Several California lawmakers have confirmed they’ve traveled to Hawaii this week for the four-day annual Independent Voter Project’s policy conference — usually attended by lobbyists and industry representatives — despite the surge in COVID-19 cases throughout the country.
Assembly members Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, Heath Flora, R-Ripon, Mike Gipson, D-Carson, Jose Medina, D-Riverside, Chad Mayes, I-Yucca Valley, Blanca Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, and Senators Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, and Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said they had traveled this week to Maui for the summit.
In statements to The Sacramento Bee, Bigelow, Flora, Cunningham and Borgeas defended their decision to attend the event, and said they were learning valuable ways to safely reopen California’s economy during the pandemic. They confirmed they’d been tested before flying to Hawaii, which the state requires unless a visitor is prepared to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, and said they are following safety protocol.
“Yes, my family and I are in Hawaii for an annual, bipartisan policy conference,” Cunningham said in a statement. “This event promotes intelligent public policy in our state. In fact, we are here discussing ways we can safely reopen our society and save our small businesses, workers, and kids. We paid for my family’s tickets and COVID tests with personal money – no state funds were used.”
The Sacramento Bee contacted every lawmaker’s office to confirm whether members had made the trip, and reviewed previous financial records and reports to determine which legislators had attended the summit in years past.
As of Wednesday, the list of members who have not responded to multiple inquiries are: Senators Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, and Assembly members Bill Brough, R-Dana Point, Tom Daly, D-Anaheim, and Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove.
Carrillo wrote a tweet this week with a location tagged in Kihei, Hawaii, which Politico California first reported, close to where the conference is being held at the Fairmont Kea Lani resort. KRON4 News also reported that an eyewitness had seen Cooper on the island and that Cooper said he was attending a conference. Dodd told the Bay Area News Group that he was also on the island.
The legislators aren’t the only California elected officials who’ve recently had to come clean about their social plans.
On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an apology for attending a friend and political adviser’s 50th birthday party at a Napa County restaurant called French Laundry, known for its decadent meals that run into the hundreds of dollars.
Newsom reiterated his regret following the San Francisco Chronicle’s report of the Nov. 6 party during a press conference, saying he had “made a bad mistake.”
“The spirit of what I’m preaching all the time was contradictory,” Newsom said, “and I’ve got to own that, so I’m going to apologize to you.”
Dan Howle, chairman and executive director for the Independent Voter Project, defended his decision on Monday to move forward with the event, which he said is a third of its normal capacity this year. Not counting family members and other guests, about 50 participants are joining the panels, which Howle said are focusing on how to keep the economy humming during COVID-19.
“There’s a lot of different ideas about how we can get people’s businesses (open), about starting the process of bringing people back to some semblance of normal,” he said. “And because we have this long relationship with the hotel we agreed, let’s give this a try.”
The summit’s timing, however, couldn’t be worse. California’s positivity rate has surged to 5.3% over seven days, and public health officials have warned against non-essential and out-of-state traveling. Californians leaving the state are urged to quarantine for 14 days upon their return. Many across the nation are coming to terms with disappointment over missing Thanksgiving meals with their families and loved ones.
Borgeas added that despite alarming statistics that have pushed most California counties into the most restrictive reopening tier, it’d be a mistake to shutter the economy again.
“Blanket mandates by the Governor aren’t working for families, schools, and businesses in California,” Borgeas said.
The Independent Voter Project is a San Diego-based “nonpartisan” group best known for putting the 2008 initiative on California’s ballot to install the state’s top-two primary system. Held for more than a decade, the conference offers an opportunity for lawmakers to socialize at the beachside resort with lobbyists and other California politicos who have interest in state lawmaking.
Howle declined to confirm, other than with permission from Blanca Rubio, whether the legislators who had not responded to requests were in attendance. He said, however, that fewer than 20 members from a handful of states, including Washington and Texas, were there.
All participants, Howle added, are encouraged to get tested again within five days of their return, and to alert the group of a positive result.
Carrillo acknowledged public frustration around the event in a lengthy statement.
“For those that are confused or angry as to why I’m here, I can assure you that I took great precaution and thought regarding my attendance. I was informed that IVP is the first conference allowed and is being seen as a test as to what is possible. This helped inform my decision on what could be possible for California,” she said.