How Will the Gavin Newsom Recall End?

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S1: How how long have you covered California politics since 2013?

S2: That’s when I started at KQED.

S1: This is Guy Mazzotti. How do you like the sound of Governor Caitlyn Jenner?

S2: I think that that would take some getting used to government. Governor Caitlyn Jenner.

S1: Yeah, Caitlyn Jenner says she’s throwing her hat into the ring as a Republican candidate to oppose Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who’s facing over the last week Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she plans to run for governor of California has been treated mostly like a joke.

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S3: Come on, California, if you’re going to go with a member of the Kardashian family, Kim has the most experience. She’s studying for the bar exam and she managed to negotiate an exit strategy from the troubled region of West Kanye.

S1: For a political reporter like guy, though, this is serious, he says Jenner might not be the typical candidate, but this gubernatorial race is 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 one more step in a process she’s been tracking for months

S2: now on the recall website. They have one of those big thermometers like you would see for a fundraiser.

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S1: Oh, no.

S2: And as the signatures tally went up, it would go up and up on the thermometer. And it was really yeah, it was really in a short window of time between November and March where they were really able to, you know, collect, you know, hundreds of thousands of signatures to make this happen.

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S1: Are you surprised to find yourself here?

S2: Oh, yeah, definitely. I think we were all thinking of twenty twenty one is a year where we would not have to deal with elections. And so this was definitely a surprise. And I think it kind of just took a perfect storm of events for this to actually find its way to the ballot.

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S4: Today on the show,

S1: why California is about to launch a surprise election for governor. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. So let’s go into the Wayback Machine 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?

S2: The actual petition itself was filed before covid-19 hit California. It was filed the recall was launched in February of twenty twenty. If you read the actual recall petition, there’s no mention of anything coronavirus related. It’s really just a litany of grievances against Newsome, his liberal governance on the death penalty, criminal justice, immigration. And for months, this recall petition that kind of just 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 for extra months to collect signatures that it really took off

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S1: to understand this recall. It helps to know that recall petitions are really common in California. This is the sixth one to be filed against Gavin Newsom. But getting a petition to succeed, that’s a hard part. And while the pandemic wasn’t the reason this effort got started, Guy says there was this one day last fall when the recall and the covid pandemic collided, a moment when Gavin Newsom misfortunes started to change.

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S2: I’m pretty sure we’re going to be hearing about this day in California history books in years to come, November 6th. This is the week of the presidential election. Newsom that evening goes out to dinner at this fancy restaurant in Napa Valley, the French Laundry, and it doesn’t come out for a couple of weeks. But he’s photographed inter-group sitting Maskell’s. It’s a birthday party for a lobbyist and adviser who’s very close to Newsom. At the same time, he’s discouraging Californians of different households from getting together. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.

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S1: It’s just a bad luck.

S2: Yeah, it was a bad look. It wasn’t he wasn’t at a family restaurant or an in and out. He’s at this fancy Napa Valley restaurant on that same day, November 6th is when a judge gave the recall campaign an extension, a four month extension to keep collecting signatures, saying basically it’s been hard to reach people during the pandemic and get voter signatures. He gave them extra time. Those two events, more than anything, drove this to the ballot

S1: as the French Laundry kind of become a joke in California. Like I noticed that KBC, the radio station, they have a little radio show called Friday Night at the French Laundry.

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S5: Well, good evening, everybody, and welcome to Friday Nights at the French Laundry, the political show, which is always about California politics, with the main entree being the recall of our not so fabulous governor, Gavin Newsom.

S2: Yeah, there’s no other symbol like the French Laundry that’s become associated with the recall campaign and the campaign to 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 there was actually we witnessed some recall tourism going on. There were folks taking photos outside of the restaurant. And we were asking them, you know, what brought you here? They said, oh, this is this is where it all happened. We got to order what Newsom got. This is you know, this is why we’re here just taking photos outside of the sign in front of the restaurant. I think it does play into, you know, what critics of Newsom have long thought. You know, he’s this wealthy, entitled San Franciscan. It’s interesting because he he does kind of 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 was immersed in San Francisco political circles. I think it’s that latter image that this French Laundry dinner really reinforced for critics of his,

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S1: you know, Democrats in California and folks who work with Newsom have really made an effort to paint the people behind this recall effort as aligned with the people who rioted in the Capitol on January six. They’ve said, you know, this is a group of people who are doing something anti-democratic. And, you know, they’re just trying to get a Democrat out of office. They say stuff like, you know, this is how Republicans try to get power in California by by doing this kind of grab. Is that fair? Like, who are the people who are behind this effort?

S2: Well, the petition was originally pushed by Orrin Heatly, who is a former sheriff’s deputy from the northern part of the state. And early on in the campaign, he was associating with a lot of their Facebook groups that he was trying to work with to spread the word about the recall that did include some of these super far right groups, extremist groups. If anything, it speaks to kind of the the ragtag band of folks who put this together. It was really a grassroots effort. These. Weren’t kind of establishment Republicans. It was only in late in twenty twenty as this started seeming like, wow, we really have are getting a lot of momentum on the signatures that that original group turned to more traditional Republican operatives in the state and said, OK, can you help us put together a direct mail campaign where we’re sending petitions directly to Republican voters in the state? I didn’t cover the recall folks at the very beginning of their effort. I don’t even think it registered as like, oh, this is another petition. It was I don’t even I wasn’t even paying attention in February of twenty twenty when they started this effort, 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 asked, which is this idea of this is an illegitimate way to seize power. This is the power grab. This is some way 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 this is a steal they’re stealing. The governorship was widely rebuked. So it’s a kind of a fine line between those two messages that I think we’re going to hear from the Newsom campaign.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, back in January, 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? Because when I look at where we are now, it seems to me like that November six moment happens where Gavin Newsom is at the French Laundry and this extension takes place. And that’s that’s right. Before the coronavirus got really bad in California. And so it was a little bit of a perfect storm for Newsom of people getting angrier with him and then having this opportunity to voice that in this way.

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S2: 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 in September and October having to, you know, close their doors once again around the holidays, add on top of that kind of separate scandals that the governor was dealing with at the unemployment development department, where there’s, you know, there was a lot of fraud going on. I think it all kind of 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? It’s unclear at this point if voters really feel all that differently about Newsom as they did when he was elected in twenty eighteen or even before the pandemic. His approval rating is kind of about where it’s been. And it’s kind of unclear whether that really vociferous anger that that concentrated against Newsom can expand beyond kind of a 40 percent of the populous.

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S1: So I guess I keep asking myself this question, which is like, are you going to have a recall election because the folks who organized this petition did a good job, or is it because they benefited from this lucky break with an extension of the ability to get more signatures and kind of good timing? Or is it that Newsom here really made some mistakes that angered his supporters?

S2: Well, I think all of the above I don’t think this happens without that kind of lucky break of an extension. It also probably doesn’t happen without the kind of unforced errors you saw from Newsom, whether it was the French Laundry dinner. I think, honestly, his his outsized role in coronavirus response probably wore on some voters early in the pandemic. He was kind of out front on TV every day. He totally took control of how the state was managing the pandemic from the legislature. And over time, that could have worked on voters. That being said, it is still a pretty low threshold to get a recall on the ballot. And it’s unclear if beyond this kind of more partisan disdain for Newsom, it hasn’t really spread to a wider stretch of voters as it did in 2003, when the only other gubernatorial recall in California history took place and then Democrat Governor Gray Davis was removed from office.

S1: When we come back, how does this recall election compare to California’s last recall? Gamer’s already says the way he thinks about this recall effort is as a bit of a time capsule, what he means by that is the one point six million people who’ve signed on so far. They might not be as keen to see Governor 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. They were expressing themselves as best they could. But over the last few weeks, Guy says, the recall pressure has actually changed the way Gavin Newsom governed to.

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S2: I don’t think Newsom governed with the sense of urgency until this recall was really staring him down. And I think 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 really in no rush, even in September, October, when cases were incredibly low in much of California. There was no rush to get kids back in the classroom. It was totally left to local districts. And you saw in some large urban districts that resulted in gridlock. There were the districts just weren’t able to come to agreement with local teachers’ unions on ways to reopen. And Newsom just kind of stood away from it. There wasn’t a kind of statewide plan. He wasn’t out there advocating for reopenings. 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. When he was any media appearance, he did. He was saying these schools need to open. They ultimately sent billions of dollars, the legislature, Newsom, to local school districts to try to convince them to reopen. That totally changed. You would have to think as a result of the recall.

S1: Hmm. That’s interesting. You think it was because of the recall effort?

S2: Absolutely. And I think the political pressure on Newsom, whether it’s schools or whether it’s relaxation of some business restrictions, I just think it made him more responsive to concerns that he was hearing from the electorate. I think there was a stretch in their September, October when cases had gone down. California was being praised for its management of the pandemic, where there didn’t seem to be such urgency to, you know, bring kids back or bring businesses back. I think 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 this pressure that came, you know, from the recall campaign. But also there is a lot of parents who are frustrated, who may never support the recall, but, you know, at the local level felt like not enough was being done to get their kids back in the classrooms. That I think fed into this this pressure that did influence how Newsom governed.

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S1: It’s funny listening to you, because 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.

S2: Absolutely. And I think you’ve seen that in other states, too. I think it’s similar to Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, who also was on television every day getting briefings. And, you know, in the early days, that was really reassuring for a lot of voters what they were hearing from Newsom. As I mentioned, he really took control of the state’s response. The legislature handed him his executive authority and left the capital.

S1: They literally left the capital.

S2: They literally left. They you know, they said, OK, you’re going to have this authority. You’re going to have this money

S1: go for it. Don’t have a CAGAR, right?

S2: Right. And during that time when the legislature was transitioning to to operating remotely, Newsom really was the entire face of state government. And so I think, you know, as you point out, with that comes you know, he’s left holding the bag when things aren’t going well. And 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. He kind of became the face for all of that, which, you know, he is the governor.

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S1: Here’s a question or story a couple of months back on Governor Newsom, it was called, Why is everyone mad at Governor Newsom? But is everyone still mad at Governor Newsom now?

S2: No, I don’t think everyone is still mad. And I think I mean, part of that you have to look at how the coronaviruses played out in the state where 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. And I think ultimately and this will play a huge role in the recall, people seem to identify how they feel about Newsom on a particular issue with how they kind of feel about a Democratic Republican split. So if you look at some of the polling, you know, the percentage of folks in California who disapprove of how Newsom handled schools, is handling school reopened. Is around 40 percent, the percentage who disapprove of how he’s handling businesses as 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 twenty eighteen is around 40 percent. So it’s kind of this it lacks kind of a breakout capacity in that sense.

S1: It’s like the more things change, the more things stay the same.

S2: Right. It’s all kind of contained around that percentage. And so to say, you know, people might have certain frustrations, but when you’re ultimately the public polling that’s been done finds that anger at Newsom on any issue is really kind of tied in line with support for the recall. And it’s really kind of the percentage we see for any GOP led effort here in the state.

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S1: I mean, 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? Like what do you see?

S2: Well, I think a huge difference is that really did not fall along partisan lines. Gray Davis was largely, you know, very unpopular in the state among certainly Republicans, but also Democrats. And ultimately the entrance of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, while he’s a Republican, kind of had his own brand, was running kind of as a singular celebrity. I think it divorced the whole recall process from Democrat versus 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. Really partisan split now. Of course, there’s a similarity, and I guess you could say this for any recall is and 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. And anything you do, you’re one bad dinner reservation away from, you know, being back in the soup and being back and having voters be angry at you. So I think for him, he sees this Newsom certainly as like a danger. He’s on the ballot. Anything could happen between now in the fall. But so far, you haven’t seen it turn into the same dynamics that we saw in two thousand three.

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S1: Guy Massarotti, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thanks so much for having me.

S1: Guy Mazzotti is a politics and government reporter at KQED. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad Davis Land, Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Ilana Schwartz, Allison Benedikt, Emily Schmidt, Gomory make this show better each and every day. And I’m Mary Harris. You can track me down on Twitter, see what my dog looks like. And even if you’re on a social media diet, I will catch you back here tomorrow. Our story a couple of months back on Governor Newsom and Governor, I said, Governor, that’s pretty funny. Let me ask it again.