Over the past week, Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she plans to run for governor of California has been treated mostly as a joke. For political reporters like Guy Marzorati, though, this is serious stuff. He says Jenner may not be the typical candidate, but this gubernatorial race? It’s not the typical election. It’s a recall—a referendum on the current governor, Gavin Newsom.
And facing an election challenge from a reality TV star is just the next step in a process Guy Marzorati, who is a reporter and producer on KQED’s politics and government desk, has been tracking for months. On Monday’s episode of What Next, we spoke to Marzorati about how we got here and why California is about to launch a surprise election for governor. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: So let’s go back and talk about how this recall effort succeeded, or at least got to the point where there’s going to be an election. We don’t really know what’s going to happen there, of course. Was it driven by the pandemic in some way or something else?
Guy Marzorati: The actual petition itself was filed before COVID-19 hit California. The recall was launched in February of 2020. If you read the recall petition, there’s no mention of anything coronavirus-related. It’s really just a litany of grievances against Newsom, his liberal governance on the death penalty, criminal justice, immigration. And for months, this recall petition lagged along, really didn’t look like it had any chance of qualifying. And it wasn’t until it got this extension from a superior court judge giving the campaign four extra months to collect signatures that it really took off.
When did it start to look like this recall effort actually had a chance?
I’m pretty sure we’re going to be hearing about this day in California history books in years to come: Nov. 6. Newsom, that evening, goes out to dinner at this fancy restaurant in Napa Valley, the French Laundry. It doesn’t come out for a couple of weeks, but he’s photographed in a group sitting maskless. He’s discouraging Californians of different households from getting together, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.
It’s just a bad look.
Yeah, it was a bad look. He wasn’t at a family restaurant or an In-N-Out. He’s at this fancy Napa Valley restaurant. On that same day, Nov. 6 is when a judge gave the recall campaign a four-month extension to keep collecting signatures, saying, basically, it’s been hard to reach people during the pandemic and get voter signatures. Those two events, more than anything, drove this to the ballot
Has the French Laundry become a joke in California? Like I noticed that KABC, the radio station, has a little radio show called Friday Night at the French Laundry.
Yeah, there’s no other symbol like the French Laundry. It’s become associated with the recall campaign and the campaign to get Newsom out of office. It was funny: Just the other day, my politics desk colleagues and I drove up to the French Laundry, and we witnessed some recall tourism going on. It does play into what critics of Newsom have long thought: He’s this wealthy, entitled San Franciscan. It’s interesting because he does have a dueling image of his background. He was raised by a single mom who is far from wealthy. He started his own business. But he also has this other part of his history where he grew up around the elite Bay Area families. He made his money as a wine merchant. He’s immersed in San Francisco political circles. It’s that latter image that this French Laundry dinner really reinforced for critics of is.
Democrats in California and folks who work with Newsom have made an effort to paint the people behind this recall effort as aligned with the people who rioted in the Capitol on Jan. 6. Is that fair? Like, who are the people who are behind this effort?
The petition was originally pushed by Orrin Heatlie, who is a former sheriff’s deputy from the northern part of the state. And early on in the campaign, a lot of the Facebook groups that he was trying to work with to spread the word about the recall did include some of these super far-right groups, extremist groups.
If anything, it speaks to the ragtag band of folks who put this together. It was really a grassroots effort. These weren’t establishment Republicans. It was only in late 2020, as this gained momentum, that the original group turned to more traditional Republican operatives in the state for help. I didn’t cover the recall folks at the very beginning of their effort. I don’t even think it registered. It really wasn’t until later in the year when this started gaining traction, we started seeing that the signature tallies pile up, that it was like, Wow, this really does have some legs.
Now, the other part of what you ask, which is about whether this is an illegitimate way to seize power— is this a power grab or some way of stealing the governorship? Voters have not responded as well to that. There’s polling where even people who say they oppose the recall will say this is legitimate. This is a legitimate process that exists in California, that’s been with us since 1911. This is a way for people to voice their displeasure at the governor. And early messaging from the Democratic Party here, saying, “They’re stealing the governorship” was widely rebuked. So it’s a fine line between those two messages that I think we’re going to hear from the Newsom campaign.
Earlier this year, we did a show about the possibility that Gavin Newsom might be facing a recall. And at the time, the reporter we talked to, she seemed kind of amazed at the breadth of people who were angry at the governor. Can you take us back then?
It’s really within that four-month window that things absolutely snowballed for Newsom. Cases here spiked to an incredible level. Even as they declined, there was really no plan to reopen schools, which ultimately became a rallying cry against Newsom. You had businesses that had temporarily reopened during the early fall having to close their doors once again around the holidays. Add on top of that separate scandals that the governor was dealing with at the unemployment development department, where there was a lot of fraud going on. It all came together. And so by early this year, there was just more concentrated anger against Newsom than there really ever had been. The question is how far beyond the concentrated anger does this frustration go?
You’ve said you think of this recall effort as a bit of a time capsule. The 1.6 million people who signed on might not be as keen to see Newsom gone now as they were a few months back. That’s because so many signatures rolled in as COVID peaked in California. People were angry, and they were expressing themselves as best they could. But the recall pressure has actually changed the way Newsom governed, too, right?
I don’t think Newsome governed with the sense of urgency until this recall was really staring him down. Schools is the perfect example of that. Last summer, Newsom and the Legislature basically allowed distance learning to continue for this next school year. And he seemed in no rush, even in September, October, when cases were incredibly low in much of California, to get kids back in the classroom. It was totally left to local districts. And in some large urban districts that resulted in gridlock.
Newsom just stood away from it. There wasn’t a statewide plan. It wasn’t until the pressure of the recall happened that he really changed his tune on the school reopenings. And in January, he came out with a plan to reopen schools. The Legislature ultimately sent billions of dollars to local school districts to try to convince them to reopen.
That’s interesting. You think it was because of the recall effort?
Absolutely. The political pressure on Newsom—whether it’s schools or whether it’s relaxation of some business restrictions—made him more responsive to concerns that he was hearing from the electorate. There was a stretch there in September, October, when cases had gone down, and California was being praised for its management of the pandemic, where there didn’t seem to be such urgency to bring kids back or bring businesses back. It felt like California was in a good place. Newsom had gained a lot of approval from the way he was handling things. There was no real need to change course. And I think this pressure that came from the recall campaign did influence how Newsom governed.
You’re talking about how Newsom kind of became the face of the coronavirus in California, and what you’re really talking about is the downside of that, which is when you put yourself out there as the guy who’s addressing this crisis, then you have to manage all the little details. Otherwise, you’re the guy who’s going to be held responsible
You’ve seen that in other states, too. I think it’s similar to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York, who also was on television every day giving briefings. And in the early days, that was really reassuring for a lot of voters what they were hearing from Newsom. He really took control of the state’s response. The Legislature handed him his executive authority and left the capitol.
They literally left the capitol?
They literally left. And during that time, when the Legislature was transitioning to operating remotely, Newsom really was the entire face of state government. And as you point out, he’s left holding the bag when things aren’t going well. So in the summer, when we did start to see a spike in cases and then obviously the huge spike that we saw this last winter, he was the face of not only that but also school response, response for small businesses, the issues with the unemployment in the state.
Our episode a couple of months back on Newsom was called “Why Is Everyone Mad at Gavin Newsom?” But is everyone still mad at Gavin Newsom now?
No, I don’t think everyone is still mad. You have to look at how the coronaviruses played out in the state. We now have the lowest positivity rate in the country. State rates have gone really far down. The vaccination effort has really ramped up in the state. Ultimately, and this will play a huge role in the recall, people seem to identify how they feel about Newsom on a particular issue along a Democratic-Republican split. So if you look at some of the polling, the percentage of folks in California who disapprove of how Newsom handled schools and is handling school reopenings is around 40 percent. The percentage who disapprove of how he’s handling businesses is around 40 percent. The percentage who would support a recall is around 40 percent. And by the way, the percentage of voters who voted against Newsom in 2018 is around 40 percent.
It’s like the more things change the more things stay the same.
It’s all contained around that percentage. People might have certain frustrations. But ultimately the public polling that’s been done finds that anger at Newsom on any issue is really tied in line with support for the recall. And it’s really the percentage we see for any GOP-led effort here in the state.
If people are familiar with California’s recall process at all, they’ll remember the last time a governor was recalled. That’s Gray Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced him. Can we talk about what might be the same or different this time around?
A huge difference is that really did not fall along partisan lines. Gray Davis was largely very unpopular in the state among certainly Republicans but also Democrats. And Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, while he’s a Republican, had his own brand, was running as a singular celebrity. It divorced the whole recall process from Democrat vs. Republican. It really became about Gray Davis, his unpopularity, and then Schwarzenegger and his popularity. And I don’t think so far you’ve seen that this time around. There hasn’t been that kind of celebrity like Schwarzenegger who has gotten into the race. And largely, as I mentioned, voter views around Newsom are really partisan at this point.
That said, Newsom would be the first to admit this: It’s a dangerous place to be, right? As a politician, you’re on the ballot. Suddenly there’s an inherent risk in anything you do. You’re one bad dinner reservation away from being back in the soup and having voters be angry at you. So for him, Newsom sees this certainly as like a danger. He’s on the ballot. Anything could happen between now and the fall. But so far, you haven’t seen it turn into the same dynamics that we saw in 2003.
Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts
Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.