Gavin Newsom Takes Aim at Larry Elder as California Recall Builds Up Steam

Can Democrats stop acting as if all the governor's critics are Trump-loving insurrectionists?


It looks like California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is recognizing the risks of a recall are real as he takes aim at Republican front-runner, conservative-libertarian radio host Larry Elder.

In a Zoom call at the end of last week, Newsom, without actually naming Elder, referred to him as a Donald Trump supporter who "thinks climate change is a hoax, believes we need more offshore drilling, more fracking, does not believe a woman has a right to choose [and] actually came out against Roe v. Wade, [and] does not believe in a minimum wage."

According to the Los Angeles Times, Newsom even said Elder subscribes to the woefully mistaken belief that Trump actually won reelection. In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, Elder actually made it clear that he believes President Joe Biden won the election, but then went on to complain about how Hillary Clinton did the exact same thing when she lost to Trump in 2016—complain inaccurately about the election being stolen.

Elder, in some of the most recent polling, is the front-runner to replace Newsom should the recall against Newsom succeed. And while early polling had Newsom successfully holding the recall off, subsequent polls have shown more and more undecided voters saying they want to replace the governor, and now the race is dead even as to whether to keep or toss him.

Newsom and the Democratic Party's tactic has been to paint the recall as a plot to seize power by Republicans and to paint everybody involved as pro-Trump anti-vaxxers. And therefore, all the Republicans jockeying to replace Newsom are the same.

But Newsom's tactic here has actually ended up being the opening to give Elder the space to actually talk about what he really believes, and an interview with SFGATE's Eric Ting published Monday lets him hit back at some of these claims. And to give Elder some credit here, he is well aware that just because he holds certain conservative positions doesn't mean he can or will be able to implement them as governor. Yes, he doesn't support the state's minimum wage and he's anti-abortion, but Elder also tells Ting, "I'm not going to change the minimum wage. I'm not trying to overturn Roe v. Wade; I don't even have the power to control abortion as governor. I've been in Kern County these past few days and no one has asked about the minimum wage or these other issues the media and Newsom are talking about."

And with that, Elder smartly pivots to what people in California actually are talking about: crime, homelessness, and housing issues. Ting pushes Elder on what he could actually do as a Republican governor given that the Democrats will maintain a supermajority in the legislature, meaning they could probably pass whatever they want to over his objections.

Elder says he'd issue executive orders declaring a crisis in housing and water, which he believes will make it easier for developers to build housing without getting thwarted by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), responsible for an oppressive regulatory system that greatly drives up the price—and often simply prevents—much development in the state.

He blames Newsom for crime levels going up in California for releasing felons from jails due to the pandemic and pretty much accepts the police narrative that the rise in crime is due to "passive policing" or the "Ferguson effect" where police are reluctant to intervene because they fear criticism. He says, "as governor, I'd use the bully pulpit to change the narrative around policing."

Ting actually points out to Elder that his tough-on-crime position seems to be at odds with how libertarians approach policing. He asks Elder if he has any criminal justice positions that align with libertarians or progressives, and Elder responds by suggesting that most people don't agree with those positions on crime anyway, and the only reason San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon won their elections were due to financial support from megadonor George Soros. In reality, San Francisco's Libertarian Party endorsed Boudin (and Ting further notes that Boudin didn't get any Soros money).

Elder dismissively says, "If you're a young black man, the best thing to do in encounters with the police is to cooperate. But if they're taught the police will do something to them and cause harm, how can we expect them to cooperate? Most of the police killings could have been avoided if people had complied."

Reason has exhaustively documented any number of cases where people who are compliant with police are nevertheless brought to harm. It's a flippant, oblivious response that certain people continue to believe, even as more and more video evidence shows the reality of how many police actually behave.

But while Elder isn't on board with criminal justice reforms, it is worth observing that he is genuinely engaging in the issues that are a focal point of discussion in many areas of California. The Democratic response—that Republicans are engaged in a "power grab" in Sacramento—just seems to present itself that Democratic control of the government, not actual citizen needs, is what is at stake in the September 14 recall race. The rallying cry around Newsom is essentially just listing a bunch of progressive goals as though they are somehow dependent on Newsom being governor.

"It's about immigration. It's about our health care policies. It's about our criminal justice reform," Newsom told San Francisco's KQED in March. "It's about the diversity of the state. It's about our clean air, clean water programs, meeting our environmental strategies."

But … is it about all of those things? Or is this recall election about a large group of Californians growing increasingly frustrated with a party that doesn't seem to care about the negative effects many regulatory policies have been having on the state's residents? The reason Newsom's French Laundry incident, where he defied his own lockdown orders in order to attend a birthday dinner with lobbyists, keeps being brought up is because it aptly demonstrates the massive disconnect between the party and the people of the state it represents. It doesn't just show that Newsom is above the rules—it also shows that Newsom simply doesn't have to deal with some of the negative and frustrating consequences of California's rules that others in the state have to struggle with.

I noted earlier in August that the anti-recall ads starring Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) tell Democratic voters that they should simply vote against the recall and completely leaves out that Democrats who oppose the recall can nevertheless choose a successor should Newsom be removed. If the recall succeeds and Democrats followed Warren's advice, they'll have lost the chance to select who will replace Newsom. It's an example of Democratic leaders emphasizing their own political survival above properly educating their own voters.

Some of Elder's more conservative positions might be objectionable to some libertarian voters. The L.P. has endorsed Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Hewitt, a Libertarian, who is also on the ballot.

But at least Elder's responses are based on what he is actually hearing from citizens in California and not just about maintaining a particular party's control over the government. He's actually honest about how some of his conservative positions are going to end up irrelevant to the role of being governor, and he knows that what voters want is for particular, chronic issues to be handled.

We'll see what happens if Democrats continue to present the recall as a "power grab" when polls show half of voters supporting it.