Newsom responded quickly and very publicly to the LA freeway fire, but remains under scrutiny

(Alex Gallardo/AP)

Newsom responded quickly and very publicly to the LA freeway fire, but remains under scrutiny

California Politics

Taryn Luna

November 21, 2023

Gov. Gavin Newsom took his victory lap.

He wore a brown jacket, jeans and a baseball cap as he stood on the couch


10 Freeway, the governor announced Sunday morning that all lanes of the roadway would reopen weeks earlier than he originally expected after a massive fire closed a major artery through downtown Los Angeles.

The traffic nightmare in Southern California ended later that evening, days before the heavily traveled Thanksgiving holiday.

“This is about 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 government getting things done.”

The Newsom administration still faces questions as to who owns the illegally exploited property where the fire ignited and engulfed the underbelly of a major urban highway. The crisis offered Newsom a chance to quell criticism that he was overly enchanted with the national political scene as he rushed to solve a high-profile problem in California, but the fire could pose a political vulnerability for the governor if shows that stronger state supervision could have prevented the fire.

Newsom’s announcement came less than two weeks after one


poll showed his


Its position among California voters had reached a

n always

low, a decline in popularity that followed one year as governor


on a journey to the deep south,


Florida and other corners of the country to attack conservative policies on abortion, immigration and LGBTQ+ rights, as proclaimed by Republican governors, and to rally support for President Biden. The poll director blamed some of the blame on Newsom’s out-of-state focus.

The Governor

of California

had just returned from a whirlwind


trip to Israel and China when a suspected arsonist lit a fire under the highway and shut down a crucial section of 10.



declared a state of emergency later that evening and held his first of several press conferences in Los Angeles the next day. Under the slogan “Fix the 10,” his office emailed journalists daily progress reports on the work completed ahead of the original timeline of three to five weeks to make the repairs. Newsom also placed a camera at the site to stream live video of the work being performed.

“Newsom is no fool when it comes to ruining or missing opportunities for a tremendous amount of news reporting,” said Joseph S. Tuman, professor emeritus of political and legal communications at San Francisco State University. “I think he got into it as quickly as possible because he wanted to be seen.”

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

“Managing the world, but being there for Angelenos,” Bass said. “It’s the kind of leadership we need in the state to make sure those stars align.”

There are questions


There has been talk about why the Newsom administration did not appear to enforce a policy the California Department of Transportation adopted in 2018 to prevent these types of fires in the wake of a similar incident in Atlanta.

Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) praised the governor’s response to the fire. He said he was confident the Newsom administration would provide more information about state oversight of the leased parcels after an internal review to “put in place strong accountability mechanisms to prevent something like this from ever happening again.”

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

The fire was reported early


November 11 after a pallet yard under the


10 Freeway caught fire, damaging the overpass and leaving officials scrambling to figure out how to safely reopen the roadway as quickly as possible.

Nieuwsom and

Mayor Karen of Los Angeles

Bas signed


parallel to 1994, then


Gov. Pete Wilson forced contractors to work around the clock to repair the Santa Monica Freeway after the Northridge earthquake destroyed two sections of the roadway.

Joseph Rodota said that as then-Cabinet secretary, 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. “This is his moment.”

With encouragement from his friends at the Hoover Institution, Wilson offered contractors a $200,000 bonus for each day the project was completed ahead of schedule. He imposed a similar fine of $200,000 for each day the work was late. The chosen contractor, CC Myers Inc., completed the project 74 days early and earned a $14.5 million bonus.

Seeing an opportunity to boost their re-election bids, Wilson and then-President Clinton struggled over who should take credit for the 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 skilled problem solver. The governor, who was in a political slump before the earthquake, defeated Democrat Kathleen Brown with 55% of the vote in California’s 1994 gubernatorial election.



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

News of Newsom’s decline in popularity broke shortly after he returned to his home state

from abroad: the research showed that

49% of California voters disapproved of his performance as governor, compared to 44% who approved, according to a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

Berkeley researcher Mark DiCamillo blamed Newsom’s decline in popularity on his decision to take on a more prominent role in national politics, while the state’s biggest problems, such as homelessness and housing affordability, remain challenges for Californians . Democrats nationally, including Biden, have also seen their polls fall as inflation and two major wars increase Americans’ sense of unease.

Newsom’s aides push




his low numbers, arguing that other polls showed the governor doing well


better than in the Berkeley study.

“I don’t agree with the concept that you can’t walk and chew gum,” said Erin Mellon, a spokesperson for the governor. ‘I think he can do both. I think he’s focusing on California when he talks to the Chinese about climate. I think he’s focusing on California when he’s clearing camps. I think he’s focused on California when he’s responding to wildfires, and I think he’s focused on California when he’s looking at a major artery that affects the second largest city in the country.

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



week full of preparation sessions for debates



I-10 busy

press conferences in Los Angeles and appearances at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco. After meeting with

Canadian Prime Minister

Justin Trudeau and the introduction of Kamala Harris op


APEC welcome event, the Governor

He cut his time in the Bay short on Thursday

returned to Los Angeles on Thursday to continue his prominent role in the film


10 Highway response.

While Tuman and others praised Newsom’s presence in Los Angeles, they cautioned that the governor must be careful with his words.

Newsom announced the cause of the fire was arson before the Department of Transportation made official determinations or completed its investigation.

He was also quick to say that homeless encampments under the highway were not related to the fire. Newsom is continually vilified by the law for his failure to solve California’s homelessness problem;


if it is related to the homeless population, the fire could be

to light

The beginning of a new round of censure for the governor.

Newsom publicly blasted 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 permission from state and federal agencies .

Henry E. Brady, a professor of public policy and political science at UC Berkeley, said the accusation


that Apex was operating the site illegally and giving Newsom “cover.”

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

Apex lawyer Mainak Dattaray


Newsom’s claims, in which he criticized the governor and mayor of Los Angeles for trying to deflect blame from their own policy mistakes. He said Caltrans inspected the property at least once a year and was “fully aware of the subtenants and their activities.”

“It is unfortunate that Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Karen Bass have used this incident to speculate and mischaracterize Apex and its principals as ‘bad actors’

“bad actors”

to excuse their own inability to adequately address the public safety problems posed by the unhoused,” Dattaray said in a statement, referring to camps under



Newsom has


The state has launched an investigation into all Caltrans leases to ensure the administration is following inspection protocols at its properties.

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


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