California’s Recall Nightmare

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S1: So, Guy, one month from now, what are the odds, you think, that you’re going to have a new governor in California?

S2: I think the odds are still in our current governor’s favor to keep his job. But at this point, the recall race is a whole lot closer than I think we ever thought it would be.

S1: Guy Marzorati covers politics for public radio station KQED. Closer then, Gavin Newsom would like

S2: certainly closer than Gavin Newsom would like, as some of his supporters put it, like two. It’s gotten too close for comfort.

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S1: If you were a nerdy Internet type, you might say Governor Gavin Newsom has become the physical embodiment of that, how it started, how it’s going meme. That’s because a little over a year ago, the headlines about the governor were glowing. The L.A. Times editorial board declared Newsom the leader California needs. The Guardian marveled at how the coronavirus crisis gave Gavin Newsom his leadership moment. But life comes at you fast. And now, after more than a million Californians signed a recall petition against him, he’s fighting for his political life. How many people is Gavin Newsom running against?

S2: The whole list is 46 candidates on the replacement ballot,

S1: 46

S2: 46. But really, he’s running kind of against himself. The first question on the recall ballot is a simple yes or no. Should he be removed from office? Then there’s the second question where you get to the dozens and dozens of candidates who are hoping to potentially replace Newsom. Should voters remove them?

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S1: Here are a few of the candidates Californians will be able to choose from when they open up their ballots. There’s Dan Koplovitz, who says he represents the Green Party and describes his platform as can you dig it? John Drake, a recent community college graduate who’s simply running as a Democrat, and Jeremy PIAC in the official voter guides. Instead of spelling out his political philosophy, he tells voters to search YouTube to learn more about him.

S2: Oh, okay. And by the way, those are the candidates that have gotten no traction. That doesn’t mean that the kind of circus atmosphere is limited to the bottom of the ballot. There are one of the leading contenders in the recall race was subpoenaed on stage at a debate this week.

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S1: That doesn’t really give me a lot of confidence in what’s going on here. How are Californians feeling about this right now?

S2: I think largely Californians are just waking up to the fact that there even is an election happening right now. This is despite the fact that everyone has received a ballot in the mail. And we found just, you know, from from listeners who call into our show, it’s just tremendous amount of confusion on how the recall process actually works. And I think that’s how a lot of voters are feeling right now.

S1: Confused today on the show. Will all this confusion add up to a change in leadership for the Golden State? And if it does, who’s going to be running things? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. There are actually 19 states where a governor can be recalled by the voters themselves. But in California, it is easier than almost anywhere else to get a recall started. Advocates need just 12 percent of the raw number of voters in the previous election from at least five counties to sign on to a petition, and that triggers an election. But even though it’s pretty easy to do compared to other states, it’s not a small task. More than 50 recalls have been initiated in California. But this is only the second time a recall has come to a vote.

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S2: You’re talking about a massive stay. Even, you know, getting the one point five million signatures is hard. And even in this campaign, without a four month extension that this recall campaign got from a judge back in November. There’s no way they would have been able to collect that many signatures in time. So, you know, even yes, this California has a low bar compared to the rest of the country. But historically, it’s been rare having a recall go before a governor. I think you could make an argument that might change in this era of hyper partisanship. You could result in a situation where anytime there is a Democratic governor under these current circumstances going forward, they might face a recall challenge like this.

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S1: And we should note that the pandemic sort of ended up benefiting this recall effort in a couple of different ways. There was the fact that a judge gave more time for folks to gather signatures because of the pandemic. And then that extension of the deadline happened at the exact same time that some Democrats had begun to question Gavin, Newsom leadership. It was the middle of Covid. There was a wave going on and folks just felt like, what’s he doing? Like, where is this at? This was the winter. And so it’s interesting because this really was not a fluke. I don’t know. What would you call it?

S2: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head, which is that everything kind of came together all at once for the recall campaign. Right. They got that extension from a judge in November. That same day is when Newsom went and had his dinner at the French Laundry restaurant. That became really the symbol of this recall campaign. Tonight, a

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S3: Fox 11 exclusive. We’ve obtained this photo of Governor Gavin Newsom dining at the luxurious French Laundry restaurant in Napa. The photo appears to show the dinner being mostly indoors with sliding glass doors opened up for air.

S2: This governor who had been urging Californians to stay at home, to not gather with folks outside of their household doing exactly that, going out to this super fancy restaurant in Napa Valley, gathering with other people, having a meal that came right as the pandemic started to get a lot worse in California. You know, the winter was the worst month of it here. And so all of that kind of came together to light a fuse. And I think really activate voters who already might have not liked Newsom. They might have voted against them in 2018. They might have planned to vote against them in 2022. But all of those things combined kind of lit that fuse and activated them to say, OK, I’m not just going to sit at home and continue to dislike Newsom and wait for the next election. I’m going to go out and sign this recall petition.

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S1: I wonder if a few months later you’ve spoken to any voters who regret signing on to the recall effort, like they signed on kind of in like a fit of pique against the governor. And now they’re like, well, I didn’t want this, though.

S2: There’s actually an opportunity for voters to change their mind built in to the recall process, and very few actually did. There was a month in which voters who signed the petition could go and take their names off of it, and only a handful in each county actually did that. I think that speaks to both the fact that that this was largely driven by people who didn’t like Newsom going into the recall process. And I think, you know, there might have been voters, even Democratic voters, who things like school closures and business shutdowns kind of forever have turned their back on the governor.

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S1: This sentiment is what has Newsom and his camp worried. Although the governor’s approval rating in the state is in the 50s, the momentum is on the pro recall side. In state polling, the no vote is only four points ahead of the yes vote to recall. That’s within the margin of error. Combine that with a pretty convoluted voting process and you have a recipe for an upset. It’s funny the last time we spoke. The recall against Governor Gavin Newsom had just gotten it start. Democrats are still like a little stunned. It seemed to me that it was moving forward. But you on your Twitter timeline, you shared this tweet that basically said Hot Vake summer has turned out more like explaining the recall to acquaintances who didn’t know the recall system was designed like that summer.

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S2: Yes. That that. We really here for me, that’s been my that’s been my life in the past couple of weeks, just, you know, family, friends asking about what, you know, what is happening, when is the election, what how does this all work? Yeah, it’s definitely, you know, not the summer I would have imagined.

S1: Everyone’s being mailed a ballot, is that right?

S2: That’s right. So voting is actually going on right now. We like to say in California, Election Day, we like to phrase it as the last day to vote because really, you know, ballots, the deadline to mail out ballots was the 16th. And, you know, voters now have their ballot in their hand. They can mail it back, they can drop it off in a drop box, and there still will be in-person voting. But the last day to vote is September 14th.

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S1: So what does the ballot look like? Like if you see in yours?

S2: Yeah. So it breaks down into two questions. The first one is kind of the simple one. Should Newsom be removed from office, yes or no? And then the second question is, if Newsom is removed from office, if a majority of voters answer yes on the first question, who should then be governor? And you’re given a list of 46 candidates to choose from. Newsom is not on that second list. And you can’t there’s no real opportunity to write in a candidate. You can’t write in Newsom, you can’t write in another Democrat

S1: because voters can’t really cast a ballot for Newsom. The governor’s campaign has made the strategic choice tell their supporters to vote no on that first question, the one about the recall. And then for the second question, where you can pick a replacement, Governor Newsom saying leave that blank.

S4: This is an all mail in ballot. Every day between now and Election Day on September 14th is an opportunity to turn in your no on the recall ballot.

S1: Like is that a good strategy?

S2: You know, I question it. I think for number one, the reason he’s doing it is to simplify the messaging all along. He wanted to make sure there was no Democrat who ran, you know, who was on that replacement ballot, who might tempt voters to say usually I would vote to keep Newsom as governor, but I really like fill in the blank progressive. And I’m going to vote to recall Newsom and pick this other guy. Now, the question is, will this just lead to more confusion from voters or in the worst case scenario, will it leave Democrats with no plan B if Newsom is recalled from office? There is no, you know, high profile Democrat on that replacement ballot. All signs point to if Newsom gets removed from the governor’s office, it’ll be a Republican who takes over running the state. So in that in that sense, it might have been a risky strategy on the part of the Democrats to pursue this. And we’ll just have to see how it plays out.

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S1: I just keep thinking about Governor Newsom’s position, which is so weird because he has to turn out the vote right now, but for an election he doesn’t want to be in and he’s asking people to kind of vote in the negative for him. It’s just a strange like if I’m a candidate, it’s a weird thing to do.

S2: It’s a really strange place to be in. I mean, you always hear, you know, people use the catchphrase in elections and elections, not a referendum. You know, a candidate can always turn the spotlight back on their opponent and say, well, however much you may dislike me, this other candidate, if he or she gets elected, they’ll do this. And that’s a lot harder in a recall when it really is a referendum, when voters are being directly asked Newsom, yes or no,

S1: when do you even expect to have results?

S2: You know, if the 2003 recall is any indication, it could be pretty quickly. I mean, we had a picture of that on election night. And California is a big enough state that for a lot of these statewide results, we we would have enough votes for, you know, the Associated Press or are there news organizations to make a call that evening. But, you know, if it ends up that the replacement ballot is a lot closer than we expected, if Newsom is recalled, there’s a possibility we don’t know exactly who has the most votes on the replacement ballot. My expectation would be that this is not a race that drags on and on and on. But if I’m wrong, you can play this back in late September.

S1: Part of what I think is so hard about this election is that it’s kind of unprecedented, like even though there’s been a recall like this in the past, everyone remembers with Gray Davis being recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger taking the home. That election was so different where Gray Davis approval ratings were way down and Arnold Schwarzenegger was a big star. And so it was just a different thing. Is it worth talking about that and how that’s playing in and factoring in to the Democratic response in particular as they try to figure out what they know and what they don’t know here?

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S2: Yeah, I mean, I think it is worth mentioning in the sense that this this is shaping out very differently and that there is no candidate like Schwarzenegger Newsom could get 49 percent of the vote and lose his job to someone who might only get 20 percent of the vote on the replacement ballot. That’s not what happened in 2003. I mean, the recall got 55 percent of the vote to toss Davis out of office. And Schwarzenegger ended up getting, I think, 48 or 49 percent of the vote on the replacement ballot. So I think he had a lot more of a mandate going into office, as you know, someone who California voters had picked to lead the state. I think it’s likely if Newsom is removed in this election, there won’t be a candidate that can claim that you’re going to see a candidate get maybe 20, 25, 30 percent of the vote on the replacement ballot, which I think does raise more questions of legitimacy around the entire process.

S1: When we come back, if Newsom gets recalled, who’s in line to replace him? The leading candidate is someone Californians have heard from before.

S5: Larry Elder here, the sage from South Central, the prince of Pico Union, the czar of common sense. The great elder ski. Don Lorenzo, welcome to the program. No Dixiecrats allowed because we’ve got a country to say. So let’s get her, Tito.

S1: Let’s talk about the people who are running against Gavin Newsom. My understanding is that neither the Democrats or the Republicans are endorsing a candidate, which is interesting because it creates this vast field with a lot of people vying for attention, like and my understanding there was a debate over the last week. So what does that even sound like when there are so many people running here?

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S2: Well, it’s strange because, you know, there haven’t been endorsements. As you said, the Republican Party felt like let’s not anoint any specific candidate. Let’s let every candidate bring kind of their constituency to the first question. And so the field is kind of stayed wide open. There have been a few debates. Larry Elder, who’s been the leading candidate, a Republican, hasn’t showed up to any of the debates. And I think he feels like at this point he’s led every poll. He might feel like I don’t need to interact with the other candidates at this point.

S1: Larry Elder is a long time libertarian talk radio host from Los Angeles. He’s known for inflammatory rhetoric about everything from reproductive rights to race. Elder is black, by the way, calls himself the sage from South Central. But here’s an example of how he’s spoken about slavery, for instance, on his show just this year.

S5: And think about this. Of the estimated 12 million blacks that were sold for two European slavers and taken to the so-called new world. Less than five percent went to the colonies or what became America. The rest of them went to the Caribbean, Caribbean, Central America, Mexico or South America. Which country saw them thrive more? There are now 40 million blacks living in America.

S1: It’s important to note front runner is a loose term for Larry Elder’s position here. He’s polling at only 19 percent of likely recall voters. But should Newsom lose the referendum, 19 percent would be enough to hand elder the governorship.

S2: It’s kind of been a static field since Elder got in. He had kind of a remarkable rise. The moment he got in, the race kind of skyrocketed to the top. And he’s gotten a lot of support from kind of grassroots Republican voters. I saw a figure that was fascinating that he’s already gotten he’s only been in the race, I think, three or four weeks. He’s already gotten more small dollar donations. So under a hundred dollars then the last three Republicans who have run for governor in California combined. So he’s definitely has the grassroots Republican energy at this point. And he he I think he feels like he just has to run out the clock on these other candidates.

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S1: Larry Elder is on record saying things like Roe versus Wade was one of the worst decisions that the Supreme Court ever handed down and that the dangers of secondhand smoke have been overblown by professional victims. More recently, serious allegations have come to light that he threatened an ex fiancee with a gun, made her fear for her safety.

S2: But I think he brought in a large following from, you know, his years on the air in Southern California, even as a nationwide syndicated host. And I think he also has brought in kind of, I’d say, more of the the Trump feeling than many of these other candidates who have tried to paint themselves as more moderate Republicans. Elder has, you know, question climate change. He’s come in and said there should be a zero dollar minimum wage.

S5: I don’t I never have quite understood why a third party like government or the government feels it’s anybody’s business. What my relationship is with an individual who willingly sold this paper and my relationship with that person when I willingly bought that labor. Why to people who are adults can’t determine what the price of labor ought to be is beyond me and why a third party feels it’s his or her business to interfere with. That is also beyond me.

S2: He’s definitely created the most controversy, and it’s been hard for any of the candidates to really get their name out there ever since Elder got in this race.

S1: Yeah, it’s there are a lot of greatest hits from Larry Elder in terms of things he says that are spicy and get people talking. My favorite is he did a column in 2000 for Capitalism magazine where he argued that women no less than men about political issues and politics in general. So there it’s easy to manipulate them at the ballot box. The thing about him, he seems like a cartoon villain of a Republican. And in some ways, I look at him and I’m like, does this actually help Gavin Newsom? Because he can basically say, you don’t want this guy, so vote for me. And it drives his base.

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S2: And that’s exactly the strategy the Newsom campaign has pivoted to in the last couple of weeks. They’re now running advertisements where you only see Larry Elder. You don’t see any of the other Republicans in the field,

S1: the top Republican candidate. He pedaled Deadlee conspiracy theories and would eliminate vaccine mandates on day one, threatening school closures and our recovery.

S2: It’s a discussion of Newsom and the, you know, kind of mandates that he’s pursuing around coronavirus prevention, vaccine mandates, mandates for kids to wear masks in school, and then immediately pivoting and saying, if I lose this recall, Larry Elder will be governor and he will take away the vaccine mandate and he will take away these mass mandates. And so it’s really making this kind of one on one case, which I do think helps Newsom. It’s framing this as an either or and not just a do you like me or not question. I think it is a lot is a lot better place for him to be.

S1: I mean, if someone does end up beating Gavin Newsom, they’ll be up for re-election in just a year. Right.

S2: Right, the next primary is in June of 2022. It’s a top two primary, so the two candidates who get the most votes advance the general election in November. So it will be a short period of time in which they’ll govern and they’ll be doing it with a Democratic supermajority in both the assembly and the Senate.

S1: I guess the argument among folks who are against Newsom, but maybe a little wary of Larry Elder could be how much harm could he do? It’s just it’s just a year. What would you say to that?

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S2: Why would say we’ve seen over the past year the amount that a governor can do just with executive power? I mean, through large stretches of the pandemic, the legislature was literally not in session and Newsom was kind of running the state’s pandemic response so low. And the governor of California does have an incredible sway, not only in, you know, the regular state budget process, but also in the appointees in the agencies. And, you know, from the public health director to the board of education, to folks who make decisions on criminal justice and water. And then there’s the big wildcard, which is the Senate seat currently held by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who if she, you know, for one reason or another, cannot hold that seat. The governor of California would pick the replacement. And I think that’s kind of the last break glass argument you hear from Democrats, which is, you know, Larry Elder would be picking the state’s next U.S. senator if he’s the governor.

S1: So what’s your strategy for the next month? You’ve got 46 candidates, 47 if you count the governor himself. You’ve got a crazy ballot. How do you even begin to cover it?

S2: You know, I think I’ve put for the next month, really the top thing is getting information now about how to vote. I think that is absolutely paramount. It’s important for us in a normal election year, but certainly in a year like this when there just is so much confusion about how this ballot works. I mean, you know, we’re getting calls from people saying they wrote in Gavin, Newsom is the second choice or they are doing all types of things with their ballot. That is not actually per the rules. So I think the real my real focus, at least for the next month, will just be trying to get out information about how to navigate this recall process, which might seem simple. It’s two questions, but it’s a really novel ballot for a lot of California voters and a really unique election.

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

S2: My pleasure.

S1: Guy Marzorati is a reporter and a producer for KQED. California Politics and Government Desk. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Alan Schwarz. Carmel Delshad Davis Land Mary Wilson and Danielle Hewitt. We get a little help each and every day from Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk or I will catch you back on his feet tomorrow.