A recent conference held at a luxury resort in Maui and attended by several California state legislators has stirred controversy amid increasingly strict guidelines meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus as cases spike across the state.
The Independent Voter Project Business and Leadership Conference is held annually and has been reported to be an opportunity for lobbyists to hobnob with policy makers, by publications like the Sacramento Bee and the San Fransisco Chronicle. Executive Director Dan Howle of Independent Voter Project (IVP), which hosts the event, shot back against this characterization on Fox News. While he acknowledged “the optics are bad,” he claimed the gathering is vital for developing solutions on the state and local level for reopening businesses amid the pandemic, the event’s purported focus this year.
The event which has been held for 18 years, is hosted by the Independent Voter Project. The nonprofit organization came to prominence when it successfully sponsored Proposition 14 in 2010, a state constitutional amendment that created nonpartisan primaries for non-presidential elections. Its current board of directors includes former Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster. They are funded by a host of corporate donors including Koch Industries, Molina Healthcare, SoCalGas, Pfizer, and California Real Estate PAC, according to the organization’s website.
On Friday, November 13, governors in Washington, Oregon, and California issued travel advisories “urg(ing) against non-essential out-of-state travel.” Governor Gavin Newsom noted that California had surpassed “a sobering threshold (of) one million COVID-19 cases” in a press release announcing the advisory.
Newsom has himself been the target of criticism recently following the release of pictures showing the governor attending a lavish in-door dinner. While not prohibited at the time, Newsom had been discouraging Californians from attending similar functions. He issued a statement shortly thereafter saying he regretted his decision to attend the dinner.
Assembly Member Chad Mayes (I-Yucca Valley) defended his decision to attend the conference, citing its educational benefits and Hawaii’s Safe Travels program which mandates a negative test result for coronavirus within 72 hours of arrival. He claimed attendants have been wearing masks and maintaining social distance.
So which Long Beach and Signal Hill representatives decided to make the trip to Hawaii?
Senator Lena Gonzales took to Twitter stating “I have 3 kids on distance learning and 3 committees (this week) – one of which revolves around this Global Pandemic we’re facing.”
“So no, sorry,” she added. “Not in Maui.”
I have 3 kids on distance learning and 3 committees (this week) – one of which revolves around this Global Pandemic we’re facing…so no, sorry, not in Maui. And this is me…getting a COVID-19 test to be safe…👇🏽#livingthedream pic.twitter.com/Tnign3pmB2
— Lena Gonzalez (@SenGonzalez_33) November 19, 2020
Attempts to reach representatives of Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell to confirm whether he attended the conference were unsuccessful. Similar inquiries by multiple publications were also unsuccessful. Campaign finance records show that lodging was paid for by O’Donnell’s campaign to attend last year’s conference.
In a Facebook post, Long Beach Councilmember Jeannine Pearce publicly asked O’Donnell whether or not he was in Hawaii.
“(We’re) waiting for answers,” she said, linking a Politico article on the controversy.
On Thursday, November 19, O’Donnell did make a post on Twitter stating he was a “COVID-19 survivor” before touting the importance of preparation for school reopenings once infection rates drop. He has since deleted the post.
Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-North Long Beach) confirmed that he is in Hawaii in order to learn more about Hawaii’s handling of the pandemic.
“Hawaii’s strict laws protected the lives of their residents and we could learn from them,” read a statement from Gipson given to Politico.
Requests for comment from Mike Gipson’s state Capitol office were not returned as of press time.
Representatives with Senator Tom Umberg (D-East Long Beach) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-North Long Beach) both confirmed that the two officials did not attend the conference.
Senator Steven Bradford (D-West Long Beach) told the Signal Tribune that he was not invited and would likely not have attended had he been invited due to “where we’re at with the pandemic.” He did, however, defend the utility of the conference which he attended in 2011 calling it an opportunity for lawmakers to interface with stakeholders in the private sector and fellow legislators across the county. He noted a long standing relationship with Harris, Texas County Commissioner Rodney Ellis.
“We talk on a regular basis,” he said, “But it would never have happened if we didn’t meet in Hawaii.”
O’Donnell told the Long Beach Post earlier this month that he would “absolutely” consider running for Mayor of Long Beach if current Mayor Robert Garcia vacated the seat to join the President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration. They also reported that Long Beach Councilmember Rex Richardson is likewise considering a run in the event of a Garcia departure.
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that the dinner attended by Governor Newsom was in violation of health guidelines. The event was permissible as of November 6 in Napa County, the date and location of the event.