On Thursday, California lawmakers who are attending the Independent Voter Project conference at the Fairmont Kea Lani on the island of Maui in Hawaii have begun defending their decision to go.
Many of the lawmakers, who have been identified as Republicans, Democrats, and Independents from both houses, have been severely criticized by many in California for attending the annual junket due to skyrocketing COVID-19 rates in the state and Governor Gavin Newsom moving most Californian Counties to the highest COVID-19 tier. With many Californian lawmakers already facing mounting scrutiny for ignoring COVID-19 guidelines, most notably Governor Newsom himself, the decision to travel while both California and Hawaii have 14 day quarantines has raised many questions as to whether the junket trip was even necessary, if not potentially harmful health and safety-wise.
The Independent Voter Project has refused to name those who are attending the conference, which is being held at the $500 a night Fairmont Kea Lani Hotel in Wailea. As of Thursday, the following California lawmakers have been confirmed to have gone to Maui for the conference:
Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals)
Wendy Carillo (D-Los Angeles)
Jordan Cunningham (R-Paso Robles)
Heath Flora (R-Ripon)
Mike Gipson (D-Carson)
Chad Mayes (I-Yucca Valley)
Jose Medina (D-Riverside)
Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park)
Andreas Borgas (R-Modesto)
Bill Dodd (D-Napa)
Many of the lawmakers, as well as the conference host, have defended the conference, noting that health and safety measures against COVID-19 have been observed, including passing a COVID-19 test before going.
“This event promotes intelligent public policy in our state,” said Assemblyman Cunningham in a Wednesday statement. “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.”
Other lawmakers expressed similar reasons, including noting that they were paying for the trip themselves, and not at the expense of the host or taxpayer.
“The blanket response to Covid-19 does not work for small businesses, schools, and working families in rural California,” said Assemblyman Bigelow in a statement. ‘I am paying for myself to be here, following the strictest Covid-19 safety protocols, and tested negative to Covid-19 just prior to my arrival.”
Assemblywoman Carillo also commented, Tweeting “Yes, I am currently in Hawaii for a 4-day bipartisan conference focused on reopening our economy during COVID-19. This trip is not funded through tax-payers dollars.
“If any of this created any mixed messages or caused confusion, let me apologize.”
My statement on attending the Independent Voter Project policy conference focused on re-opening our economy. This statement was shared with the press. pic.twitter.com/6rplXHsWZy
— Wendy Carrillo (@AsmCarrillo) November 19, 2020
Outrage continues over the lawmakers Hawaii conference
However, these statements have done little to quell the growing outrage over their actions.
“They’re supposed to be setting examples and showing what Californians should be doing during a lockdown,” noted San Diego political analyst and former lobbyist William Thompson to the Globe. Thompson also informed the Globe that he had been to similar conferences before.
“Look at what they’re saying. Some of them confirmed bringing family with them. There’s been suspicious denials of taxpayer money funding the trip without anyone asking. For junkets or fact-finding missions, those are legitimate ways of having the trip be paid by either who the junket is for or the taxpayer respectively. But them going out like this, it’s pointing to this being more of a vacation.”
“And it would have been more forgiving if this was an isolated location. But no. It is in Hawaii, a state that is even more locked down than California. And, you know, what is that telling Californians? Vacations to places with a lot of people are okay now? The Independent Voter Project should have canceled this or made it a Zoom event. But they didn’t, and these lawmakers decided to go anyway. Honestly, how dare they.”
The taxpayer and consumer watchdog group, Consumer Watchdog, also chastised the move.
“In normal times it is an abuse of office to have oil, utility and other big companies that lobby in the Capitol paying for an Hawaiian getaway replete with golf, hula show and mai tais,” Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court said on Wednesday. “In COVID times, it is an abomination that legislators would break quarantine to play in the sun at a four-star resort.
“You can have a discussion about opening safely on Zoom if you don’t care about the golf, the beach and the mai tais. This has and will always be a world-class junket. This year it’s also a lethal one that shows disrespect for the quarantine and those hunkering down to do the right thing.”
In response, many Republican and Democratic lawmakers denied being in Hawaii, giving visual and physical proof through social media during the week. Among them was Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) who immediately sent a tweet of himself at a Sacramento Starbucks to a Twitter user asking lawmakers where they were at.
Starbucks by the Capitol receipt is the best I can do at the moment. 😂 pic.twitter.com/DcoMOU7APx
— Ash Kalra 🌱 (@Ash_Kalra) November 17, 2020
The conference on Maui, which is also being attended by state lawmakers from Texas and Washington state, is expected to run through Thursday, with many expected to stay behind for a time to adhere to state quarantine laws.