’re still trying to feed our kids. None of their concerns were overstated. In fact, I would argue, they were all understated.
RACHLIS Some researchers at Stanford have made the case that mandating extreme physical distancing was an overreach. They argue that it has not only triggered one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history, but that it’s jeopardized the health of people who need surgeries as well as those suffering from mental illness. How do you respond to that?
Newsom Here’s what I hope they would consider. The capacity to test and truly understand the community prevalence of the virus is still not where it needs to be. There’s still a lot we don’t know about this virus, that no one knows about this virus, anywhere in the world. We’re still questioning the antibodies test. There’s no vaccine, so by definition, we’re not where we need to be.
I told you I got into politics by the way of business, so I don’t need an adviser telling me the business impacts. I’ve lived it. I see the unemployment numbers before I make them public. I’m talking to real people. I’m still going to the grocery store. People are coming up to me. People are protesting. People are in front of my house. I hear it; I see it; I’m paying attention. I appreciate the critics. I respect the protests. I admire folks who are willing to say something the rest of the folks aren’t willing to say.
But we’re guided by what’s happening around the rest of the world, not just what’s happening in the United States. I’m also guided by the relationships with other governors and their health departments. We have some amazing business leaders as governors, and they did the right thing at first, some more so than others. We’ll see what happens in Georgia and elsewhere. But hindsight’s 20/20. Everyone, no matter what, will say, “We would have, should have, told you so.” That’s the nature of the world we live in. It’s the nature of life. It’s human nature, there you go.
RACHLIS The initial modeling the state used estimated that we needed to acquire 50,000 additional hospital beds and ten thousand ventilators. Those numbers have turned out to be inaccurate. The criticism is that by relying on those numbers, you helped contribute to the deep recession we’re in now.
Newsom The models didn’t alone dictate our decision-making. Quite the contrary. We weren’t waiting for the certainty of a computer program to make decisions about the importance of procuring PPE, the importance of getting more testing, the importance of identifying alternative care sites outside of our hospital system, and making sure that we had appropriate personnel to support that surge. None of us, at least none of the folks who are working here, regret any of those early decisions as they relate to preparation. We stand by that and feel, by the way, that our preparation not only served us well in the short-term but could prove profoundly important in the long-term, because no one suggests that there won’t be a second wave, potentially a third wave of COVID-19.
RACHLIS What do you say to those who believe that COVID-19 is a Chinese plot or that shelter-in-place orders are an attempt by liberals to destroy the economy and undermine the Trump administration? Is there any way to defuse those who have those beliefs?
Newsom It’s very, very difficult. We’re nothing but a mirror of our consistent thoughts. Whatever we focus on, we find more of. We live in this filter bubble where we are protected from other people’s points of views, whether it’s our media consumption or, increasingly and sadly, our social circles. Misinformation is spread and reinforced at lightning speed. You have a master in the White House who knows exactly what he’s doing and how he can light up his base and spread points of view to further his cause. He did it again with another tweet saying, “I took care of all the governors, and now they’re popular, and now they’re trying to destroy me by not reopening their economy.” It’s hard to even respond to things like this. But it reinforces that trope, it reinforces that narrative, and he’s doing so very intentionally with real political potency.
RACHLIS You recently presented a revised budget that projected a $54.3 billion shortfall that must be closed. The new budget requires a lot of cuts in essential areas of government. What becomes of the agenda you ran on and spoke about in this year’s State of the State Address? Just to cite two, what happens to your attempts to address homelessness and affordable housing?
Newsom Father Coz at Santa Clara University once told me, “God’s delays are not God’s denials.” We are not abandoning a lot of these programs. We’re just delaying the implementation. In terms of the homelessness, interestingly, we may, through this crisis, be able to accelerate our efforts. We have been very successful in just five weeks with what would have taken five decades — that’s hyperbolic, at least five years — to procure 15,000 hotel rooms for homeless individuals. We have a purchase option for thousands of those units, which would substantially increase our portfolio of housing support for homeless. So it’s interesting that through the ashes of this crisis, there may be some areas of real opportunity to accelerate and fast-track our reforms.
And by the way — it deserves just a brief comment — we have on the Jobs and Advisory Council a lot of representatives in the construction and housing industry. Sides that have been antagonistic toward one another in the past, I can just attest to you first-hand, are cooperating in ways that I never imagined possible, because of the magnitude of this moment. I see, honestly, some areas of reform that never would have presented themselves had we stumbled into a mild recession, which most economists thought was likely in a year or two anyway.
There are two camps out there: one that thinks that this crisis requires radical change, and then there’s the camp, which I’m in, that thinks it will significantly accelerate change that was already underway. I had a really wonderful conversation with my friend Marc Benioff, who runs Salesforce.com. Marc rewrote his mission statement for Salesforce because he sees these same changes accelerating at a much faster speed than he did 90 days ago and, literally, is banking his company’s future on that acceleration. I think there’s plenty of proof points to bear out that office space, commercial space, how we commute, telework, how we learn, distance learning, how we look at hybrid opportunities to not just be educated as it relates through a K through 12 education system but in terms of lifelong learning — I can see a lot of these areas really accelerating. That’s a very exciting and enlightening place to be.
RACHLIS Unemployment in California could reach 25 percent, one in every four workers. Even before COVID-19, California suffered from extremes in inequality, and the virus has only exacerbated the divide between the poor and the wealthy, between rural and urban, between all the racial and ethnic divides that we have long contended with. What can this state do to mitigate those divides now that it has even fewer resources?
Newsom It’s the right question, and it’s the foundational question. Those trendlines were manifesting over decades, with IT and globalization detonating at the same time. In some ways, this has been a pattern interrupt and, in that respect, a very healthy one. It’s not just about resources, not just about the budget. It’s about a resourcefulness of mind — a recognition of responsibility.
I can only tell you this: The hundred or so people on our Business and Jobs Recovery Task Force were picked intentionally. Their lens is growth and inclusion. We make the point you can no longer have one without the other. What’s wonderful about the conversations we’re having, it’s not just with the head of the California Chamber of Commerce, it’s not just with Bob Iger, but it’s also with some of the world’s leading experts on inclusion and inclusivity, through the prism of labor, environmental justice, racial justice, as well as economic justice — academics in that space, practitioners in that space. None of us have all the answers, but we’re now asking the right questions. We’re asking better questions than we ever have, at least in the 20 years I’ve been in public service.
RACHLIS If this time has proven anything, it’s the importance of the role of the governor. How has this moment made you see the job differently?
Newsom I don’t see the job differently, but I think it’s clear that other people see the job differently. I mean, you’d be hard-pressed to ever get any national attention in the last few decades if you were a governor. Rarely did you see a national show with a governor more than once a week in the last four, five, six, seven, eight years, but that paradigm certainly has shifted for the moment. I’m of the opinion it will shift back very quickly. So I hope it’s a reminder to people of the importance of the power of states, of states being laboratories of democracy.
RACHLIS What’s your greatest fear for the next six months, next eight months?
Newsom My greatest fear is even more immediate — that in the next six, eight days, the next six to eight weeks, that we’ll have completely developed amnesia about the last six to eight weeks, that we will be deeply divided by jurisdiction, by party, and be less trustful of one another. I really fear that. So I worry about our capacity to recover if we’re not focused on one another. There’s the old adage: “If you want to go fast, go alone. You want to go far, go together.” And I fear people want to move quickly to their old previous camps. If we do, we’re going to struggle to go far together as a state and a nation.
RACHLIS What do you know now about the virus that you wish you knew before?
Newsom What I’ve learned is that what I don’t know now is exponentially greater than what I thought I did know four or five weeks ago. Every day, I’m humbled by what I don’t know about this virus. I will say this: The economic price to shut down an entire economy — I never saw anything like this in my lifetime. I hope we never do ever again. The shock to the system, the aftermath of this, the public-health consequences of poverty — all of these things, those are real.
I’m very sober about the next few months. I’m not sober about the next few years. I have a tremendous optimism about the next few years. I say that not flippantly. I don’t just say that because I’m in politics or I’m paid to try to be optimistic, but because we’re going to radically change things. I don’t think it. I know it. We have to, as a state, as a nation. And some of those things were long overdue and could never happen in the previous environment.
But I am sober about the next number of months. In that respect, what I know is that I have to maintain a deep sense of, again, humility about how to navigate the whitewaters and the headwinds that are in front of us. Beyond that, I can assure you, I didn’t think I’d become an expert on RNA extraction, that I’d know the difference between a PCR test and viral media and transport. But I’ll tell you, I’ll put up, in those conversations, with the best of them. I’ll tell you, I can now say PPE versus PPP, PUIs versus PUAs.
We’re all going to come out stronger. A little bit more knowledgeable. More capable, I hope. More respectful. More empathetic. More willing to look beyond our differences. More forgiving. I certainly think I will, and I hope others will. Those who stay just in their rigid box of ideology, I want to be forgiving of them, too, but I hope they can consider stepping out of those boxes as we move forward in this notion of the commonwealth, with this notion of communitarianism — individual acts that ultimately improve the community.
That’s always been a core principle of mine. I’ve always been intellectually driven by that idea, but I never internalized it as much as I have now, and I hope others are experiencing something similar. I think if we all do, this will be one of the most damaging and challenging times in our life, but also perhaps one of the most extraordinary moments of opportunity in our lives as well.