As efforts to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom gather momentum, the California Democrat once heralded even by former President Donald Trump as a hardworking leader shepherding his state through crisis has been caught in what can only be described as a hurricane of bad news in the past few months, turning the sixth attempt to oust him via recall in two years into a real and unpredictable threat.
It remains unclear whether recall proponents, led by a retired sergeant from a sheriff’s department west of Sacramento, will be able to gather the nearly 1.5 million valid signatures that they need by March 17 and, if they meet that threshold, how quickly a recall election would be set under the state’s complex, multi-step process.
While Newsom’s approval rating has remained above 50%, his precarious position is an example of how quickly the wrath of the Covid-19 pandemic can shift the fortunes of even the most ascendant governors and local politicians. In the early months of the pandemic, Newsom – a charismatic speaker with a photogenic family who frequently reminds his audiences that he approaches governing through the lens of a former small business owner – was widely viewed as a future candidate for the White House.
But the efforts to recall him gained oxygen over the holiday months as the virus raged out of control in California – with case numbers dipping only recently. There have now been more than 3.3 million cases in a state of nearly 40 million people and schools are still closed – making the former San Francisco mayor a viable target for those who are angry and frustrated about the limited supply of vaccine coming from the federal government, which is so insufficient that the state epidemiologist said last month that they may not be able to vaccinate the majority of those 65 and older until June. The state’s seven-day positivity rate had dropped to 5.8% on Friday.
Over the past week, Newsom has taken a series of steps to accelerate the pace of vaccinations, noting during a news conference Wednesday that the state has tripled that pace in the past few weeks. He acknowledged this week that California’s vaccination program got off to a troubled start, originally ranking near the bottom of the 50 states in terms of the percentage of vaccine doses received that made it into people’s arms.
“We don’t want to be average,” Newsom said Wednesday, on a day when data published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that California was ranking 27th among the states in the percentage of vaccine administered. “We want to do more and better.” (The average share of doses administered in California Monday through Friday was 59%, which placed it at 36th out of 50 states, according to a CNN analysis of data published by the CDC. Nationally, the five-day average for that time frame was 62%.)
Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and the University of California Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, noted that with anger rippling across the country about the short supply of the vaccine and high unemployment, voters are going to exact their revenge on any leader in a position of power on the ballot.
“He obviously didn’t cause the pandemic, but” – if the recall qualifies – “he’s the one who will be in the voters’ crosshairs,” Schnur said of Newsom. One of the lessons learned from 2003, when California voters recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, is that “qualifying for a recall has nothing to do with the political landscape or voter opinions,” Schnur said. “The only question is whether someone is willing to write a big enough check to put it on the ballot.”
If a recall election qualifies for the ballot, the state’s voters will be asked to vote yes or no on the recall, and then to answer a second question about who they want to see replace Newsom as governor – which could draw a large and varied cast of characters, as it did in 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Davis.
About 52% of likely California voters approve of Newsom’s job performance, according to a new poll from Public Policy Institute of California, a dip from last May, when his approval rating had risen to 64% among likely voters in the same survey. Mark Baldassare, the president and CEO of Public Policy Institute of California, noted in an analysis of those poll numbers that only 43% disapprove of Newsom, and by comparison some 7-in-10 voters had disapproved of Davis when he was recalled.
Veteran California Democratic strategist Bill Carrick pointed out that the state’s political landscape in 2003 was different than it is today, given that Democrats now outnumber Republicans 2-1 and Public Policy Institute of California surveys have consistently shown that the state’s independent voters lean Democratic. With that built-in advantage, Newsom’s current numbers don’t show him to be in dangerous political territory yet.
“There’s been a whole bunch of issues that have been very tough to solve,” Carrick said. “Things are going to get better, because the vaccine is going to get more universally available to people. And so that’s going to change a lot of people’s attitudes.”
Anger about a never-ending public health crisis
Retired Yolo County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Orrin Heatlie, who was joined by 124 other people in filing the recall petition, began organizing in early 2020, before coronavirus had entered the public consciousness. They were intent on ousting Newsom because of what they viewed as high taxes, rampant homelessness, the lack of affordable housing, seemingly uncontrollable wildfires and rolling blackouts in hot summer months. But they acknowledge that the effort has evolved, and it is now channeling the anger and loss of control that so many people feel in the midst of a public health crisis that seems interminable.
Heatlie said there was a noticeable shift in momentum in the recall’s direction in the late fall and early winter as Californians chafed at coronavirus restrictions.
“At first everybody really supported what was going on and realized that there are sacrifices that have to be made for the better good,” Heatlie said. But frustration built about policies Newsom announced, like a 10 p.m. curfew, the maze of different rules that varied county to county and a ban on outdoor dining after restaurant owners had spent thousands of dollars to revamp their outdoor spaces.
“You started to see an open revolt against what he was doing,” Heatlie said. “People started to look at him like he was a bird in a tornado.”
“People want consistency; they want normalcy; they want something concrete they can rely on,” he added. “That’s not something that the governor has offered.”
Newsom declined to comment on the recall. But one of his longtime advisers, Dan Newman, said the governor is deeply cognizant of the frustration Californians are feeling about the limited supply of the vaccine and understands that he will be held responsible for whatever happens in his state, even things beyond his control like fires, pandemics and vaccine development.
“The pandemic has caused a lot of pain and a lot of suffering and people are frustrated – so that’s why the governor is so relentlessly, obsessively focused on getting us through the pandemic and helping businesses and schools open as quickly and safely as possible,” Newman said.
Allies of the governor note that the situation in California – a state of nearly 40 million people – grew increasingly complex throughout last year, with guidance from both the federal government and scientists changing daily as more was discovered about the virus and how it is transmitted.
In the early days, Newsom had been one of the most visible front-line governors, widely praised for having the courage to institute one of the first statewide stay-at-home orders in the country. He enlisted the state’s entrepreneurs to help procure masks and rehabilitate outdated ventilators. He even built a productive working relationship with Trump, securing his help in getting a Navy ship that became a temporary hospital ready to handle a surge of patients in the Los Angeles region. For a time, California seemed to avoid the crush of cases that spread through other large states like New York, Florida and Texas.
But the rapid spread of the virus last fall forced Newsom to go in a more restrictive direction.
Because of that, his November 6 attendance at the 50th birthday party of a lobbyist and longtime adviser at a renowned Napa Valley restaurant prompted widespread outrage. He visited the Michelin-starred French Laundry at the same time he was asking Californians to mask up, stay home and avoid socializing with other households, crystallizing the perception that he and the lobbyists who attended were not playing by the same rules that the state was demanding average people follow, said Randy Economy, a longtime California political strategist who is advising the recall effort.
“That changed everything in such a powerful manner,” Economy said. People looked at the pictures and asked, ” ‘Why can’t I do that?’ ” he said.
“It will go down in his political obituary,” Economy argued, “because that’s the day he lost all sense of reality – that’s the day every person in California saw through their own eyes exactly who this man was.”
Newsom said in his apology that he’d made a “bad mistake.” Upon realizing the group was larger than anticipated, he said, he should have “stood up and walked back, got in my car and drove back to my house.”
But leaders of the recall campaign, who include many average Californians whose efforts are now being supported by top GOP operatives in the state, said that moment was a turning point that flipped on their fundraising spigot. It drove thousands of Californians to download the recall petition from the website of its lead proponents – recallgavin2020.com – and convinced prominent members of the state’s Republican Party, as well as many members of its GOP congressional delegation, to back the effort.
Still, Newsom’s allies said that one incident should not overshadow a year of exhaustive efforts to immerse himself in every detail of the pandemic as he tried to keep Californians safe and get the state back on stronger footing.
A lasting economic headache
One of the challenges for Newsom is that the state’s problems will take considerable time to resolve: Its economy is still struggling, and many business owners are still reeling from Newsom’s controversial decision to enforce regional stay-at-home orders in December as the intensive care unit capacity at the state’s hospitals hovered around 0% in some of the most populous regions.
Recall proponents also believe they have a potent weapon against Newsom because of the scandal at the state’s Economic Development Department. Officials revealed last week that $11.4 billion in unemployment claims that the state paid out during the pandemic – about 10% – are fraudulent.
The California State Auditor also discovered that the department had sent out at least 38 million pieces of mail over eight months that included claimants’ full Social Security numbers, dramatically increasing the risk of identity theft for those recipients, and was slow to correct the problem.
When the number of people filing for unemployment in California surged last spring, the Economic Development Department’s call center was able to answer only less than 1% of the calls it received from residents, according to a state audit last month. And that response rate barely budged when the state quadrupled its call center staff.
Though Newsom made major staffing changes at the department and set up a task force to coordinate investigations into the fraud, the problems have reflected poorly on his administration – and the efforts to stop the fraud have in some cases frozen the payments to legitimate unemployed workers, amplifying the anger toward the governor and his administration.
As those pressures mount, Democratic lawmakers have begun voicing frustration about what they view as Newsom’s abrupt policy changes when it comes to the pandemic – including his sudden decision to lift regional stay-at-home orders last week.
A furious campaign effort before March 17
In their first major attempt to push back on the recall, California Democrats overreached by calling the effort a coup and comparing its proponents to the insurgents who stormed the US Capitol on January 6.
In the backlash, many Republicans and even some Democrats said the language was wrong and inappropriate given that recall proponents are using legal procedures to try to oust Newsom.
But social media posts show that the recall movement has drawn supporters who include some fringe extremists within the Republican Party, as detailed in a recent front-page story by the Los Angeles Times.
Heatlie said in an interview that he and his fellow organizers and petition gatherers have tried to keep vitriol and falsehoods off the group’s official posts, but he noted that it would be impossible for him to vet the personal backgrounds of every person who signs the petition or donates to the cause.
After winning an extension to collect signatures because of the constraints of doing so in the middle of a pandemic, recall organizers claim they have collected more than 1 million of the nearly 1.5 million signatures they need by March 17 to get a recall on the ballot.
The most current report from the California secretary of state’s office said recall proponents have submitted 723,886 signatures and 410,087 had been verified as of January 6. So far about 84% of the signatures verified have been valid.
Heatlie’s recall effort is being supported by several other campaign organizations that have helped raise money and expand its reach. Former GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox, who was defeated by Newsom in 2018, is backing the effort, along with former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who this week announced that he is running for governor in 2022, when Newsom is up for reelection.
Major funders of the effort include Doug Leone, a partner at the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital; the California Revival PAC, which was co-founded by former California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro; and a group listed on campaign finance records as Prov 3:9 LLC that donated $500,000.
Anne Dunsmore, a prominent fundraiser who heads Rescue California-Recall Gavin Newsom, a committee that is integrally involved in the effort, said last week that her group has raised $1.9 million toward the goal she set of $2.5 million by the March 17 deadline. Though campaign finance reports are not yet available, Dunsmore says the vast majority of the money raised has been put into 3 million pieces of direct mail asking people to sign the petition.
As the pace of the campaign picks up, Dunsmore said she is receiving an average contribution of $38 in response to the mail, far exceeding her expectations, which she interprets as an indication of the level of voter frustration.
“What he’s done is he’s hurt people in their homes. We didn’t make that up,” Dunsmore said, alluding to the impact of the stay-at-home orders and business closures.
“We don’t have to tell people that. We just have to say, ‘Over here. If you’re angry, here’s what you can do about it: Come in, volunteer, sign the petition, give money,’ ” she said.
CNN’s Deidre McPhillips contributed to this report.