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I voted against Gavin Newsom’s recall but can no longer be silent about his hypocrisy

SF Gate logo SF Gate 10/27/2021 Rebecca Bodenheimer
Gov. Gavin Newsom listens to speakers during a news conference at James Denman Middle School in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. © Jeff Chiu, AP

Gov. Gavin Newsom listens to speakers during a news conference at James Denman Middle School in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.

Since Gavin Newsom beat back the recall election by a landslide, there has been a lot of triumphalism about him in liberal and progressive circles. It’s very likely he’s paving the road for an eventual presidential run — despite his claims to the contrary — and that he’ll use his handling of the pandemic in the world’s fifth largest economy as proof of his efficacy as a leader.

But as a Californian and lifelong Democrat who voted against the recall, this celebration of Newsom glosses over a concerning pattern during the pandemic: He has consistently issued mandates (or failed to do so) that favor special interest groups who have donated large amounts of money to his campaigns. 

This week, Newsom appealed a judge's order to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for prison guards in California, despite the fact that in recent months, 48 outbreaks in prisons have been traced back to prison staff. There is only one possible explanation for this terrible decision to fight a vaccine mandate: The prison guards union contributed $1.5 million to help Newsom defeat the recall attempt. 

It’s also another example of his hypocrisy during this pandemic. Not only was he caught flouting his own restrictions (the French Laundry incident), as well as sending his kids to in-person private school while refusing to mandate public schools open last year — but he has consistently allowed major campaign donors to dictate his decisions. The California Teachers Association was the single biggest lobbyist in Sacramento in the past two years — and this is arguably why Newsom refused to fight harder for schools to open last spring. This also explains why California public school staff are still not subject to a strict vaccine mandate — they are allowed to test weekly in lieu of getting vaccinated

Notwithstanding the leniency with which Newsom has handled powerful unions, two weeks ago he announced the first statewide student vaccine mandate. Although it won't go into effect until the vaccine for each age group is officially approved by the FDA, teachers and staff won't be subject to a strict vaccine requirement until the student mandate takes effect. This decision makes little sense from a public health perspective; we have long had data that in-school transmission is low compared to the surrounding community, and that it is mostly adults responsible for spread. Moreover, kids are at an incredibly low risk of becoming seriously ill: Unvaccinated kids are still at far lower risk than vaccinated adults over the age of 60. There appears to be little question that it is adult vaccination that matters the most in terms of containing the spread of COVID-19.

Newsom's latest decision to put the health of California's incarcerated population at risk by appealing the prison guard vaccine mandate is yet another example of his tendency to put the agendas of powerful unions ahead of some of the most vulnerable members of society who don't have paid lobbyists (i.e., kids and incarcerated people).  

It’s frustrating to see fellow progressives remain silent about Newsom’s preferential politics — which contradict his and the Democratic Party’s rhetoric about standing up for the most marginalized members of our society. We should hold all powerful institutions and groups accountable — as well as the politicians that enable them — and not just give them a pass because they are organized labor and thus presumed to be sacred cows for progressives. 

Teachers unions have fought vaccine mandates all over the country in the past few months, despite holding up school reopening in California until vaccines were available. This hypocrisy hasn’t gone unnoticed by parents who were desperate to send their kids back to school last year. Yet when we openly critique this stance, we’re often labeled right-wing Trump supporters. I’ve seen few progressives willing to call out this opposition to vaccine mandates, despite doing the same thing when it comes to police unions, which generally support Republican politicians. This double standard exemplifies the way our country’s response to a public health crisis has been polarized along political lines, a toxic trend that largely hasn't been replicated in our peer countries in Europe and from which it will be very hard to recover.

While not the case across the U.S., public sector unions — whether teachers or health care workers or construction workers — hold a particularly large amount of power over California politics and leaders through campaign donations. They are not underdogs. Organized labor is an important counterbalance to the often unchecked power and bottom-line priorities of corporate America — and they’re particularly important in the context of disturbing wealth inequality. But any special interest group that wields power and influence deserves to be called out when it takes stances that contradict public health guidance.

Newsom’s latest decision is particularly illogical because incarcerated people are confined together in such close quarters, which aren’t known for their good hygiene, and their access to fresh air is limited. Almost 40% of California prison guards are unvaccinated, with that number skyrocketing to over 60% in some prisons. This mandate should be a no-brainer — yet Newsom is opposing it.

Newsom can’t expect Californians, particularly parents, to accept heavy restrictions and mandates for our children, the group least vulnerable to COVID-19 illness and transmission, while making exceptions for workers known to contribute to spread of the virus. That isn’t, as he likes to say, “following the science.”

Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer, Bay Area native and mom of two.

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