California's Recall Circus Has an Actual Bear

It’s going to be a long summer in the Golden State.


When California's secretary of state determined last week that there were enough valid signatures to force a recall vote for Gov. Gavin Newsom, I predicted it would be a circus. I meant that figuratively, but on Tuesday candidate John Cox literally brought a live bear to a press conference.

The 1,000-pound kodiak bear named Tag, which Cox has selected as a mascot for his campaign, predictably got more attention than Cox did, causing him to complain that people weren't focusing on policy. Perhaps that's because Cox, a Republican businessman and habitual candidate, hasn't presented much actual substance for us to sink our teeth into. His initial campaign ad revolves heavily around the bear, calling Newsom a "pretty boy" and saying that California has to "do things differently" without actually explaining what that means.

The "beast," you see, is Cox himself, who is going to "hit the ground running" and apparently cut the cost of living and "slash taxes." But he doesn't offer any actual policy proposals, let alone how he'll overcome a Democratic Party that holds a super-majority over the state legislature? There are no actual policy proposals or actions he says he will take that will lead to these solutions. His campaign page on "solutions" just lists six uncontroversial outcomes he supports, such as lowering the cost of energy and fighting homelessness, all presented as though these are things that Cox can somehow just will into happening. No wonder the bear got all the attention.

Here's the ad. Just try to figure out what he would actually do as governor:

Cox faced off against Newsom in the 2018 election and lost in a landslide: Newsom beat him by more than 20 percentage points.

Caitlyn Jenner's first ad similarly has little actual substance, but it leans less on mocking Newsom and more on sweeping views and swelling music:

Jenner also has the benefit of having friends in conservative media. On Wednesday night she sat down for an hour with Sean Hannity on Fox News, spelling out her conservative bona fides. She declared her support for the police, said she had "watched the state crumble," called herself a "thoughtful disruptor," and noted that Newsom gives the impression that "there's one set of rules for Sacramento, and one set of rules for everybody else."

Oddly, Jenner seems to think (or wants us to think) that California is still fully closed and that the hair salons where she lives aren't open. They're open here in Los Angeles and have been for a couple of months. The reality is that California is finally opening back up. The push for the recall revolves heavily around Newsom's poor management during the pandemic, and you certainly won't get much defense of the governor from Reason. But the fact that things are going back to normal means a lot of Californians are probably less likely to vote to recall him.

Jenner did namecheck libertarians, saying she gets along with everybody: "Democrats, Republicans, libertarian, vegetarians, it doesn't make a difference to me." She also proposed dumping the costly high-speed rail construction and using that money instead for desalinization plants to prevent future water shortages. Arguing against the rail plan, she noted that there are plenty of flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a comment that prompted some inane tweets from people who seem to think that flying between the two cities is something only rich jetsetters can afford.

In fact, flying between L.A. and San Francisco is pretty cheap and accessible (currently starting from $77). That's less than the bullet train is likely to cost. Back in 2015, studies estimated that tickets would be $86 a pop, and now it will almost certainly have to be higher, given the project's cost overruns. (Its price tag has ballooned to three times the initial estimate.) If anything, Jenner is being too kind, since the route between the two cities won't even be high-speed rail the entire way. High-speed rail is not being designed to make long-distance transit more affordable for low-income people, and it will not meet their transportation needs.

I noted on Monday that Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Hewitt—a member of the Libertarian Party—is running in the recall. In a subsequent interview, Hewitt differentiated himself from other candidates by pointing to his 11-year record as an elected official.

"I've taken on Cal Fire and the very professional firefighters union," Hewitt tells Reason. "I've also taken on pensions. I've shown that I know how to build coalitions and such. If I move to the governor's office, the fundamentals of governing remain the same."

Hewitt accuses Newsom of ignoring the science by ordering such a broad lockdown. The vast majority of people who were vulnerable to COVID-19 were older, Hewitt argues, so shielding them should have been the priority, not shutting down the whole state.

"We should have been spending our time and money making those who were vulnerable safe from it," Hewitt says. "Over the next 10 years, this is going to be shown to be some of the worst decisions ever made."

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, was one of the first out of the gate to announce he was running, dropping his first campaign ad back in February:

Faulconer's ad hits the same themes as the other recall candidates, but he fleshes out some specifics about why Californians are upset enough to sign onto a Republican-driven recall in a heavily Democratic state. He doesn't just take note of the chaotic, incomprehensible state COVID-19 guidelines. He name-checks A.B.5, the anti-gig economy legislation that was partly rejected by voters in November. He notes the billions of dollars in unemployment fraud the state failed to catch during the lockdown. He has thrown his support behind chef Andrew Gruel's fight against COVID-19 regulations that have harmed the restaurant industry.

And those are only the most prominent candidates. At least 22 people have gotten at least some media coverage by publicly declaring themselves candidates. When Gov. Gray Davis was recalled in 2003, 135 candidates ran.

As for Newsom himself, he and Democrats have decided to play up the cost of having a recall. Apparently, government frugality is suddenly important.

"Now is not the time to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a recall effort," Newsom said in a Tuesday press conference with the California Professional Firefighters union. "It is nothing more than a partisan power grab."

A power grab it may be, but it's a power grab that has managed to get pretty far in a state where Republicans account for only 24 percent of registered voters. I'm not sure playing up partisanship will help Newsom keep his polling lead, but we'll see.