By Laurel Rosenhall
While Gov. Gavin Newsom visited a Napa County school last week to sign a budget that will expand preschool and pour a record-breaking sum into K-12 education, GOP reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner seized on a paperwork error by the governor’s lawyer to try to boost her long-shot campaign to replace Newsom in the Sept. 14 recall election.
Jenner held her first press conference before the Sacramento press corps, highlighting her decision to intervene in a lawsuit in which Newsom is suing the secretary of state he appointed and asking a judge to allow him to list himself as a Democrat on the recall ballot — even though his attorney missed the deadline for including that information.
As the Sacramento Superior Court proceeding played out over Zoom, Jenner gathered media at the Hyatt Regency across the street from the state Capitol to make the case that Newsom “absolutely blew it” on his election paperwork. Newsom, meanwhile, surrounded himself with school kids and TV cameras and signed legislation that’s part of the state’s new $123.9 billion education budget.
It was a continuation of the dynamic that’s played out the last few months and one Californians should expect to see more of through the summer: Newsom is campaigning against the recall by making his work as governor as obvious as possible to voters up and down the state. Recall candidates are trying to get out their message with odd publicity stunts (like an 8-foot ball of garbage and a 1,000-pound bear), a few serious policy proposals, and attempts, like Jenner’s, to draw attention to the governor’s gaffes.
Jenner is a 71-year-old former Olympic athlete who transitioned from male to female several years ago and has had a role on the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” TV show.
Here are three takeaways from her first news conference with California’s political press:
She didn’t have much to say
Jenner called the news conference to discuss her decision to intervene in Newsom’s lawsuit over the ballot paperwork. But she talked about that for only about a minute and 20 seconds, and her comments were vague.
“I want to make sure that (Secretary of State Shirley Weber) does her job and I want to be involved in that process,” Jenner said. “I want transparency. I want people to see what’s happening up here in Sacramento.”
She answered questions from reporters for about 12 minutes, speaking in broad generalities without making a single policy proposal or campaign promise: “People see what’s happening in this state. They see law and order, how it’s going down. Corruption that’s going on. We’re running out of water. I am a big advocate of fire protection, OK?”
The lack of specifics has been par for the course for Jenner. She also said in a CNN interview in May that she didn’t vote in November because she didn’t have an opinion on any of the propositions on California’s November ballot, when voters weighed in on a dozen thorny questions about criminal justice, property taxes, employment law and voting rights. Asked how she will convince voters that she can craft policy as governor if she doesn’t engage as a voter, Jenner said she has “been involved in politics from the outside” and mentioned that she once served on the California Athletic Commission.
Then her aides quickly ushered her out of the room.
Real argument is in court
Newsom’s campaign lawyer Tom Willis copped to missing a Feb. 28, 2020, deadline to identify Newsom as a Democrat on the recall ballot, in the first question that asks voters if they want to remove him. Willis called it “an inadvertent mistake on my part,” but argued that an inflexible adherence to a deadline that serves no “election administrative purpose” would come at the cost of denying voters valuable information.
Lawyers representing both the recall campaign and Jenner said Newsom shouldn’t get a pass. “Now he just wants to go back and get a do-over notwithstanding the fact that the (law) is very plain,” said Bradley Benbrook, representing the Jenner campaign.
Eric Early, a lawyer for the recall petitioners, added that granting Newsom’s request would set an unworkable precedent. Weber is about to be “inundated with all kinds of documents by people who want to run for governor” before the July 16 filing deadline, he noted. Will those candidates also be entitled to squishy deadlines?
The proceedings played out in high legalese, but the implications are plainly political. Ballot designations are one of the surest ways that campaigns have to make a clear and final impression on voters, making them some of the most fiercely fought-over text in California politics.
Sacramento County Judge James Arguelles, a Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointee, on Monday ruled that Newsom will not be able to list his party affiliation on the recall ballot.
Jenner could help Newsom
Polling shows that California voters are inclined to keep Newsom in office, with only 40% saying they will vote “yes” on the recall. But the risk for Newsom is that the Democratic voters who are most likely to support him are not tuned in to the election. Republicans, on the other hand, are fired up and ready to vote.
Jenner brings a splash of celebrity to the campaign, which generates more media coverage and makes voters aware that an election is coming up. She said she plans to spend the month leading up to the Sept. 14 election on a bus tour around the state, ensuring news coverage in lots of cities. While that could boost her support, that could also help Newsom excite his base.
He’s already begun using Jenner’s fame and GOP ties to stoke his supporters. Since Jenner announced her candidacy in April, Newsom’s campaign has sent out 14 emails mentioning her. Last month, Newsom shot off a fundraising email with this subject line: “Governor Caitlyn Jenner.” It went on to say:
“If you knew that your $3 could keep someone like Caitlyn Jenner or some far-right Trump acolyte from moving California backward on issues like COVID recovery, climate change and criminal justice reform, wouldn’t it be a small price to pay?”
Jenner could help Newsom in another way, too: Lacking policy chops and political experience, her candidacy could very well lead some voters to see the recall as a farce. That perception could motivate them to shut it down, not only allowing Newsom to complete his term — but also setting him up for a strong re-election campaign next year.
CalMatters reporter Ben Christopher contributed to this story.