State Watch

Newsom previews campaign message as California recall looms

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On the precipice of the greatest threat of his political career, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is aiming to convince voters who will decide his future that the Golden State is poised for a dramatic rebound after a brutal year of suffering through the pandemic.

Newsom used his annual State of the State address Tuesday, just days after supporters of an effort to recall him from office said they had enough signatures to force an election later this year, to acknowledge the anger and anxiety that has welled up across the state, and to promise a robust recovery ahead.

“We won’t change course just because of a few nay-sayers and dooms-dayers,” Newsom said. “So to the California critics, who are promoting partisan power grabs and outdated prejudices, and rejecting everything that makes California truly great, we say this: We will not be distracted from getting shots in arms and our economy booming again. This is a fight for California’s future.”

Newsom spoke before an empty Dodger Stadium meant both to showcase the state’s rapid distribution of coronavirus vaccines — the stadium hosts a mass vaccination site run in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency — and to mourn the 54,395 Californians who have died of the virus.

He acknowledged missteps in handling the pandemic over the past year, but said the state is vaccinating residents at a faster clip than all but five other states, and faster than countries like France, Germany, Israel and Russia.

“I know our progress hasn’t always felt fast enough. And look, we’ve made mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. But we own them, we learn from them, and we never stop trying,” Newsom said. “The state of our state remains determined. I remain determined.”

Pointedly, Newsom said California’s death rate from the coronavirus was below the national average — and below that of Texas, California’s frequent rival.

Newsom’s address, a week before the deadline for recall supporters to turn in the nearly 1.5 million valid signatures they will need to force an election, read like a preview of the campaign he will wage in the months ahead. And it is virtually certain the recall campaign will happen: Supporters said Sunday they have collected nearly 2 million signatures, in order to account for any deemed invalid.

“That was not a State of the State speech, that was a campaign stump speech for his political revival,” said Randy Economy, a spokesman for the recall effort. “It was nothing more than a carnival barker throwing out trinkets to the crowd.”

Top Newsom advisers have quietly acknowledged the inevitability of the recall election ahead, and the challenge they face in turning out their supporters. Voters who want to oust Newsom will be motivated to cast their ballots, while those who want to keep the first-term governor are likely to need an extra push to return theirs.

Privately, those advisers say Newsom’s performance handling the pandemic and reopening the economy will be crucial to his success. About 70 percent of California’s schools have announced plans to reopen by the middle of April, and 24 of the state’s 58 counties have moved out of the most restrictive tier of lockdowns. More are likely to loosen restrictions next week, Newsom said.

“Every day, every single day, more schools announce reopening dates,” Newsom said. “We’re not going to be satisfied until everybody is back in school.”

History suggests Newsom faces a difficult road: Of the 10 recall efforts that have qualified for the ballot since 1913, six have succeeded, including four of the last five. The only governor to face a recall election, Gray Davis in 2003, lost his job.

“It’s a really treacherous political environment,” said Robin Swanson, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento. “People are still mad, people are still trying to figure out who to blame, and Gavin Newsom needs to make sure people understand that he’s showing leadership and that he’s doing everything he can to navigate out of this pandemic.”

The governor’s backers say the electorate leans far more to the left than the one that recalled Davis, and that the nature of the crisis Newsom faces — a global pandemic that has killed millions around the world — is completely different from the energy crisis that crippled Davis’s political career 18 years ago.

“Fairly or unfairly, Gray was blamed for the energy crisis. Gavin is not blamed for the pandemic,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist.

California’s recall process is unique: Voters first decide whether the incumbent should be recalled, then — regardless of how they voted on the first question — they decide who should replace the incumbent.

In 2003, there were 135 candidates running to replace Davis, including media magnate Arianna Huffington, actor Gary Coleman, porn magnate Larry Flynt, a porn star, a former commissioner of Major League Baseball and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who eventually won with 49 percent of the vote.

This year, a similarly massive field is likely; one Democratic strategist estimated as many as 1,000 people could file to run. There are no Schwarzenegger-level names likely to enter the race, but at least two serious Republicans — former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and businessman John Cox — say they will run. Ric Grenell, former U.S. ambassador to Germany and a staunch Trump ally, is also laying the groundwork for a possible bid.

Democrats have rallied behind Newsom, who was elected in 2018 and remains broadly popular within his own party. But it is not yet clear whether any prominent elected officials will add their name to the recall ballot as a hedge in case Newsom is given the boot. Eighteen years ago, Davis’s lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante (D), decided to run in a sign that Democrats were not optimistic about Davis’s chances. Bustamante received 31 percent of the vote.

Newsom does not have to worry about his lieutenant breaking ranks. In a statement last month, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis (D) said “it would be shameful for any Democrat to put their name on the ballot to replace [Newsom], myself included.”

Every voter in California will get a ballot in the mail after a measure passed by the legislature earlier this year, allowing Democrats to run an absentee ballot collection program that should boost turnout. Democrats hold a nearly two-to-one advantage over Republicans in voter registration, while about a quarter of the state’s voters are registered without a party preference.

But some Democrats worry that voters who are angry at the year of lockdowns and government mismanagement will turn their attention to the shiny object who is on the ballot, rather than the person who had been the target of their rage for the last four years.

“The trouble is California has long had Donald Trump as the foil, and now we don’t,” Swanson said. “We don’t have that circus clown that was Donald Trump. But the bull is still mad.”

Tags California Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Gavin Newsom Incumbent Kevin Faulconer Pandemic Recall state of the state

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