A Housing Is A Human Right investigation reveals the behind-the-scenes connections between Gov. Gavin Newsom, the No on Proposition 21 campaign, and his close friend and advisor Jason Kinney. Going against the California Democratic Party and the state’s housing justice movement, Newsom actively opposed Prop 21, playing a key role in the defeat of the statewide initiative.
Prop 21 was the November ballot measure that sought to expand rent control in California and urgently address the housing affordability and homelessness crises. AIDS Healthcare Foundation and Housing Is A Human Right, the housing advocacy division of AHF, spearheaded the Yes on Prop 21 campaign.
More than 340 civic leaders, unions, social justice groups, and housing justice and political organizations endorsed Prop 21, including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and the California Democratic Party. California’s housing justice movement strongly supported the initiative.
The need for stable, affordable housing in California took on added urgency this election year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. People must have shelter to stay safe and healthy, but are struggling to pay high rents due to unemployment or less work hours caused by the pandemic. Renters throughout the state are now facing the life-altering prospect of eviction and homelessness.
Despite these crises, Newsom went against the California Democratic Party, numerous Democratic elected officials, and housing justice activists by opposing Prop 21. Newsom’s active role within the No on Prop 21 campaign surprised activists, but a recent controversy involving the governor sheds light on what may have prompted it.
Ten days after Prop 21 was defeated, Newsom made national headlines for attending an ill-conceived party for his friend Jason Kinney, a high-powered lobbyist. The San Francisco Chronicle broke the story.
“Gov. Gavin Newsom attended a birthday party for a political adviser last week that included people from several households,” the paper reported on Nov. 13, “the type of gathering his administration has discouraged during the coronavirus pandemic.”
The San Francisco Chronicle further noted: “The dinner the night of Nov. 6 at the famed French Laundry in Yountville in Napa County brought together at least 12 people to celebrate the 50th birthday party of Jason Kinney, a longtime friend and adviser to Newsom who is also a partner at the lobbying firm Axiom Advisors.”
According to state filings examined by Housing Is A Human Right, Axiom Advisors represented Californians for Safe and Affordable Housing, a nonprofit in San Rafael. The nonprofit’s 2018 tax form, however, shows that it is run by “principal officer” Steven S. Lucas, a partner at Nielsen Merksamer, a powerhouse law firm and lobbying group. Additionally, Californians for Safe and Affordable Housing and Nielsen Merksamer share the same mailing address.
Californians for Safe and Affordable Housing is clearly helmed by Nielsen Merksamer, and, according to state filings, the nonprofit was a client of Axiom Advisors. Enter Proposition 21.
Nielsen Merksamer was a paid consultant for No on Prop 21: Californians for Responsible Housing sponsored by the California Apartment Association, the lead No on 21 committee that raised $74.3 million from such corporate landlords as Essex Property Trust, Equity Residential, and AvalonBay Communities. According to state filings, Nielsen Merksamer received a hefty $902,030 from Californians for Responsible Housing.
Working relationships among power brokers never die in Sacramento. Old alliances — such as the one between Axiom Advisors and Nielsen Merksamer — are renewed by a simple phone call. With the California Democratic Party solidly endorsing Prop 21, the No on Prop 21 campaign needed to counter with a prominent Democrat. Newsom, a close friend of Axiom Advisors partner Jason Kinney, whose firm worked with No on Prop 21 consultant Nielsen Merksamer, came to the rescue.
In September 2020, Newsom publicly opposed Prop 21. He not only released a statement, but the governor allowed himself to be featured in a misleading No on Prop 21 TV ad and on the No on Prop 21 website — both paid for by Californians for Responsible Housing sponsored by the California Apartment Association. In California, high-level political connections can make the difference between victory and defeat. By November, with Newsom’s active help, Prop 21 lost at the polls — and struggling tenants wouldn’t get the expansion of rent control that they needed and hoped for.
California’s housing justice movement is now watching Newsom closely. Will he once again side with corporate landlords and their high-priced lobbyists and try to pass housing legislation that will benefit Big Real Estate first and foremost? Or will the governor push forward strong renter protections and community-based solutions that help tenants? So far, activists remain skeptical that Newsom will do the right thing for California’s 17 million renters.
Patrick Range McDonald is the award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right.