California's Recall Is a Revolt Against Gov. Gavin Newsom's Progressive Agenda
Leading candidates Larry Elder, Kevin Faulconer, and Kevin Kiley cite homelessness, crime, housing costs, and energy shortages as evidence that one-party rule is failing the Golden State.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is in trouble, and he knows it.
"California and the values we profess would be judged in a different light if this was a successful recall," Newsom, who's facing a recall vote on September 14, told the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee in a taped interview. "I think it would have profound consequences."
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state has mailed every eligible California voter a ballot with two questions on it: "Shall Gavin Newsom be recalled from the office of governor," and which of 46 candidates should replace him if that were to happen? If the recall succeeds, whichever candidate receives the plurality of votes will replace Newsom until the next governor's race in 2022.
(Reason extended interview requests to all of the leading candidates in the race. Larry Elder, Kevin Faulconer, and Kevin Kiley agreed to be interviewed. The others declined or didn't respond to our requests.)
Newsom and his Democratic allies have portrayed the election as a right-wing plot to take over California's government, pointing to substantial funding from the California GOP and Mike Huckabee's political action committee and running ads connecting some of the pro-recall activists to QAnon and the Trump supporters who sieged the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
But what's actually animating likely recall voters are issues like rising homelessness, high housing and energy costs, fear of rising crime, and pandemic policies that have little basis in science, like closing beaches, banning outdoor dining, and keeping in-person public schools shut longer than any other state.
The recall should be just as big of a wake-up call to the Democratic political establishment as the fact that California recently lost a congressional seat for the first time in its history.
Early in the pandemic, Newsom was second only to former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the adoration he received from celebrities and the media for his COVID response.
"I don't know if you know this, but everyone loves you," Ellen DeGeneres told Newsom during an April 2020 interview.
Newsom touted California as a global beacon and a model of progressive governance that he claimed would change American politics forever.
"Absolutely we see [the pandemic] as an opportunity to reshape how we do business and how we govern," Newsom told a reporter at an April 2020 press conference.
But as "flattening the curve" morphed into indefinite lockdowns, and California's number of positive cases surged during winter 2020 regardless, Newsom acted as if, for him, rules that were paralyzing the state's restaurant and nightlife scene didn't apply, dining indoors with lobbyists at an expensive restaurant called the French Laundry.
"If Gavin Newsom were in my corporation, I would have fired him a long time ago. He has failed our state in a lot of different ways," says Orrin Heatlie, the retired Yolo County sergeant who started the recall petition six months before COVID hit. For Heatlie, illegal immigration was a motivating factor.
"[Newsom's] open-border policy, giving our tax money to illegal immigrants for housing, food, and clothing, when our own citizens are on the street, our own veterans are homeless on the street," says Heatlie.
Newsom, in turn, has pointed to Heatlie's key role as further evidence that the recall effort is a plot by right-wing extremists and often highlights in particular comments that Heatlie posted to Facebook that called for microchipping illegal immigrants.
Heatlie told Reason that the comments were "hyperbole" and "not the right thing to put out there" and cites the more than 1.7 million verified signatures collected as evidence that conservatives like him aren't the only ones who support a recall vote. Forty-nine percent of independents and—of particular concern to California Democrats—half of Hispanic voters support the recall, according to an August CBS/YouGov poll.
Newsom maintains that the recall is an anti-democratic maneuver. One group is suing to preemptively declare the outcome unconstitutional if Newsom loses to a candidate that gets fewer votes than he did in the general election.
California's recall procedure dates to 1911, and it was championed by Progressive Era reformers who wanted to check the power of special interests like the Southern Pacific Railroad. Fifty-five California governors have faced recall petitions to date, and this is the second time that an effort to recall the governor has made the ballot. The first time was in 2003 when Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Gray Davis.
"This has been in the California constitution for 110 years. The people that are now complaining had a lot of time to change the constitution," says talk radio host Larry Elder, a self-identified libertarian running as a Republican.
With his high name recognition and popularity among conservatives, Elder immediately became the frontrunner upon entering the race.
Elder, despite never worked in government, says his years of analyzing California politics on the radio have prepared him for the job.
"My opponent, Gavin Newsom, has had plenty of political experience. He was a two-term elected mayor of San Francisco. He had eight years as lieutenant governor to plan what he was going to do as governor…There was a gentleman who came out of Hollywood who was not a talk show host, who has not spent 27 years talking about these issues. His name was Ronald Reagan. He became a pretty decent two-term governor and a pretty decent two-term president," says Elder.
Elder says his top priorities as governor would be reducing the cost of housing—second highest in the nation—by rescinding California's lengthy environmental review process, ending the state's rolling blackouts by halting the closure of the state's last nuclear facility and reauthorizing gas and oil drilling, ending worsening droughts by investing in desalination technology, increasing police funding to combat crime, and more school choice—an issue that he says is particularly dear to his heart because of his experience growing up in South Central Los Angeles.
"I attended an inner-city school called Crenshaw High School—that was a school that was featured in the movie Boyz n the Hood," says Elder.
"Only 2 percent of kids from Crenshaw High School are math proficient. Now the polls showed a majority of black and brown parents living in the inner-city want school choice. They want the ability to say, I don't want to send my kid to a school where only 2 percent of kids are math proficient…The teachers union, the most powerful union in this state, are the largest funder of my opponent's campaign and is adamantly opposed to choice."
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is actually the largest donor to the campaign to keep Newsom in office, with a $3 million contribution. But Elder is right that the California Teachers Association is a major backer of Newsom, with a $1.8 million donation.
Over his career spanning decades, Elder has given his opponents plenty of fodder, such as his assertion in an article published in 2000 that "women know less than men about political issues."
Elder has also been criticized for his view that the minimum wage should be abolished because it cuts off opportunities for low-skilled workers.
A Los Angeles Times column labeled Elder the "black face of white supremacy" for this stance, as well as for his promise to repeal mask and vaccine mandates and for his rejection of critical race theory.
And Newsom, who didn't respond to Reason's multiple interview requests, says that Elder would be an anti-science "disaster" for California and has called him a climate change denier.
"What I am is a climate change alarmist denier," says Elder. "I don't believe when AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] says that our planet is going to be destroyed in 10 years or 12 years…I also believe that [forcibly transitioning] the economy from a fossil-based one to a renewables-based one does not appreciate tradeoffs."
While Elder leads the polls among Republican challengers, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is the only candidate with executive governing experience, which helped him earn the grudging endorsement of the Los Angeles Times. The paper suggested on its editorial page that voters "hold" their noses "and select Kevin Faulconer" after saying the entire recall election would be "comical if the stakes weren't so high."
Faulconer touts his record on homelessness, which declined in San Diego after he spent $6.5 million on a temporary shelter that had been earmarked for permanent housing. He also strictly enforced anti-camping laws.
"We took dramatic action in San Diego. I did not allow encampments on the sidewalk," says Faulconer. "People are going to die in our sidewalks, and we're better than that."
Faulconer's critics say his tactics were inhumane, and that the decline in the city's unsheltered homeless may partially be an accounting anomaly because during his tenure the count stopped, including of people living in RVs. But Faulconer points out that numbers declined countywide under his tenure and tents disappeared from the sidewalks.
"I took strong, strong action. And in fact, before COVID struck, we had 13 different cities from all across the country that came to look at the tough changes that we made in San Diego. Why? Because those changes worked," says Faulconer.
Like all of the leading GOP candidates, Faulconer uses tough-on-crime rhetoric and has accused Newsom of being overly sympathetic to the movement to defund the police. In June 2020, Newsom told an audience that he supports "reimagining" the role of police officers and shifting more responsibility onto social workers in dealing with the mentally ill, and he's been an advocate of statewide resentencing measures and reduction of penalties for certain criminal offenses. But this July he told journalists "don't ever confuse me with the defund police movement."
Newsom told journalists in late July not to ever "confuse" him with politicians who want to defund the police.
Other leading GOP contenders are businessman John Cox and reality star Caitlyn Jenner, who didn't respond to our email requests.
The highest-polling Democrat in the race is the 29-year-old real estate investor and YouTuber Kevin Paffrath, who's running as a liberal centrist.
And then there's Kevin Kiley, a state legislator and the only candidate currently holding elected office. He wrote a book making the case for recalling Newsom that focuses on allegations of corruption, incompetence, and disregard for the rule of law.
"I've been fighting in every way I can against Gavin Newson's one-man rule," says Kiley.
Kiley sued the governor for using his emergency powers to change California voting law and circumventing the state legislature, though lost on appeal.
Newsom had issued 58 executive orders over the course of the pandemic at that time, drawing pushback even from some fellow Democrats.
Kiley says Newsom exploited the pandemic to amplify his own power and boost his national political profile while ignoring the science of how COVID actually spreads.
"He's taken California's long-term decline and brought it to this total free fall. And so I think that by throwing him out in a popular citizens' movement, it's a chance to actually turn the page on this whole era of corruption and failure," says Kiley.
There's one point Newsom and his challengers agree on—if he's recalled on September 14, it'll mean dramatic changes are coming, not only to America's largest state, but also to the whole nation.
"Newsom has said that there are profound national implications, and I would have to agree with him on that," says Kiley. "I think that the recall can send a very clear warning to the rest of the nation: that California is not a model for the nation."
Produced by Zach Weissmueller; camera by Dillon Mortenson; graphics by Calvin Tran
Photos: JOHN WALKER/TNS/Newscom; Kyodo/Newscom; Sam Hodgson/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Li Jianguo / Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; Paul Kitagaki Jr./ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Alex Edelman—CNP/CNP / Polaris/Newscom; Lawrence Jackson/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Orin Louis/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Lev Radin/Sipa USA/Newscom; Ren E C. Byer/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Terry Pierson/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Image of Sport/Newscom; Ryan Grothe / MEGA / Newscom/RGSAN2/Newscom; Daniel Kim/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Ana Ramirez/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Frank Worth/ZUMA Press/Newscom; ANA VENEGAS/KRT/Newscom; Paul Kitagaki Jr./ZUMA Press/Newscom; Ron Adar/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Daniel Kim/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; David Brooks/ZUMA Press/Newscom; John Gastaldo/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Sandy Huffaker/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Nelvin C. Cepeda/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Jill Connelly/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; K.C. Alfred/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Paul Kitagaki Jr./ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Watchara Phomicinda/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Watchara Phomicinda/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; DAI SUGANO/KRT/Newscom; NADER KHOURI/KRT/Newscom; Watchara Phomicinda/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Sarah Silbiger / Pool via CNP / SplashNews/Newscom; Prentice C. James/Cal Sport Media/Newscom; Lindsey Nicholson/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Newscom; BILL GREENBLATT/UPI/Newscom; Danita Delimont Photography/Newscom; Ringo Chiu/ZUMA Press/Newscom; POOL/REUTERS/Newscom; MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS/Newscom; Álex Segura/EFE/Newscom; Kevin Sullivan/ZUMA Press/Newscom; MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS/Newscom.