By Alexei Koseff, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
November 23, 2020
SACRAMENTO - When he dined at the French Laundry in Yountville this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom enjoyed not only fine cuisine at a three-star Michelin restaurant, but also the company of several influential figures with regular business before his administration.
The event, since it was first reported by The Chronicle, has highlighted the close ties and revolving door of government that make Sacramento turn, frustrating those who can't be in the room where it happens.
Jason Kinney, a longtime friend and political adviser to Newsom whose birthday he was celebrating at the dinner, is a partner at the lobbying and consulting firm Axiom Advisors. Formed following Newsom's election in 2018, the company has pulled in nearly $11 million from dozens of powerful clients, ranging from the construction industry to Facebook and Netflix.
Photos of the dinner published last Tuesday by the Fox television station in Los Angeles also show Dustin Corcoran and Janus Norman, the chief executive officer and the top lobbyist, respectively, for the California Medical Association, which represents doctors at the state Capitol.
The blurred lines between personal relationships and professional influence are not illegal nor unique to Newsom. For decades, California politicos have cycled through campaigns, administration posts and lobbying gigs where they cash in on those connections. During Gov. Gray Davis' tenure, his fundraiser Darius Anderson opened the hottest new lobbying shop in town, and when Davis was replaced by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a firm founded by his campaign manager, Bob White, gained enormous influence.
But the dinner provided the public with a stark look at what is often an amorphous sense of the role of money and influence in politics, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. It's the kind of moment that can leave people disillusioned with government and feeling as though they lack true access to their representatives.
"Connections are currency and currency is power," Levinson said. "It's the equivalent of a big sign to the public that says, 'You're not welcome at this table.'"
Newsom apologized Nov. 16 for attending the dinner party, acknowledging it was a "bad mistake" and emphasizing that Kinney has been a friend for almost 20 years. A spokesperson for Kinney referred back to his original statement calling the event an intimate dinner "with family and a few close friends." A spokesperson for the California Medical Association declined to discuss the role that personal relationships play in the organization's advocacy.
"Governor Newsom has been successful throughout a two-decade-long public career because he makes decisions in the interest of the public good," Nathan Click, communications director for the governor, said in a statement. "For him, it's all about good public policy, and he's never hesitated to say no to organizations and individuals he has long relationships with when their priorities run counter to the public good."
Critics who have felt their agendas stymied at the Capitol immediately jumped on the party as a symbol of what's wrong with the system.
Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group that has been locked in a long-running battle with doctors over the limit for medical malpractice settlements, called on Newsom to meet with one of the patients supporting their 2022 ballot measure to raise the compensation cap. Their requests for a meeting with the governor have been denied twice in the past year, the group said. The opposition campaign to that initiative, which is funded primarily by the medical association, has paid Axiom Advisors at least $95,000 so far this year.
Kinney has attracted particular attention because he wears so many hats around Sacramento.
A former speechwriter for Davis and strategist for the Democratic caucus of the state Senate, Kinney continued to advise Newsom even as his list of lobbying clients grew. He served as a spokesperson for Newsom's 2016 initiative to legalize recreational marijuana and led his transition into the governor's office two years ago. Another Kinney firm, California Majority Group, received $50,000 earlier this year to work on the campaign for an unsuccessful school bond backed by the governor.
Kinney, who is not registered to represent the California Medical Association, became a poster boy for the type of shadow influence that pervades Sacramento when he was fined by state regulators in 2013 for lobbying without registering.
Environmental groups frustrated by Newsom's hesitation to curb oil drilling in the state, despite his rhetoric about a "climate damn emergency," have noted that Axiom represents two major oil-industry clients, including Aera Energy, a Bakersfield-based oil exploration company jointly owned by Shell and ExxonMobil. Christina Sistrunk, the president and CEO, was appointed to Newsom's economic recovery task force during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, said her organization has tracked nearly 1,000 state permits issued to Aera this year to drill new wells or rework existing ones. That includes dozens of permits for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial well stimulation method that involves injecting fluid at high pressure into the ground to loosen natural gas or oil deposits and which releases large amounts of greenhouse gases. Since California ended a nine-month pause on new fracking permits in April, Aera has received 48 of the 68 approved permits; among 57 denied applications, only 3 are from Aera.
While environmentalists have urged Newsom to ban fracking, just as they did his predecessor Gov. Jerry Brown, the governor punted the issue to the Legislature this fall.
"Is he going to stand up for Californians, or is he going to keep partying with his oil industry lobbyist friend and exposing people to pollution?" Siegel said.
Some in the cannabis industry are also disheartened by the Newsom administration's lax enforcement against another Axiom client, Weedmaps, the online marijuana shop directory and marketplace that has repeatedly come under fire for advertising unlicensed dispensaries. Jerred Kiloh, a dispensary owner in Los Angeles and president of the United Cannabis Business Association, said Weedmaps has undermined the legal market Newsom helped create by giving a platform to underground competitors that can charge lower prices.
Newsom's office said it used a new law giving regulators the ability to fine unlicensed operators up to $30,000 per day, to force Weedmaps to commit last year to purging unlicensed advertisers from its site.
But complaints persist that illegal sellers on the site are using fake license numbers or falsely portraying themselves as a different type of business. Kiloh questioned whether Kinney had persuaded Newsom not to ramp up pressure on Weedmaps to better police itself.
"This is the lowest-hanging fruit for enforcement," Kiloh said. "I don't understand why a government wouldn't try to stabilize the industry for this new emerging taxpayer, especially when the head of the snake is so obvious."
Nevertheless, even those with a close relationship to the governor don't always get their way.
The California Medical Association, a persistent power player in Sacramento, operates in some of the same political circles as Newsom. Jim DeBoo, who lobbies for the organization, is another political adviser to the governor who worked on the failed school bond campaign this year. At least two staff members in Newsom's office are former lobbyists for the medical association: chief deputy legislative affairs secretary Stuart Thompson and chief deputy appointments secretary Morgan Carvajal.
But in September, Newsom signed a bill granting nurse practitioners authority to practice without a doctor's supervision - a proposal the medical association fought against for nearly a decade and that sat at the top of its kill list this session.