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Governor-elect Gavin Newsom’s baptism by fire in California

Difficult politics amid the flames of Ventura County

November 11, 2018

6:20 AM

11 November 2018

6:20 AM

This morning, I stepped outside my house in Ventura, California and saw a vast plume of brown smoke blotting out a quarter of the sky to the east. The internet and phone are down, the cell networks work once every half hour, and the TV and radio are out. Thousand Oaks, further east, has been first riddled with bullets in a mass murder and then set ablaze. If we have to be evacuated, the city will have to send Paul Revere.

California likes to think of itself as national harbinger on progressive topics like gun control and climate change. With guns and Nature wreaking death and destruction, the state is responsible for finding solutions to these problems.

The last I heard before the lines went down was that Gavin Newsom, newly crowned grand poo-bah of the realm of California, has been compelled to make his first act as governor-elect a phone call asking for federal assistance. Embarrassingly, Newsom made it to the very man he had run his entire campaign against, Donald Trump. The last comment Trump made about California, for which he has no great affection, was to criticize our habit of converting grass lawns into Zen gardens in order to save water. How Newsom’s call went is anyone’s guess, but Trump’s tweeting about the fires yesterday suggests he got the President’s attention.

Newsom takes over the governor’s seat from the venerable Democrat Jerry Brown, whose tenure had run to an almost Third World extent of four terms, in two sets of two, separated by a few decades out of office. The first two were in the Eighties, when the Dead Kennedys skewered his governing style in the immortal ‘California Über Alles.’

The operative word for Newsom is slick. It applies to his character, his background, and his hair, which is so liberally wetted with gel that he must be singlehandedly boosting California’s follicular products industry. Before a stint as mayor of San Francisco, where he gained favor as an early adopter of gay marriage, Newsom rose to prominence in Hollywood. There, he was taken under the wing of the Getty family, oil magnates whose name crowns two museums in the Los Angeles area.

Last winter, one of the Getty museums, the modern art museum known colloquially as the ‘new Getty,’ narrowly escaped a fire which roared down a nearby canyon. Now, the museum of classical antiquity, the ‘old Getty,’ with its incomparable ancient bronzes and Neolithic artifacts lies, along with the rest of Malibu, in the path of the blaze whose smoke I see from my doorstep.

Newsom’s governorship is getting a baptism by fire, and the pressure is unlikely to let up. California’s fires are getting worse, through a combination of nightmare weather conditions and extensive development in hilly or marginal areas which are sometimes difficult to defend from the flames. Right now, California has yet to receive its first winter rains, so the landscape lies like a tinderbox, thick with dry brush.

Add to this the advent of that most infamous of Southern Californian weather phenomena, the Santa Ana winds, as eulogized by Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler. Hot, dry blasts from the Mojave Desert whoosh down the mountains towards the sea, sweeping over the densely populated coast. Evening is generally cool this time of year, but when the Santa Anas blow it is sickly warm, but more with foreboding than comfort. These winds are guaranteed to turn anything, even a dropped match or an untended campfire, into a whirling inferno.

Californians will be carefully evaluating Newsom’s reaction to the latest disaster. Especially here in Ventura County, just west and north of Los Angeles. This county was hit especially hard in last year’s fires. Over 400 homes were destroyed in my hometown of Ventura, and the flames charred the city’s symbolic two trees which stood on a hill above town. When the winter rains finally came, the bare, blackened ground gave way in landslides that killed a former high school classmate.

If Newsom’s administration can find ways to stem the bleeding, then he will bolster his state’s case to serve as a model for the rest of blue America — and bolster his own case for the presidency in 2024, should Trump win a second term. But if the Golden State continues to wither under a hail of flames and bullets, not to mention the scourges of homelessness, poverty, budget woes, scarce housing and anemic transportation networks, then Newsom and his state will struggle to win support for their cause. As for Newsom himself, he should do his best to steer clear of the fires. I hear hair gel is quite flammable.

Nick Burns works at the Hoover Institution, and writes for The New Criterion.

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