Californians Paid $400 Million Just to Say No

State Belches in Relief after Gavin Newsom’s Most Expensive Dinner

Credit: Office of the Governor of California

How Do You Spell R-E-L-I-E-F: I’d like to say I knew it would play out like this all along. But like a lot of people, I was hugely relieved that what we told ourselves “couldn’t happen” actually didn’t. For a change.

Along the way, however, more than $120 million in campaign donations got picked from the pockets of the unholy, and taxpayers will be on the hook for $278 million just to maintain ​— ​and no doubt reinforce ​— ​the status quo. 

I’ve never been a huge fan of Gavin Newsom. Maybe it’s the hair, or maybe I can’t get over the fact he was briefly married to Kimberly Guilfoyle ​— ​operatic shriek and harridan of the right, not to mention Don Junior’s main squeeze. But the stubborn fact is Newsom’s done a better-than-decent job trying to navigate a state big enough to be five separate countries through a minefield of insanely impossible disasters ​— ​COVID, wildfires, drought, homelessness, and housing ​— ​all exploding simultaneously.

It’s worth remembering that this recall campaign started in Yolo County at the kitchen table of a retired sheriff’s deputy, angry that Newsom unilaterally declared he would not authorize any executions under his watch. It probably wouldn’t have gone very far had Newsom not been caught at the high-priced restaurant The French Laundry, celebrating the birthday of his über-lobbyist buddy Jason Kinney ​— ​whose firm, incidentally, represents Santa Barbara’s most respectable cannabis operators ​— ​maskless in the time of pandemic. 

Just two days after what will go down as the most expensive dinner party in the history of eternity, a judge gave organizers of the recall drive an additional four months in which to collect their signatures. But for these back-to-back events ​— ​each one the equivalent of an inside-the-park home run on an infield error ​— ​the recall would never have qualified.

Yet it did.

Welcome to California.

Making it all more improbable still was the emergence of right-wing radio provocateur Larry Elder, a Black man who in this election would become California’s standard bearer for White Grievance. In some upside-down, Bizarro, Mister Mxyzptlk universe, there’s something perversely politically correct ​— ​to use one of Elder’s favorite epithets ​— ​that in California, even our racists are diverse.

Among Elder’s bigger backers is sometimes-Santa Barbara resident, gazillionaire real-estate tycoon, and bad-boy developer Geoff Palmer, known to cavort about on the polo ponies when not otherwise ensconced in that palatial oceanfront netherworld lying between Summerland and Carpinteria. At last count, Palmer donated $1.2 million to Elder and gave another couple hundred thousand to the recall campaign. Depending on what numbers you use, Palmer ​— ​who also calls Malibu, Aspen, and St. Tropez home ​— ​either raised or donated more than $10 million for Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations. I’m betting Palmer’s presence here had everything to do with Elder’s egg-free stopover in Santa Barbara last week. 

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Palmer was born and bred in L.A. ​— ​the son of an architect and developer ​— ​and today owns or has built anywhere from 11,000 to 15,000 housing units in greater L.A. He is reported to be worth in the ballpark of $3 billion. Not bad. 

Palmer has a rare genius for infuriating people who care about housing affordability, planning, neighborhood character, taste, preservation, gentrification, and tenants. He has big, white teeth.

His massive downtown structures ​— ​frequently described as faux Italian fortresses with names like the Da Vinci, the Medici, and the Orsini ​— ​are built right up against the nearest freeway, where land is relatively cheap. Critics have dubbed these “black lung lofts.” Some properties feature land bridges that hover above the sidewalks, designed so tenants can move from one building wing to the next without having to mingle with the homeless people on the sidewalks below. When the Los Angeles Planning Commission said no to this, Palmer got the City Council to vote yes. 

His properties ​— ​many of which turn hermetically away from the surrounding neighborhood ​— ​usually come jammed with every known amenity: basketball courts, movie theaters, and any goodies that fulfill a young USC student’s dream.

When it comes to the politics of housing, Palmer has never pretended to be kind. In rare public statements, Palmer has derided housing requirements that set aside a small percent of total units for people who can’t pay market rates as both immoral and un-American. When the City of Los Angeles refused to back off, Palmer took the city to court and won, thus undermining the legal basis by which local governments can mandate such affordability requirements in rental housing.

A couple of years back, Palmer and his empire were sued in a sprawling class action lawsuit claiming he systematically strip-mined the security deposits of his tenants, holding on to their money without an adequate accounting for why. Most recently, Palmer just sued the City of Los Angeles for $100 million, charging the emergency eviction protections that Los Angeles ​— ​like every city in the state ​— ​adopted in response to the pandemic constituted an illegal “taking” by the government without just compensation.

One of the ironies here is that Gavin Newsom ​— ​the governor Palmer tried to recall ​— ​had put $5.2 billion in the state budget to help compensate landlords for lost rent. But those funds were earmarked for landlords of low-income tenants. Palmer, as his critics have been quick to point out, may have hoisted himself by his own petard, having succeeded in keeping low-income tenants out of his skyline properties. 

In the meantime, I found it reassuring that 65 percent of my neighbors saw fit to reject the recall. In Ventura County, it went down by 59 percent. In San Luis Obispo, 58 percent voted no. 

But in Yolo County ​— ​where it all started ​— ​it was rejected by 75 percent.

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