Phil Willon and Taryn Luna
Los Angeles Times
Propelled by growing voter frustration over California’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a Republican-led drive to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office collected enough voter signatures to qualify for the ballot, state officials reported Monday, triggering for only the second time in the state’s history a rapid-fire campaign to decide whether to oust a sitting governor.
Recall backers submitted more than 1,495,709 verified voter signatures — equal to 12% of all ballots cast in the last gubernatorial election — meeting the minimum threshold to force a special recall election, according to a tally released by Secretary of State Shirley Weber. Barring intervention by the courts, Newsom will face a statewide vote of confidence by year’s end.
Though recent opinion polls showed that only 40% of California voters support recalling Newsom, an indication that the effort might fail, the success of the recall campaign in gathering enough valid signatures for a special election delivers a blow to Newsom as one of the nation’s most prominent and politically ambitious Democrats, who raised his national profile as a liberal foil to former President Donald Trump.
In all, Newsom’s critics gathered 1,626,042 valid voter signatures on recall petitions, according to the report issued Monday that contains information collected from elections officials in California’s 58 counties as of April 19. A few signatures remained unexamined and the final report will be issued by Friday.
Before the recall petition can be certified by Weber, voters who signed the petitions will be given time to withdraw their signatures and state officials will crunch the numbers on the cost to conduct the election, steps that could take up to three months to complete. Only then can Weber issue her official certification, triggering action by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis to call an election within 60 to 80 days.
Voters will then decide whether or not to recall Newsom and, if he is removed from office, who should replace him. Newsom is barred from being listed among the candidates who can be considered if the recall passes.
Two and a half years ago, Newsom won the governor’s office by the largest vote margin in modern history, capping the telegenic Democrat’s steady rise to the pinnacle of California politics that began in 1996 when San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown appointed him to the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission.
The son of an appellate court judge with deep ties to San Francisco’s most affluent residents, Newsom’s ascension quickly led to a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors, two terms as San Francisco mayor and, after abandoning a fledgling run for governor in 2010, eight years as California’s lieutenant governor.
Enveloped in an air of inevitability, Newsom dominated the 2018 governor’s race by trouncing a field of Democratic rivals that included former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former state Treasurer John Chiang and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin, and a little-known Republican challenger, businessman John Cox. Newsom’s campaign stoked whispers and persistent speculation of a future White House run.
But Newsom’s star dimmed this summer as criticism of his response to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic intensified, and he now finds himself fighting for survival.
The recall vote also opens up the possibility that a Republican could be elected to replace Newsom, a scenario that took place in 2003.
California voters soured by rolling power outages, budget cuts and a car tax hike recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis from office and elected Hollywood action star Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last Republican to serve as the state’s chief executive.
The spectacle of the 2003 recall election fascinated people across the country, whose curiosity in the race was piqued by California’s reputation among outsiders as a far-out haven for sun-baked dreamers, celebrities and Hollywood wannabes — and political absurdity. More than 130 candidates hoping to replace Davis crammed the ballot, among them Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt, former Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington and “Diff’rent Strokes” star Gary Coleman.
Californians already trying to survive the disorienting realities of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic may face a similar political carnival in 2021. Local officials from across California believe the cost of conducting the election could run as high as $400 million.
Democratic leaders have publicly vowed to support Newsom and, along with the governor’s advisers, have called the recall effort the handiwork of ambitious Republican politicians and pro-Trump, anti-mask, anti-vaccine extremists.
The current recall effort began last spring, spearheaded by a retired sheriff’s sergeant from Yolo County, Orrin Heatlie. It is the sixth attempt to recall Newsom since he took office in January 2019 — the previous five efforts fizzled with little support and even less notice, including two earlier attempts by Heatlie.
The recall efforts were fueled in large part by the festering animosity California’s conservative minority holds against Newsom and his progressive agenda, a virulence highly concentrated among supporters of Trump. The petition that placed Newsom’s recall on the ballot focused on well-worn GOP grievances in the deep blue state, blaming Newsom for California’s high taxes and homelessness crisis, and criticizing him for protecting immigrants who enter the county illegally and for halting executions.
Conspicuously absent from the petition is criticism of Newsom’s response to the pandemic, which was in its infancy when recall proponents launched the effort.
But the governor’s policies to combat COVID-19 provided the blast of oxygen necessary to bring the recall to life.
Shortly after the outset of the pandemic, Newsom enjoyed soaring job approval ratings following his initial response, including imposing the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order in mid-March.
As with other governors across the nation, however, those high marks began to plummet. Californians grew frustrated with government-mandated restrictions to stem the spread of the deadly virus, actions that devastated businesses, put millions out of work and forced schoolchildren into distance learning programs after classrooms were shuttered.
Newsom’s public image also took a major hit in November when he attended a lobbyist’s birthday party at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley after pleading with Californians to stay home and avoid similar multifamily gatherings. Supporters of the Republican-led recall effort seized on the misstep, accusing the wealthy governor of hypocrisy and enjoying the everyday freedoms and luxuries that were barred for many in the state.
Newsom’s political fortunes are tied, at least in part, to California’s ability to rebound from the pandemic by the election. If children are back on campuses and people are widely vaccinated, Democratic and independent voters may view their governor more favorably at the polls.
Newsom announced a target date earlier this month for that return to normalcy: June 15. The governor said he intends to lift business restrictions and fully reopen the state economy so long as vaccine supply remains sufficient and hospitalization rates are stable.
Health experts say that barring the emergence of a new, more dangerous COVID-19 variant that resists vaccines, a shortage in supply or some other major failure, his chance of hitting the summer reopening date seem high as more Californians become inoculated against the virus.
State estimates suggest a large swath of Californians — as many as 38% in February — have antibodies either from catching the virus or from vaccines. The Newsom administration has drastically expanded vaccine eligibility since that time, opening up access to all residents age 16 and over on April 15.
To date, more than 26 million doses have been administered in California, with over a quarter of the population fully vaccinated.
Still, Newsom’s job approval rating among California voters suffered, according to two independent political polls released in February. The surveys found that roughly half of voters gave Newsom good marks, down from 64% earlier in the year.
In a Public Policy Institute of California poll released in March, 56% of voters said they opposed the recall and 40% supported it, with the remaining respondents undecided. The percentage of those who favored ousting Newsom was slightly above the support for Trump in California in the November election, when he received 34% of the vote and was trounced by Joe Biden.
That hasn’t deterred Republicans from lining up to replace Newsom.
Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer earlier this year announced he would challenge Newsom, whether it was during a recall campaign or when Newsom is up for reelection in 2022. Cox, who was defeated by Newsom in the 2018 general election, expressed similar plans. Former Republican Northern California Rep. Doug Ose, who left office in 2005, is also in the running as is reality television star and retired Olympic gold-medalist Caitlyn Jenner.
Two familiar faces who were candidates in the 2003 recall election have also joined the race: former adult film actress Mary Carey and L.A. billboard icon Angelyne.
Others caught up in the swirl of rumors and speculation about potential candidates include former Trump administration official Richard Grenell, who served as ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence.
One pivotal question that remains unclear is whether a Democrat will jump into the race, either because they support ousting Newsom or hope to serve as a safety valve to block a Republican from being elected governor if Newsom is recalled.
(Times staff writers Seema Mehta and John Myers contributed to this report.)