Newsom calls criticism of his Montana family vacation 'wrong and unfair'

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FILE - California Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, June 24, 2022. Gov. Newsom on Friday, July 1, pardoned Sara Kruzan, a former inmate who received a life sentence when she was a teenager for killing her former pimp, among nearly three dozens such actions that affected some other elderly and youthful offenders. Kruzan served 18 years in prison until Newsom's predecessor, then-Gov. Jerry Brown, allowed her release in 2013. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, shown at a June news conference, said his family's Fourth of July trip to visit in-laws in Montana was not state-funded. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom is pushing back on criticism and news stories about his family vacation to visit his in-laws in Montana for the Fourth of July.

A law then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2016 bans taxpayer-financed travel to Montana and other states with policies that discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. Among countless state and national headlines blasting the governor's visit to his in-law's ranch, FOX News dubbed it the latest example of Newsom "flouting his own state laws."

But some key details were overlooked, or dismissed, in the frenzy, Newsom said.

“My frustration with the reporting was it was expressed as a violation, but in fact, it wasn't and I thought that was wrong and unfair,” Newsom told The Times in an interview this week.

The family's travel was not paid for by the state, Newsom said. The law specifically allows state-funded travel for "the protection of public health, welfare or safety," an exemption that permits the state to pay for the California Highway Patrol security detail that joined the Newsoms and provides around-the-clock protection for governors and their families.

"It's a place you all know well because it's a place we go consistently," Newsom said. "It's the family home and it was on our dime. Now the security question, that's independent of me in every way, shape and form. But we paid for this trip and this is not a state-sponsored trip. That's the law. That's obvious and clear."

Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, married at her family's horse ranch in rural Montana in 2008 and named their first child after the state the following year. Before the pandemic, it wasn't uncommon for Newsom and his family to take annual trips to spend time with her parents.

The governor’s office discloses Newsom’s destination to reporters when he leaves the state for official business. His aides have been more hesitant to share details on the record about his personal vacations. His office did not publicly disclose his whereabouts the last time he visited his in-laws in July 2019.

Newsom said he isn't naive and understands that Californians have a right to know when he leaves the state. But he attempts to keep "some semblance of privacy" when necessary to protect his family.

“That is not an area where you walk around without consequences of being recognized in a world that's very divided,” Newsom said about his in-laws' Montana community. “I’ve got four kids and a wife. I love them. I care about them. I want to protect them and some of the stuff that got ginned up made for a more uncomfortable experience in an area where we're going to take a little more caution perhaps than others.”

Newsom said the story "took off in the ether that is our politics."

"He's right," said Steven Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant who worked for former Gov. Gray Davis. "In many instances the cover-up is worse than the crime, but there was no crime here. He visited his in-laws."

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rockin), who is running for Congress, was among the Republicans who criticized Newsom on Twitter and elsewhere for traveling to Montana, calling the governor a hypocrite.

"The reason Newsom tried to hide his whereabouts is that California bans state travel to Montana and 21 other red states deemed insufficiently woke for our 'enlightened' politicians. It’s an absurd policy that Newsom himself refuses to live with," Kiley stated on his campaign website. "In general, our politicians think they don’t have to live by the same rules as everyone else."

It's not the first time the governor's whereabouts have inspired social media interest.

Newsom's aides refuted claims in May 2020 that he was spotted in Montana in violation of California's stay-at-home order. Anti-vaccine activists spread false rumors that he suffered a reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine last fall when he took a two-week hiatus from the public eye after the recall election.

That kind of public fervor over elected officials is not unusual, particularly for a governor positioning himself as a leader of Democratic states and defender of rights that are under attack by conservatives.

Newsom repeatedly pushed back against the Trump administration during his first few two years in office. The governor and lawmakers pledged to pass new gun control legislation in response to Uvalde school shooting in Texas and make California a haven for women seeking abortions from other states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade.

Frustrated by what he considers a lack of leadership from the national Democratic Party, Newsom has taken it upon himself to launch an offensive against the right. Perhaps most notably, the governor began airing a television ad in Florida over the Fourth of July to troll Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state's Republican leaders.

Newsom plans to continue that battle this week in Washington, where he was traveling Tuesday to accept an innovation award from the Education Commission of the States and meet with congressional leaders and the Biden administration.

Newsom said the award gives him an "opportunity to compare and contrast" California's education reforms with red states that are banning books and forbidding teachers from talking about sexual orientation and gender identity.

"This is more suppression of free speech, more cultural war, and I think you compare that to preschool for all, after-school for all, summer school for all, opportunity for free meals regardless of income," Newsom said. "To me, that's real choice and that's real reform compared to pure performative politics and an extension of the cultural wars."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.