Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the press in Alameda on March 16, 2021.
(Anne Wernikoff / CalMatters)
Civic Life

Newsom returns to public eye after sudden absence sparks social media speculation

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s attendance at a Monterey event on Tuesday was his first appearance in public since Oct. 27 and came after he abruptly canceled his trip to the world climate summit in Scotland last week.

For the past two weeks, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has done something that’s very out of character: He’s stayed out of the public eye.

That ended Tuesday when he took part in an economic summit in Monterey, the first official event he’s attended since Oct. 27, and marking the end of an absence that sparked several days of social media chatter and criticism.

In his opening remarks, Newsom blamed a grueling schedule for taking a toll on his family, telling the audience that his four young children staged “kind of an intervention” during a family dinner before he and his wife, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, were scheduled to travel to the United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland.

“Mom and Dad missing Halloween. For them, it’s worse than ... missing Christmas,” Newsom said during an interview at the 2021 California Economic Summit, sponsored by California Forward. “I woke up that next morning with something that’s probably familiar to a lot of parents, that knot in your stomach. I had no damn choice. I had to cancel that trip.”

After a taxing 20 months leading the state through a global pandemic and a victorious — though some of his confidants say discomfiting — recall election layered on top of a busy legislative session and bill-signing period, a break in public events might go unnoticed for other California public officials.

But not for a governor who often appears to crave the spotlight and incited speculation by remaining silent after abruptly canceling an opportunity to tout his and the state’s environmental achievements on the world stage last week.

The questions about his absence rose to such a crest that the governor’s office finally had to make a public effort to tamp it down starting Monday afternoon.

“Last week Governor Newsom worked in the Capitol with staff on urgent issues including COVID-19 vaccines for kids, boosters, ports, the forthcoming state budget and California’s continued economic recovery. He will have public events this week related to the economy and vaccines,” Daniel Lopez, the governor’s press secretary, said in a statement.

Newsom backed out of the trip to Scotland just four days after announcing he would lead a California delegation to the ongoing climate conference, citing “family obligations.”

The governor’s office has not provided any additional details in the following weeks despite repeated inquires by the news media. Newsom chose instead to break his silence in a comfortable setting, speaking onstage during the Monterey event with his former top economic advisor, Lenny Mendonca.

“I’ve been on this damn treadmill. We’ve gone from crisis to crisis,” Newsom said.

The break, Newsom said, allowed him to go trick-or-treating with his kids, who range from 5 to 12 years old, watch all of them play in a Sacramento soccer tournament and bring them with him to work at the state Capitol last week.

While at work, the governor said, he was focused on the supply chain woes triggered in part by shipping gridlock at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, as well as ways his administration could encourage more Californians to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and plan for a potential winter surge in cases.

Newsom’s public absence began the day after he received a COVID-19 booster shot in Oakland on Oct. 27, surrounded by supporters and reporters. The timing left room for COVID-19 vaccine critics and skeptics to question whether he had an adverse reaction.

“Governor Newsom has repeatedly assured that vaccines are safe. Given the rumors swirling around about the timing of his disappearance (right after getting the booster), I hope he emerges soon to explain his absence, and I hope that’s he’s healthy,” state Sen. Melissa Melendez wrote Monday in a post on Twitter. Melendez is one of a handful of legislators who have declined to disclose their vaccination status.

Members of the governor’s staff asserted to The Times on several occasions over the last two weeks that he did not have an adverse reaction to the booster shot and that neither he nor his wife had COVID-19. Two of Newsom’s children, though, tested positive for COVID-19 in September.

“I think we’d all do well, taking some time away from social media. It’s just a hell of a thing,” Newsom said.

The governor’s wife vented on Twitter on Sunday night in an apparent reply to some of the clamor, telling critics to “get a life.” She deleted the tweet minutes later.

“It’s funny how certain folks can’t handle truth. When someone cancels something, maybe they’re just in the office working; maybe in their free time they’re at home with their family, at their kids’ sports matches, or dining out with their wife. Please stop hating and get a life,” Siebel Newsom wrote in the since-deleted post.

Jessica Levinson, director of Loyola Law School’s Public Service Institute, said that Newsom has been in politics long enough to know that the vague explanation he initially gave for canceling his trip to the U.N. Climate summit was going to unleash a wave of wild conjecture.

“It just feels like an unforced error,” Levinson said. “He had the opportunity to control the narrative. He knows that we all descend into speculation and wild conjecture and baseless rumors and that if he didn’t give an explanation, that was going to happen.”

Levinson said Newsom and his family deserve a degree of privacy but that, from the beginning, he should have been more transparent as the leader of the largest state in the nation, home to close to 40 million people, amid a deadly pandemic.

“He has an incredibly important job,” Levinson said. “He’s not a private person.”

The speculation over the governor’s whereabouts sparked heightened interest on social media in last weekend’s high society nuptials of Ivy Getty, the great-granddaughter of J. Paul Getty, to photographer Tobias Engel at San Francisco City Hall on Saturday. Photographs published by Vogue magazine appear to show Newsom and his wife attending the event — leading to a Fox News headline that said, “Newsom disappears for more than a week, reportedly pops up at oil heiress’ wedding.”

Newsom was scheduled to return home to California before the wedding and could have attended regardless. But some details of the governor’s itinerary appeared to change Tuesday after Newsom said the climate conference would have required him to miss Halloween with his kids.

The decision to cancel his overseas trip came after several, high-stress months for the 54-year-old governor. Newsom easily beat back a Republican-led effort to recall him from office after zigzagging across the state denouncing the effort as the handiwork of hardcore supporters of former President Donald Trump and anti-vaccination activists.

The day after the Sept. 14 recall election, he began a six-week stretch of more than a dozen press conferences, bouncing between the Bay Area and Los Angeles with stops in Fresno, Orange County, Merced and Sequoia National Park. The events were to highlight his administration’s response to the pandemic and encourage Californians to seek vaccinations as well as a tour of the Huntington Beach oil spill and to tout dozens of new bills he was signing into law.

One of Newsom’s persistent critics, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin), appeared to attack the governor no matter what he did. Kiley was among the 46 candidates who ran to replace Newsom in the recall election, receiving 3.5% of the vote.

On Oct. 27, Kiley criticized Newsom for going to Scotland in the first place: “Why are Governor Newsom and 15 Legislators going to Scotland as the crisis at our ports threatens the U.S. economy?” he wrote on Twitter.

The day Newsom canceled his plans to go overseas, Kiley appeared to take credit in another posting: “Following my criticism, Governor Newsom has suddenly canceled his trip to Scotland for the UN Climate conference.”

On Sunday, Kiley took another swipe, with caveats: “I don’t know where Gavin Newsom is and won’t speculate. But it’s pretty strange for the Governor to disappear for 11 days without explanation.”

Newsom’s absence from the public stage may have attracted attention, in part, because of the way he has approached the duties of being governor. Previous governors have chosen a different path.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown would frequently carry out his duties behind closed doors, choosing to invite the media to only a handful of events that were designed to help sell his policy agenda.

Most days, Brown would quietly do his job — both in Sacramento and in discreet visits to communities where he would meet with local officials. Brown, who attended a Jesuit seminary as a young man and spent nearly half a century in California politics, enjoyed his role as an elder statesman and appeared more drawn to contemplation than adulation.

Other governors, most notably former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, were more visible than Brown. But they, too, occasionally stepped away from the spotlight and took vacations during periods when the Legislature was in recess.

Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.