In many ways, the campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom is evolving just as Newsom hoped it would.
The polls indicate that recall sentiment is running well behind what would be needed to oust him from office. He enjoys solid support from his own Democratic Party, even though he won’t be listed as a Democrat on the Sept. 14 ballot, thanks to an error by his campaign.
Newsom and the Legislature advanced the date of the election to take advantage of his current popular support and give his opponents less time to make their case for the recall. Moneyed interests and wealthy supporters have given Newsom a hefty campaign treasury, more than $30 million so far, that far outstrips what the pro-recall campaign has mustered.
Finally, the list of would-be successors has only a few dozen names, none a prominent Democrat and none with the public standing or the fundraising ability to mount a full-fledged campaign. The state’s disjointed and much-diminished Republican Party cannot coalesce around a single candidate, and the political media, particularly those from elsewhere, seem mesmerized by the mock candidacy of former athlete and reality television figure Caitlyn Jenner.
All of that notwithstanding, current events — drought, wildfires and a flareup of COVID-19, particularly — are a political minefield for the governor.
Newsom wants to continue bopping around the state, under the guise of official business, proclaiming that California is “roaring back” from the pandemic and the sharp recession that resulted from his shutdown orders, and touting the new state budget’s generous benefits, including cash payouts, that voters will be receiving.
Newson eagerly took center stage after the pandemic exploded in early 2020, issuing executive orders to take solo command of the crisis, and making frequent and lengthy webcasts to explain what he was doing to combat the dread coronavirus.
With the recall election now just weeks away, however, Newsom is clearly shying away from assuming public command of the newest crises.
For example, when Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, faced a lesser drought in 2015, he ordered a mandatory 25 percent cut in water usage, but Newsom has issued only a tepid call for a voluntary 15 percent reduction, clearly unwilling to take the political heat for telling Californians they can’t water their lawns as often as they’d like.
When the highly infectious Delta variant of coronavirus began pushing up numbers of new cases, several counties, including Los Angeles, reinstated orders to wear masks in indoor settings. However, when Newsom was asked this week whether a statewide order was looming, he responded with words that amounted to ducking the issue. Moreover, in sharp contrast to his high-profile command of the pandemic in 2020, he’s content to let state health officials do the talking this time.
When a news organization revealed that Newsom’s administration had accomplished only a small fraction of promised fuel reduction in fire-prone areas, it led some legislators to complain that Newsom’s proposed state budget was deficient in fire protection. He quickly filled the hole with some extra money, just as fires began erupting throughout the state.
All three crises — drought, fire and COVID-19 — seem destined to become more acute in the coming weeks and while Newsom may prefer to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, to paraphrase the old song, he opens himself up to valid criticism if he sidesteps them for political purposes.
Moreover, if COVID-19 cases continue to climb, the question of reopening schools will once again arise and Newsom will be on the spot just as California voters begin marking their recall ballots.
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about California and its politics and his column has appeared in many other California newspapers. He currently writes for CalMatters.org a non-profit, non-partisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.