Usually, the year after a presidential election is pretty quiet in California when it comes to high-profile political contests.
But this year Republicans have managed to make the Golden State a national battleground — and a fundraising juggernaut — with their recall fight against Gov. Gavin Newsom.
It may be a reach, but progressive Democrats had better wake up to the real intent of the recall: putting us on defense while the GOP continues its cynical efforts to reverse our progress on issues from immigrant rights and racial justice to climate change. If we get this right, we can use the recall to our advantage as we look ahead to the 2022 midterm elections.
The forces behind the recall are hoping it sucks up enough time and energy to keep progressives from focusing on the real and urgent policy issues confronting California
A lot of people think the recall election is about Covid — and, more specifically, the governor’s response. In fact, the recall petition first surfaced in February 2020 when there were just a handful of confirmed COVID cases in the U.S. And this is the sixth recall petition filed against the governor since he took office in 2019.
Like all the others, this recall has been filed for strictly political and partisan reasons. Read the petition, and you see it’s chock full of the standard right-wing Republican paranoia about taxes, immigration, and even “restricting parental rights.”
Here is what the recall is really about: With Gavin Newsom as their new boogeyman, the Republican party is raising millions off the recall effort to spend not just in California but nationally in their efforts to expand control of local and state offices and take back Congress in 2022. It’s no wonder that the biggest donors to the recall drive include the Republican National Committee and entities such as HUCK PAC, the pro-Trump fundraising committee created by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
Recall organizers will likely admit they face long odds in ending the governor’s tenure just one year before he was already scheduled to face voters. But you never know what can happen in a low-turnout, off-year election—and getting the governor out isn’t entirely the point.
In addition to using the election as a fundraising gambit, the forces behind it are hoping it sucks up enough time and energy to keep progressives from focusing on the real and urgent policy issues confronting California — like ensuring a healthy and equitable recovery from the pandemic, tackling the housing crisis, and taking serious action on climate change.
At its core, the recall election is an effort to diminish California’s role and influence by stoking division and taking progressives’ eyes off the prize of continued gains.
The Republican party knows and understands that California is a political bellwether for the country. As USC professor and author Manual Pastor has said, “California is America, only sooner.”
In the past decade, our state has led the way in adopting pro-immigrant policies that subsequently became law in other states. We have been a leader in the states in adopting climate policies focused on achieving real and lasting reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. And the list goes on. While progressives have not always been happy with Gov. Newsom and his predecessor, Jerry Brown, California has lived up to the title of Professor Pastor’s 2018 book: “State of Resistance.”
And with the Vice President, the Speaker of the House and other national Democratic leaders hailing from our state, the influence of California’s progressive values on national politics is hard to miss.
At its core, the recall election is an effort to diminish California’s role and influence by stoking division and taking progressives’ eyes off the prize of continued gains in the fight for equality and justice for all. As long as we’re fighting this fight, the recall’s organizers hope, we won’t be as deeply engaged in all the others that give conservatives fits — the ongoing fight against mass incarceration and for immigrant rights and expanding health care, among others.
In response to the recall, California’s progressives need to show we can do all these things at once. And we need to view 2021 as a dress rehearsal for the electoral work and organizing we will have to do in 2022.
It is ironic that a recall election initiated by right-wing and Republican forces will be decided in large part by Latinx voters and other voters of color living in emerging political battlegrounds like the Central Valley. Except when they’re key to an election, these voters are often forgotten by everyone—including Democrats.
Democrats need to give people of color in these vote-rich regions something to be excited about, something to vote for.
If you took a drive along I-5 or I-99 through the center of the state last year, you wouldn’t have known you were in a deep blue state. Billboards and radio ads touting Democratic candidates were few and far between, but right wing Republican signs were rampant. Meanwhile, the Republicans took back California congressional seats in 2020 by running candidates of color and making targeted appeals to people of color.
California Donor Table and our network of progressive donors have invested in these communities for over 10 years. We’ve built up civic engagement infrastructure that listens to and invests in building power in these communities. We’ve funded those organizations to help run and elect people from their regions. And we’ve funded them to work with their newly elected leaders to pass policies that make meaningful improvements to their standard of living.
Groups like Communities for a New California, Alliance San Diego, Orange County Civic Engagement Table, and Inland Empire United that have been critical in electing more progressive people of color to local office and California’s state Legislature, including Supervisors Nora Vargos and Terra Lawson-Remer in San Diego County, Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell and District Attorney George Gascón in L.A.County, Antioch City Councilmember Tamisha Torres-Walker, and the new Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gomez Reyes in the Inland Empire.
At the same time, we know that voters in these regions often feel cynical about the persistent lack of investment in and attention to their communities. Democrats need to give people of color in these vote-rich regions something to be excited about, something to vote for. Otherwise, the Republicans will find success in playing to their fears and distrust through cynical exploits like the 2021 recall election.
Republicans and the right wing are not interested in advancing policies that actually help struggling communities. Their path to victory lies in fomenting racism, xenophobia, misogyny and winning elections that only require a minority vote to do so.
For Democrats and progressives, the 2021 recall election in California should serve as a wake-up call. This is our chance to invest in, engage and organize communities we too often take for granted. Who controls Congress in 2022 will be decided by California voters. The 2021 recall is our chance to show we’re ready.
Editor’s Note: Tim Molina is a senior political strategist with the California Donor Table, a network of donors committed to building power in California’s communities of color and advocating for progressive political change. firstname.lastname@example.org