Labor Combines Old and New to Defeat Newsom Recall
When the votes are counted tonight it will confirm that California’s labor movement led a remarkable grassroots campaign to defeat the recall of Governor Gavin Newsom Faced with early polls showing a far more energized Republican base, California’s labor movement spawned the greatest six-week voter turnout drive in the state’s history. Labor’s passion and commitment fueled an all-out effort by the California Democratic Party and by progressive activists and elected officials across the nation.
Polls now show the “No” on recall side far ahead. Recall opponents have overwhelmed the opposition in already returned ballots.
How did this massive shift happen? Recall opponents combined millions of texts, emails, apps and other 21st century outreach strategies with tried and true voter outreach tactics of the past.
As longtime labor organizer and anti-recall activist Fred Ross describes, “Apps, Facebook , texting and other social media are communication tools. They do not replace organizing. There is no substitute for the hard and distinctly personal work of building relationships and developing leaders.”
We may look back on this recall campaign for the relationship building and leadership development which will pay huge dividends for California Democrats in 2022. The groundwork has been laid for a takeback of California House seats Democrats lost in 2020.
Merging Old and New
The anti-recall effort was essentially a six week GOTV campaign. Persuasion was far less a goal of the anti-recall effort than turnout, which prioritizes GOTV skills. To achieve this, labor councils across the state turned to the traditional precinct operations that long brought union’s success. There’s a blizzard of photos of union activists attending meetings, rallies, making phone calls and walking precincts because that was the “old school” strategy for winning.
The anti-recall campaign has had 25,000 people on the streets in the past four days. National political and labor leaders have all come to California to fire up the troops.
California Labor Federation head Art Pulaski even went to the past to revive a Labor to Neighbor campaign which directly connects volunteers to their own precincts. The California Democratic Party used a similar neighborhood precinct volunteer program.
But the millions of text messages and social media contacts spoke to a labor movement as up to date as ever before. For example, since the GOTV period coincided with rising COVID concern, labor activists connected to voters through an OutreachCircle App. By clicking on a button—“Contact my Network”—activists can send emails and texts to friends. The app gives you a box to personalize your message and easily add contacts. It also enables you to search for contact info in voter files.
True, as I described in my book, Beyond the Fields, the farmworker movement of the 1960’s-1970’s pioneered effective voter outreach without computers. But as Ross notes above, nobody claims the app is a substitute for traditional GOTV. And it’s super helpful for an election when COVID limits personal contacts.
Candidates and Strategies
The massive grassroots campaign was joined by other factors.
First, Governor Newsom campaigned tirelessly to stop the Republican power grab. I saw Newsom campaign for San Francisco mayor in 2003 so his vigor did not surprise me, but it likely showed voters a fiercely competitive side of him they might not have seen before.
Second, Newsom’s campaign team brilliantly recast the election as Newsom vs. Elder rather than Newsom vs. Recall. Elder played the role of scary extremist to perfection, even calling for reparations for slaveowners who lost their ownership of human beings in the Civil War. Yet as Elder was scaring the daylights out of most voters he stayed the clear leader to become governor if the recall prevailed. Increasing fear of Elder has to have driven the poll numbers in recent weeks.
So let’s praise Newsom’s campaign team of Averell “Ace” Smith, Sean Clegg, and Juan Rodriguez of Bearstar Strategies for running a brilliant tactical campaign.
Third, the strategy of turning the recall into a referendum on vaccine policy seems to have also significantly tipped the scales. Once every Republican candidate pledged to follow the lead of Texas and Florida and end mask mandates, California voters saw opposing the recall as essential to protect their own health and economic well-being. I foresee the national media’s chief takeaway from the recall’s defeat as as a victory for pro-vaccination voters—with implications for the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential race.
I wrote on August 3—“Don’t Let the Insurrectionists Win: Urgent Action Needed to Defeat Newsom Recall”—that “Art Pulaski, Ron Herrera, Rusty Hicks and other labor Democrats are all in.” We saw in the past month what “all in” means—-California labor unions led the most massive recall election grassroots effort in United States history.
Absent labor’s all-out effort, a low-turnout, Republican-skewed recall may have won. Keep this in mind in November 2022 when California Republicans plan a Wisconsin-type ballot measure to gut public employee unions. Labor kept Gavin Newsom’s governorship going; anti-recall voters must return the favor by defeating the planned anti-union initiative.
I’ll have further analysis on Wednesday after the results are in.Filed under: Bay Area / California