Newsom recall unlikely — but simmering

Gov. Newsom at a 2019 briefing in Sacramento. (Photo: Associated Press)

A perfect storm of events is giving Gov. Gavin Newsom political headaches, and he is yet again the subject of a recall movement that claims to have already collected more than 800,000 signatures.

Backers of the recall have until  March 17, 2021 – a Superior Court judge last month gave them an extension — to collect at least 1,495,709 verified signatures on petitions. That number, required by law, is equal to 12% of the vote for governor in 2018. They say they want to collect 2,000,000 signatures for insurance, and claim they have 5,000 volunteer petition circulators.

It marks the sixth attempt by various Republicans to oust Newsom – the other five fizzled. Few veteran political observers give this one any chance of success, either, although California politics is full of surprises.

“I’m very skeptical,” said veteran political strategist Rob Stutzman. “The effort is real, and they say they have 800,000 signatures and want two million, but it would take millions of dollars to get all the signatures they need. Who’s going to fund that?”

And as the political fallout continues from the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a difficult economy, a widening fraud scandal in state jobless benefits and the governor’s maskless dinner at a posh Napa Valley eatery, recall proponents feel they are getting some traction, especially among Trump voters, and that several groups were getting involved in the effort.

“Finding a Trump voter in this state who would be unwilling to sign a recall petition would be a tough job,” Ann Hyde, the founder of Newport Beach-based Capitol Campaigns, noted in a Nov. 19 pitch letter to potential backers.  “The Davis recall in 2003 had several independent committees working to gather petitions, and that result is history. Will history repeat itself?”

Historically, the recall backers face daunting odds: Since 1913, there have been 165 attempted recalls of state elected officials, a third of them targeting the governor.  Ten made the ballot, six were successful.

The only governor recalled was Gray Davis in 2003, a year after his reelection. A Democrat, Davis was tarnished by his handling of the meltdown of California’s deregulated energy market, among other things, and replaced by movie action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, who served until January 2011.

Schwarzenegger himself survived at least four recall efforts in 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009.

The Davis recall initially was funded by Republican Darrell Issa, who had hoped to become governor. Issa later went to Congress, left, then was elected last month to the 50th District, replacing scandal-plagued Duncan Hunter Jr.

The Newsom recall proponents have a list of 32 grievances against the governor, including: “Granting Clemency for Felons,” “The Highest Homeless Rate in the Nation,” “Infringement of our 2nd Amendment Rights,”“Countless new Gun and Ammo Laws,” “Sanctuary State for Illegals and Criminals,”“Highest State Income Tax in the Nation,” “Highest Poverty Rate in the Nation,” and “Highest Vehicle Registration Costs in the Nation,” among others.

“Are you tired of being locked up, unable to make a living, at the same time as California’s prisons are being emptied? Did you struggle to run a business, even before this lockdown, because of overregulation and the highest taxes in America? … Are you troubled by encroachments on your 2nd Amendment rights, threatening your ability to purchase a firearm to protect yourself, especially now?”

Newsom issued a high-pitched, all-caps rebuttal, tying the recall effort to the hugely-unpopular-in-California Donald Trump:

“WARNING: THIS UNWARRANTED RECALL EFFORT WILL COST CALIFORNIA TAXPAYERS 81 MILLION DOLLARS! IT IS BEING PUSHED BY POLITICAL EXTREMISTS SUPPORTING PRESIDENT TRUMP’S HATEFUL ATTACKS ON CALIFORNIA …  a handful of partisan activists supporting President Trump and his dangerous agenda to divide America are trying to overturn the definitive will of California voters and bring Washington’s broken government to California with this recall effort. The last thing California needs is another wasteful special election, supported by those who demonize California’s people and attack California’s values …”

The recall effort comes as Newsom has had to contend with a confluence of potential political disasters:

–The state’s pandemic-fueled unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent. The pandemic continues to kill thousands of Californians, with lockdowns and social distancing across the state, causing months-long disruptions of normal life.

–The state Employment Development Department muffed distribution of emergency pandemic unemployment aid to jobless Californians; then, on top of that, reporters disclosed that state prison and local jail inmates had fraudulently claimed perhaps $1 billion in EDD benefits. A report Tuesday in the Sacramento Bee, citing a letter from the Bank of America, said the scope of the fraud may be $2 billion, twice the earlier estimate.

–Previous hours-long waits at the Department of Motor Vehicles, generating teeth-gnashing and continued dislike of the DMV.

–The Nov. 6 maskless dinner party with lobbyists at the French Laundry restaurant in the wine country, which happened at the same time that the governor was pushing mask-wearing and stay-at-home policies; the disclosure immediately triggered accusations of hypocrisy.

A photograph of the dinner was seen across the state and Newsom apologized, but the damage was done.

“He has hypocritically dictated COVID-19 rules prohibiting gatherings of family and friends without social distancing and without wearing masks,” wrote Joe Rouleau, an opinion columnist for The Tribune of San Luis Obispo, “after which he himself attended a birthday party where the attendees did not follow social distancing and where no one was wearing a mask. In effect, he exempts himself, but issues ’rules for thee, but not for me.’”

Newson is no stranger to eyebrow-raising. He first gained national attention in 2004, when as mayor of San Francisco he ordered the city to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The marriage licenses were nullified six months later but the battle ended with the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing gay marriages in 2015.

“I had no right to do this,” Newsom told The Mercury News in a February 2018 interview.  “We didn’t have the formal authority. But we tried to exercise our moral authority and challenge the laws.”

Newson gained less-welcome attention when it was revealed that he had had an affair with his appointments secretary and the wife of his campaign manager and friend. It made little difference to voters: He won election overwhelmingly to a second term with 72 percent of the vote.

Newsom has also been part of  a bizarre political pretzel.

While serving as a San Francisco supervisor in 2001, he married glamorous attorney/model/onetime actress Kimberly Guilfoyle. The couple was described as the “New Kennedys.”  They divorced in 2006 and Guilfoyle, the former wife of an up-and-coming liberal Democrat, became a supporter of Donald Trump and the girlfriend of Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr.

Recall efforts are not new in California. The secretary of state’s office reports that over more than a century there have been been 54 attempts to recall a sitting California governor.

Three recall efforts were made against Gov. Ronald Reagan and Gov. Pat Brown. The most recall attempts — eight — targeting a statewide official were against state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, a Jerry Brown appointee.  She fended off the recall efforts but ultimately was rejected in her confirmation election and left office in January 1987.

Newsom has been riding high in the polls. He won election in 2018 with 61.9% of the vote. An Oct. 6 poll from by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies showed that 64% of likely California voters approve of the job Newsom has done. Thirty-six percent disapproved.

While the polls disclosed some dissatisfaction about Newsom’s  efforts to address homelessness and high housing costs in the state, nearly 50% of those surveyed said Newsom has done a good or excellent job with the public health crisis.  A new PPIC poll showing public support for Newsom’s policies was released today.

Despite those high polls, the recent series of problems and a perception of increasing restlessness among voters still in home lockdown, some Republican politicians are harboring thoughts of running for governor.

Foremost among them is former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, usually described as a  Republican moderate, who describes Newsom as out-of-touch. He told told KPBS in San Diego that he was contemplating a run for governor.

“Well, I am giving it serious consideration, and I’ve really tried to set the tone as mayor,” Faulconer said.

The list also includes San Diego County businessman John Cox, who was swamped in a 2018 effort.


Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: