Is Newsom in Trouble?

by on February 2, 2021

CA Governor Faces Potential Recall

Could California Governor Gavin Newsom actually face a recall election? And could Newsom be ousted like Governor Gray Davis in 2003?

Before I answer let’s keep in mind a critical fact: California is very different politically than it was in 2003. Heavily Democratic Latino voting has become a constant.  Republicans cannot elect anyone to statewide office.

That’s why it is so remarkable that many see Newsom as potentially at risk if the recall qualifies. How can a Governor who won by a 62%-38% landslide in 2018 already be in political trouble?

It’s More Than the Pandemic

The obvious answer is the pandemic. COVID 19 is the only reason we’re talking about a recall of California’s Governor. The pandemic put all politicians in Democratic voting areas in a fix: any decisions on outdoor dining, school reopening, and lockdowns get a sizable number of people mad.

But other politicians dealing with the pandemic are not facing recalls. What has made Newsom more vulnerable?

It’s likely his leadership style. Newsom makes big decisions without key stakeholder involvement. Personally, I never care about being directly involved with decisions so long as I like the outcome (it’s called being “result oriented.”). But many activists and constituency groups feel differently They view access to top officials and being part of their decision making process as a sign of their political clout—and want politicians who exclude them to face consequences..

That’s not how Newsom’s governance style operates. Both as San Francisco’s mayor and as governor he spends little time meeting with constituency groups or even legislators to discuss policy options.

Jerry Brown was even less accessible. But Brown is a living legend. Legislators never expected he would consult them. “That’s Jerry” they would say when asked why he didn’t involve even sponsors of legislation in his decisions. Legislators and progressive interest groups see Newsom’s exclusion of their input very differently. He is seen as a politician who needs their input yet does not seek it.

This lack of input explains public anger over two major decisions Newsom made last week: ending the lockdown and issuing a revised eviction moratorium.

Google legislators’ public reaction to Newsom’s decision last week to end the lockdown. I never heard Democratic state legislators offer such strong criticisms of Jerry Brown’s failure to consult them. The lockdown announcement was soon followed by tenant and social justice groups justifiably outraged at being left out of Newsom’s negotiations around the eviction moratorium. The groups correctly argued that their inclusion in Newsom’s final agreement would not have allowed rent relief to be dependent on the landlord’s approval—a point echoed by an editorial in the January 28 LA Times.

Newsom Retains Political Base

Would this disaffection by Newsom supporters keep them on the sidelines if he faced a recall? Or cause them to back a more progressive candidate? That’s what brought down Governor Gray Davis in 2003.

I did a KPFA-radio show during that 2003 recall campaign with the pre-CNN Van Jones. He and I implored listeners to vote against the recall. But other guests urged progressives to back the recall and vote for Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante—who ultimately finished second to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But California politics in 2021 have changed. I don’t see organized labor deserting Newsom in a recall election. Nor will environmental groups, women’s groups or communities of color. Newsom just appointed California’s first Latino Senator Alex Padilla. He also appointed Shirley Weber as the first African American Secretary of State. A recall will be framed as an attempt by white Huntington Beach Republicans to turn back the clock on California’s movement toward greater racial justice—a political dynamic totally lacking in the 2003 recall.

Governor Davis only won re-election in 2002 by a 47.4%-42.4% margin. He ran against Republican Bill Simon, one of the most nondescript governor candidates in state history. The historically low turnout lowered the number of petitions needed for the recall.

In contrast, Gavin Newsom got over 60% of the 2018 vote. That’s a huge difference.

CA’s Discredited GOP

California Republicans have fallen far since 2003. Even as recently as 2010 it took Kamala Harris three weeks of ballot counting before she could claim victory in her Attorney General’s race over her Republican opponent; Harris would win any California race easily today.

Arnold Schwarzenegger won as a Republican because he conveyed a message of nonpartisanship. Married to a member of the historically Democratic Shriver family, he was not associated with the bad GOP political decisions of the past. The corporate media despised Gray Davis and its news coverage favored Schwarzenegger. He was the body builder with the strength to rebuild the state.

I don’t see a Schwarzenegger-type figure emerging to win a recall against Newsom. Gavin Newsom remains a charismatic politician who is nowhere near as unpopular as Gray Davis. The question about Davis is less about why he was recalled than how someone who was a stereotype of the insider politician ever became California’s governor.  The irony, of course, was that Davis’ record was a lot more progressive than people realized. Yet he could not overcome his image as an inveterate fundraiser machine.

Newsom is  is not at risk of being recalled. But let’s hope the governor becomes more inclusive as a result of these public criticisms. When politicians involve key constituency groups and legislative allies in policy making, better policies result.

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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