Newsom Brought Former Presidential Photographer on China Trip, Stuck CA Taxpayers With the Bill

A few days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom returned from his trip to China, many political watchers in the state are still trying to figure out exactly what the trip was. From Gavin’s perspective, it was a massive success because he was making deals with one of the world’s most powerful leaders on the topic he believes is the most pressing challenge facing humanity – climate change. From the perspective of many watchers, it was an odd combination of gaffes and tone-deaf words, photos, and messaging. It was so terrible that it’s difficult to believe that professional strategists were paid big money to orchestrate it all.

Now we’re learning that one professional who went on the trip with Newsom is a “former photojournalist with extensive experience covering the White House” and who was paid – via a state contract – $5,000 for seven days of freelance work.

That’s right; despite vowing that the trip didn’t cost the taxpayers anything (which anyone who knows economics knows is bunk, because some of his employees were there with him and we have the opportunity cost of not having the governor in the state, although many of us are OK with that), taxpayer funds paid for his private photographer.

Politico broke the story; their write-up is quite good and by reading between the lines it’s obvious that there’s some concern that Newsom’s not as self-aware as he should be in these situations and is hurting himself. 

But ironically, it was those over-the-top press materials — and his inability to resist the glamour shot — that revealed both his humanity and his fallibility.

Newsom brought along a former photojournalist with extensive experience covering the White House for the trip: Charles Ommanney, a British-born, San Francisco-based photographer, who’s got an eye for the compelling image. (Presumably wanting the photos to speak for themselves, Ommanney declined an interview.)

Ommanney spent decades as an international war photographer and years documenting U.S. presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama, whom he photographed with his shoes up on the desk in his early days in the Oval Office.

Over the past five months, Ommanney has been freelancing for Newsom, though the pictures the governor’s team shared were uncredited, which his team says is standard protocol. His rate, which is paid for with a contract through the state, is $5,000 a month for seven days and $1,500 for any additional days, though the team says he rarely exceeds a week. (His travel in China, as Newsom’s and the rest of his staff on the trip, was paid for by the California State Protocol Foundation, a nonprofit that takes money from donors and to which Newsom gave over $3 million since 2019 from his inaugural committee funds.)

He’s been freelancing for Newsom for the past five months, at a minimum of $5,000/month?

This episode is maddening. California taxpayers are paying for what will likely end up being all of Newsom’s campaign materials, whether for U.S. Senate or POTUS, and he defends it. 

When asked about his decision to hire a photographer with presidential cred, Newsom cast himself in a humble light. “I may be the only governor that literally was doing selfies, at best, in the last five years. We had no one, literally no one in the office that took pictures,” he said. He mentioned someone had given him Arnold Schwarzenegger’s high-gloss coffee table book, Seven Years, documenting his predecessor’s time as a governor. “It’s beautiful,” said Newsom, and it inspired him as he thought about how his own time in office is captured: “It would be nice to memorialize,” he said. “It’s storytelling, it’s not just the written word.” As such, some of Ommanney’s photos from the trip cast Newsom as a leader in the California style — Hollywood, like another of California’s notable presidential exports.

“It’s nice to finally have someone that knows how to take pictures,” Newsom said.

Not, he added hastily, “that Tonya [my social media director] and my interns didn’t know how.”

It’s nice to finally have someone that knows how to take pictures? There he goes again, with his delusions of grandeur and lack of self-awareness (two things that often go together).

A good friend of mine once observed that there are two types of parody films – there are films like “Tropic Thunder,” which were intended as parody from the start, and there are films like “Showgirls,” which were intended as serious films but go off the rails and become parodies. When it comes to Gavin Newsom’s China trip, it’s clear that it’s firmly in the “Showgirls” camp.

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