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Dan Walters: French Laundry flap spotlights Capitol insiders
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Calmatters Commentary

Dan Walters: French Laundry flap spotlights Capitol insiders

From the What you need to know for Friday, November 20 series
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Dan Walters: Prop 13, and a conflict 42 years in the making

Walters, Dan

Twenty-two years ago, on the day after Gray Davis was elected governor of California, I hopped aboard a Southwest Airlines plane bound for Los Angeles.

I was heading south for Davis’ morning-after press conference and I was not alone. Several journalists and other Capitol figures were on the plane, including the man sitting across the aisle, a lobbyist for public employee unions.

The lobbyist was in an ebullient mood as we chatted. His union clients had helped Davis weather a very rough patch in his 1998 campaign for governor, when he faced two multi-millionaire rivals in the Democratic primary and needed all the money he could get.

The lobbyist was literally rubbing his hands gleefully, expecting that his tight relationship with Davis would automatically bring him a cornucopia of new clients and their fees. And he was not wrong about that, as later became evident.

I cite this instance because of the flap over Gov. Gavin Newsom’s attendance at a birthday party this month for lobbyist Jason Kinney, a veteran political consultant and a long-time Newsom friend who founded a lobbying firm, Axiom Advisors, shortly after Newsom was elected in 2018.

Kinney’s 50th birthday was celebrated with a lavish dinner party at French Laundry, a very expensive Napa restaurant, and Newsom and his wife, Jennifer, attended even though it was the sort of gathering that Newsom had often discouraged to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the Newsoms’ attendance, its bad political optics forced the governor to apologize profusely, saying on Monday, “I shouldn’t have been there, I should have turned back around. And so when that happens, you gotta pay the price, but you also gotta own the mistake and you don’t ever make it again.”

The French Laundry incident, which reverberated loudly on social media as an example of political hypocrisy, also put the spotlight on Kinney — a former speech writer for Gray Davis, incidentally — and his instantaneously lucrative lobbying practice.

As Politico pointed out in a quickly reported and written article, “Axiom reaped $10.9 million worth of lobbying work in 2019-20, the first legislative session during which Newsom was governor.”

The firm has nine lobbyists and more than 80 clients, most of whom are corporate entities or coalitions who in Capitol politics would be jousting with interests, such as unions and environmental groups, associated with Newsom’s Democratic Party.

“Some of Axiom’s clients highlight Kinney’s overlapping roles. Kidney dialysis firms DaVita and Fresenius paid Axiom $475,000 this session,” Politico reported. “During the same period, Kinney earned $90,000 from the California Democratic Party, which spent money to pass a labor-backed initiative regulating kidney dialysis. DaVita and Fresenius were the measure’s principal opponents.

“The single most remunerative client for Axiom in the last two years has been Marathon Petroleum, giving Kinney’s firm $525,000 worth of business. Marathon is a member of a powerful oil industry organization that battled proposals to ban hydraulic fracturing; Newsom called on the Legislature earlier this year to send him a fracking ban.”

Political decisions can have immense financial consequences and when conflicts arise, it’s prudent to have someone on retainer with a seat at the table in the back room where those decisions are made.

The lobbyist with whom I chatted with 22 years ago still has a lobbying firm and dozens of clients who pay him more than $4 million a year. In real world politics, one must pay to play with lobbying fees and campaign contributions. Rightly or wrongly, it is what it is.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's state Capitol works and why it matters.

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In my town, “Divorce Court” is in Department 13 of our Superior Court. It is an appropriately numbered, bad luck, sad place. If you believe that rooms and buildings can possess a spirit, then those of Department 13 are tormented, as are so many of the people waiting for their cases to be called.

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