SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Almost 100 days ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped Apple’s Tim Cook, Disney’s Bob Iger, former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and scores of other business and labor luminaries to chart the state’s economic recovery.
The public is still waiting for a road map.
Top California leaders from across the fifth-largest economy in the world were supposed to “craft ideas for short, medium and long-term solutions” for a fast — but also safe — recovery. Critics say the public has largely been kept in the dark, while California fumbled its reopening this spring to the point that the state had to shut down major industries again and can’t open schools this fall.
Other countries are taking nationwide approaches to confronting coronavirus and reopening, but the U.S. has left those decisions primarily to states and left them with little guidance. Events are overtaking state task forces as the accelerating disease tables their ideas until their governments can get a better handle on the problem. Elsewhere, political disputes have stymied reopening recommendations; New York City scrapped its first task force for being too white and pro-business, and its current panel has not yet issued recommendations.
And if California’s top minds are struggling to save the fifth-largest economy in the world from despair, it underscores how impossible a problem America at large is facing.
“The big question is, ‘What’s our plan?’” said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association. “It just feels like we should have a plan, and we’re just throwing things against a brick wall.”
The governor’s group includes “a lot of great names and a lot of very talented people,’’ Michelin said, but the group feels rudderless. Other critics decry that the public has largely been kept in the dark about what the panel is discussing or how its members have influenced key decisions by the administration, such as how quickly to reopen.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate that three months later we still don’t know what they’re working on,” said state Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore), who asked on Twitter last week if the group was “just a campaign donor list” or if it had accomplished anything. “It leads the average person to believe this is a do-nothing task force, which I hope is not the case.”
Newsom has made some pivotal decisions to reopen — and reclose — dating back to May, but it’s unclear how much of them have stemmed from the task force versus his own inner circle of advisers and health experts. The governor allowed a broad range of sectors to reopen starting in May, from malls to bars to gyms, all with guidance released by the California Department of Public Health. He did not impose a mask mandate until mid-June as problems grew more severe.
Health experts increasingly blame California’s scale of reopening for the state’s surge of infections that has again turned the state into a Covid-19 hotspot, with 423,000 known cases and more than 8,000 deaths. Newsom this month shut down businesses such as bars, gyms and restaurant indoor dining across the state.
Critics say that the fumbled reopening is leading to another round of job losses and forcing small businesses to shutter because they cannot survive an unpredictable pattern of opening and closing. The unexpected surge also has a consequence that could loom larger this fall: Nearly all of California’s schools will start the year in full distance learning, putting another restraint on working parents, some of whom are considering reducing hours or leaving their jobs to care for their children.
In interviews this week, task force co-chairs Steyer and Ann O’Leary, Newsom’s chief of staff, said the group advised the governor on a wide range of issues, including the reopening plan, as well as longstanding economic and social inequities laid bare by the pandemic.
O’Leary acknowledged an unprecedented challenge in navigating the concerns of both the California’s diverse business community and health officials.
“We feel very good about the metrics we were using to reopen,’’ said O’Leary, but added that if the administration could have done one thing differently, it would have been to implore Californians not to go back to the way they were living before the pandemic. “They needed to wear masks, they needed to keep social distancing, they needed to do as much as they could,’’ she said. “We didn’t do enough of that messaging — and as a result, collectively, in California we didn’t do as well as we could have.’’
O’Leary provided POLITICO a list of five subcommittees and their rosters. The smaller groups are focusing on such topics as climate change and innovation; banking and housing; workforce equity and food insecurity; the economic recovery; and small businesses. She and Steyer meet regularly with them, she said, as does the governor on a biweekly basis.
“Let me just be really clear,” O’Leary said. “This task force really is about getting some of the smartest minds, who are experts, helping us problem solve on a really big economic issue of the day.”
Iger and other powerful CEOs are on task force calls every week, according to the governor’s office. Newsom has discussed the closure and reopening of Disneyland with Iger, and those talks have been credited with slowing down the amusement park’s activities.
Steyer said the group provided Newsom with valuable “real-world” information as the administration developed reopening protocols.
“We have been advising him on the decisions that have anything to do with the economy from day one,’’ Steyer said, including “what can happen and what different things mean’’ in different economic sectors.
The task force also has pressed Congress for more state and local emergency aid; supported a public-service-announcement campaign to promote the use of face coverings; and, with tech-connected industry leaders, brainstormed ways to help Newsom with “closing the digital divide” as distance learning extends into the fall, he said.
“We’re talking to them directly about the urgency to support the kids of California,” Steyer said.
Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers, said the labor union hopes the panel will lead to improvements in health care for agricultural workers, many of whom lack access to affordable care because of their legal status, yet continue to work in the essential industry. The organization’s president, Teresa Romero, is on the task force.
“They’re diving into the big issues and they’re talking about tackling the big problems,” Elenes said of the group.
But Rob Lapsley, head of the California Business Roundtable, said the task force has been too insular and has not provided the transparency that the public and state business leaders deserve.
Newsom also drew criticism for naming Steyer as chair of his task force, not long after the billionaire Democrat ended his presidential campaign built on assailing President Donald Trump and promoting environmental endeavors.
Lapsley said it’s essential that the state disclose any potential conflicts between the task force and Steyer’s nonprofit organization, NextGen, a group dedicated to slowing climate change and addressing income inequality.
“NextGen is staffing a lot of the task force,’’ he said. “They are a political advocacy organization. So that’s another question: How does that work? Because they are advocating for policies that you know are impacting a huge sector of our economy — particularly good paying jobs like the energy sector.’’
Steyer said — and O’Leary confirmed — that he’s not getting paid for his work on the task force. He said the involvement of his nonprofit staffers was intended only to help fast-track the task force’s work, “so we can get things done and get information organized as quickly as possible.” He insisted he’s tried to be transparent about the task force’s work — saying that he has made himself widely available to media and has “done over 50 interviews” to answer questions and offer details about the committee’s work.
O’Leary and Steyer worked together years earlier. In 2011, the governor’s chief of staff was named senior vice president with NextGen.
Rob Stutzman, a strategist and former adviser to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who launched his own task forces on reinventing state government and overhauling the tax structure, said the group is too large and unwieldy to reach consensus on many bold ideas. Stutzman said he is not surprised that the public has not received concrete timelines or details about its work.
“To me it was in a pattern of a lot of things the governor did early on in the pandemic — making these vast sweeping announcements about large substantial efforts,” he said. “There was a real kind of obsession with `We lead by announcing big, bold efforts,’ and then in executing those efforts, the execution hasn’t met the magnitude of the announcements.”
Stutzman also called Steyer’s appointment “a huge mistake,” arguing that Californians see him as a national politician, rather than a businessperson. But, he said, Newsom’s political career could benefit from the relationship.
O’Leary said Steyer was chosen because he is “an incredible doer. He gets things done, and he’s dogged in his approach to doing it.’’
Given the magnitude of the crisis, she said, the administration simply needed advice. “I mean, no one has ever in the history of California, the United States government, closed down the entire economy and tried to reopen it again.”