SAN FRANCISCO — Not every political operative can celebrate their 50th birthday with the governor of America’s most populous state during a pandemic.
Not every political operative is Jason Kinney.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is weathering a ferocious backlash for his decision to attend a celebration for Kinney on Nov. 6 at the French Laundry, a bucket list-level dining icon in Napa County. After the private dinner was exposed by the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsom said that while the outdoor meal did not violate coronavirus restrictions, he showed poor judgment in attending. He reiterated that point in a public apology on Monday, saying it went against the spirit of state rules as coronavirus cases surge across California.
While the meal amplified criticism of Newsom’s coronavirus management, with the governor parrying accusations of hypocrisy, it also cast a brighter spotlight on Kinney and the dual clout he wields in the insular world of California politics.
The longtime California Democratic politics fixer has had a hand in both winning campaigns and influencing policy. He was chief speechwriter for Gov. Gray Davis, served for years as a senior strategist for Senate Democrats and has long counseled Newsom politically. He continues to advise Newsom on politics even as his lucrative, newly launched lobbying firm works on bills that could land on Newsom’s desk.
Kinney is not the first California political operative to blur the line between politics and policy. The doors between campaigns, administrations and Sacramento’s lobbying corps have long swung open for people with contacts and experience to leverage.
“He's got some deep roots in government. Like any successful lobbyist, he uses those to his advantage because he's smart,” said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic operative who has also worked both for the California government and for the interest groups that seek to sway it. “Any special interest hires the best talent they can get and that was the decision they made with Jason.”
The governor and Kinney have a relationship extending back decades. In apologizing for attending, Newsom referred to Kinney on Monday as “a friend that I have known for almost 20 years.”
But the fact that Kinney, a registered lobbyist, got an intimate audience with Newsom immediately raised questions about conflicts of interest. Newsom said he paid for his meal, so it did not qualify as a lobbying payment.
“Newsom's got to bend over backwards and not give him any favors,” said Bob Stern, the architect of California’s campaign finance laws. “People are going to be watching what Newsom does in terms of Kinney clients now.”
While Kinney worked on Newsom’s transition team and has continued to counsel the governor, he has also launched a lobbying shop, Axiom Advisors, whose client list included major California players that spend heavily to influence state policy. Axiom reaped $10.9 million worth of lobbying work in 2019-20, the first legislative session during which Newsom was governor.
Some of Axiom’s clients highlight Kinney’s overlapping roles. Kidney dialysis firms DaVita and Fresenius paid Axiom $475,000 this session. 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.
Not all Axiom clients are major corporations; some are just desperate to get through to the governor for survival. Theme parks have been trying to get the governor's ear this year to reopen attractions during coronavirus. Three smaller amusement park operators — Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, San Diego Coaster Co., and Santa Monica Amusements — hired Axiom on Oct. 1, right as Newsom officials were discussing reopening rules. The state ultimately issued guidelines last month that allowed the Boardwalk and other smaller parks to operate, though the recent coronavirus surge has forced the closure of rides again.
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.
“The thing that is so powerful about this luxury dinner story is that Newsom also risked the lives of Californians by violating his own Covid recommendations to party with the same oil lobbyist,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Center, which is planning a lawsuit over the state's issuance of oil and gas well permits. “There's just so many ways that ordinary people are suffering such incredible pain,” she added, “and it just shows his hypocrisy to be partying with an oil lobbyist in the middle of this. It's just inexcusable.”
This would not be the first time Kinney has faced scrutiny over his work. In 2013, the California Fair Political Practices Commission fined Kinney $12,000 for failing to disclose lobbying activity despite having communicated with lawmakers on behalf of a developer.
After Kinney served as a spokesperson for Proposition 64, the 2016 Newsom-championed ballot initiative to legalize recreational cannabis use, prominent cannabis companies hired Kinney's political firm. Some critics assailed it as an example of cashing in on insider influence, with cannabis companies more likely to patronize Kinney given his connections to the future governor.
An Axiom spokesperson for Kinney did not comment for this story.
Despite wide condemnations of Newsom’s presence at the dinner, several lobbyists and strategists said Kinney could still reap the benefits. Conflict-of-interest concerns aside, the episode demonstrates that Kinney retains Newsom’s ear during a time of extremely limited in-person access to people in power. The buzz this weekend among lobbyists was how Kinney couldn't have asked for better advertising of his close ties to Newsom.
“All publicity is good publicity,” Maviglio said, and reporting on the dinner “revealed his presence in Newsom's inner circle. That is very important to many interests in Sacramento. I worked with Jason for five years, and he's had a lot of negative stories on him, and he seems to be doing quite well.”