I left California and moved to Florida.
After 14 transformational years in Los Angeles, where my wife Lindsey and I built careers, bought a house, got married and had three kids, we decided to pack up and relocate. And we're not alone. California's approach to the pandemic made life harder than ever before.
I've reported extensively on California's policies, from the expensive and unreliable energy grid to the aggressive taxation and regulation, from the draconian lockdowns that permanently damaged small businesses and kept children out of school for longer than anywhere else, to the failure of city leaders to cope with the nation's worst homelessness and mental crises. I've seen it all firsthand. But my main reasons for moving aren't political; they're personal.
California: I still love you. Sometimes I don't feel it. But I really do.
Fourteen years ago, my future wife's Honda Accord hustled us 2,400 miles in three days so that she could make it for a job interview in Los Angeles. We left behind friends, family, and Florida—trading the swamps of the Sunshine State for the glamour of Hollywood. We memorialized the moment with blurry digital photos snapped from the car window.
We soaked in the famous SoCal weather, so consistently pleasant that it spoils you for the rest of the world. We gawked at the natural beauty, and gorged ourselves on the rich, variegated culture of Los Angeles—a city packed full of people creative, daring, and delusional enough to follow their dreams.
My kids are all California natives and life here on balance was good to them. They trounced through mountain streams in the Sierras, hid inside centenarian redwoods, splashed at the edge of the vast, cold Pacific, played and learned alongside other kids from around the world, learned how to count in Mandarin, greet in Spanish, and express their gratitude in Korean.
Then things started to change, both for us and in the world.
On March 19, 2020, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the nation's first statewide stay-at-home order. As the dynamism of L.A. ground to a halt, the smog cleared, the birds chirped, and we would see and hear our surroundings in a way we never had before. It made us look at California differently, the upsides and downsides each coming into sharper focus.
The rolling blackouts are more unsettling and the wildfire smoke more oppressive when you're already stuck in your house or forced to wear a mask once you step outside. Newsom blames climate change, but his policies matter too. The forests weren't properly managed, and the increasingly solar- and wind-dependent grid is fragile. And Newsom hastened the closure of California's last nuclear plant. When Germany closed all of theirs, emissions went up, and so did prices.
My oldest son was still in preschool last year, largely sparing him the frustration and social isolation of remote learning that so many kids experienced in 2020. But it was disturbing to watch California keep its schools closed long after other countries and states were demonstrating that safe in-person schooling was possible—the governor's own kids attended private school in-person while most public schools campuses stayed empty. The powerful teacher's unions used their position to extract hundreds of millions of additional dollars during the shutdown, and L.A.'s union issued a list of demands that included a wealth tax, Medicare for All, and a ban on all new charter schools. School is back now, but with mandatory weekly testing, social distancing, mandatory masking for even the fully vaccinated, and vaccine mandates for all eligible kids.
The signs of poverty and desperation in the streets, already bad before COVID, only got worse as L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's underperforming $1.2 billion plan to build homeless housing completely stalled, and the city faced a violent crime and homicide spike. I voted for and still support sentencing reform, believe no person should be jailed for drugs, and think we need a social safety net for those who can't take care of themselves. But a city needs the rule of law and safe public spaces to function, and many of California's big cities are failing on those fronts.
The city's cultural and culinary life nearly died as we sheltered in place. It's coming back—in its own socially distanced, masked, and mandatory vaccine-verified way—but for many small businesses there will be no second life. Shutting down outdoor dining without any grounding in "science, evidence, or logic," (as one judge ruling against the forced closures put it) ended the California dream for many restaurateurs.
And yet California's political class seems more secure than ever. L.A.'s mayor failed up by getting a U.S. ambassadorship. The governor survived the recall easily, and the Democratic supermajority is rushing to make future recalls an impossibility.
And when one party rules, those who've captured that party often make the rules: teachers unions, firefighter unions, prison guard unions, state service employees unions. Public sector unions feed public money and power to themselves so they can continually increase that power and influence, allowing them to feed more money and power to themselves.
As my moving date drew closer, however, I felt a blissful detachment from California politics. When your voice goes unheard, it's sometimes better to head for the exit.
But, again, my move isn't all about politics. If it were, perhaps I'd be in New Hampshire right now, surrounded by like-minded people.
Most of life isn't about politics, thankfully. There are people I love are in Florida, and they're getting older, as am I. And it's a new world, with new rules, where you can more easily live and work from where you want.
I still love you, California. I made my career, my home, and my family there.
I'll miss California because, despite politics, it's still a spectacularly beautiful, diverse, and strange land, where the waves meet the mountains, where people follow their dreams or lose their minds, or both.
But I've returned now to this humid peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. It's familiar, but not quite the same as before. I'll have a lot more say about this place with terrifying reptiles, COVID contrarianism, and a lightning-rod governor who plays by different rules both for good and for ill.
"As goes California, so goes the nation," Newsom once said, following the state supreme court's legalization of same-sex marriage. Is that still true, or is it Texas now? Or is the importance of geography simply diminished in the networked age? Is Florida the future?
I don't know. But it is mine.
Produced, edited, and shot by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Isaac Reese. Additional footage shot by Paul Detrick.
Photos: Xinhua/Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; William Perugini/Westend61 GmbH/Newscom; Robin Utrecht/SIPA/Newscom; Cody Williams/FLICKR Creative Commons 2.0 Generic; Raquel Natalicchio/ZUMA Press/Newscom.
Sound effects licensed from soundslikewillem under a Creative Commons license.