In March 2021, a petition to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom gained over two million signatures. As a result, Gavin Newsom is facing a recall election on the fast-approaching 14th of September when Californians will be faced with two questions at the polls: ‘Should Gavin Newsom be recalled?’ and ‘If recalled, who should replace him?’. But is there actually merit to this recall effort, or is it another partisan effort by conservatives to remove liberal politicians? Read this article to find out more…
WHAT IS A RECALL ELECTION?
California is one of the 19 US states to allow recall elections. Put simply, a recall election is a chance for the citizens to vote out an elected official before the natural end of their term. If a petition to remove the incumbent official from office can achieve the threshold of signatures for the official’s state (in California, this is currently about 1.7 million signatures), then a recall effort can be launched against the politician in question. The recall election against Gavin Newsom is only the fourth Gubernatorial election of this type in US history (although it’s the second in California – a recall election ousted Gray Davis in 2003, to be replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger). Despite being a rarity, the recall election is happening and could lead to a big change in California politics.
WHY GAVIN NEWSOM?
Those who petitioned to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom cited ‘illegal immigrants, homelessness, taxes and water rationing’ as reasons to remove him from office. Since the petition began, their case has also benefited from the discovery that Gavin Newsom attended a dinner party in Napa, breaching Covid restrictions. While many Republicans believe these are legitimate reasons to remove Newsom, some Democrats believe this is simply a political ploy to remove liberals from office. Rusty Hicks, chairman of the California Democratic Party, likened this to the Capitol Riot, referring to it as the ‘California Coup’. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also made clear that Democratic President Joe Biden is strongly behind Gavin Newsom and believes there is no reason for him to be recalled.
WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN?
Current polls (as per FiveThirtyEight) show that 48.8% of Californians want Gavin Newsom to stay in office, while 47.6% want him to be removed. This leaves the vote very much in the balance, with the ‘undecided’ voters in control of Gavin Newsom’s political fate. Personally, I struggle to believe that he will be recalled, but we all also struggled to believe that Trump would beat Clinton; recent history tells us that this election really could go either way. If he does get recalled, the question then becomes ‘who would replace him?’
WHO WOULD REPLACE GAVIN NEWSOM?
There are many big candidates vying to replace Gavin Newsom, most of whom are Republicans. Currently leading in the polls is heavily conservative podcast host and writer Larry Elder. A divisive candidate, the Los Angeles Times referred to him as ‘the black face of white supremacy’. Though he is far from a white supremacist, he does have wildly conservative views (and even some extremist views no reasonable conservative would support) including abolishing the minimum wage, eliminating corporate tax, and drastically reducing the size of the government. On the more extreme side, Elder also has a history of homophobic comments, as well as questionable scientific views: Elder believes that scientists are ‘exaggerating’ the impacts of smoking, he has stated in the past that climate change is a ‘myth’ and has supported people who refuse to wear masks and get vaccinated as a point of principle, despite the obvious benefits these actions carry. Even though he’s the apparent ‘leader’ of the Republican party in this contest, some other key Republican contenders (more on them later) are calling on him to drop out. The main democratic challenger to Elder, should Newsom be recalled, is Kevin Paffrath – a democratic youtuber, real estate agent and landlord. Despite facing legal challenges in the past, democrats who aren’t behind Newsom believe that Paffrath would be a good candidate, or at least better than any Republicans – Paffrath has proven to be primarily popular amongst socialist and younger voters. He would be the youngest Governor of California and has effectively no political experience to his name, yet he has still emerged as the Democratic frontrunner. His campaign has been centred around a call to deploy the National Guard to resolve California’s homelessness crisis, a popular message that could explain his rise to prominence. Beyond that, however, his actions are bizarre and, at times, verging on flat-out stupid. He sued the Secretary of State of California for denying his request to be called ‘Kevin “Meet Kevin” Paffrath’ on the ballot - the judge rebuffed his request for this name by rightly declaring it not a formal nickname but rather a ‘brand’. He also used his social media platform to call Newsom a ‘weanie baby’, a post subsequently taken down by Facebook for breaching harassment rules.
Neither of these candidates would seem like the right leader for the golden state – and many of the other less successful candidates miss the mark, as well. The most obvious example of these second-tier candidates is Caitlyn Jenner, former Olympian and now reality host, who is running as a social liberal and fiscal conservative. As a trans woman, her policies regarding the trans and LGBTQ+ communities have been put under greater scrutiny than her opponents’. Her views are controversial: she believes, for example, that trans girls should not compete in women’s sports – a decision that has made her unpopular amongst liberals and LGTBQ+ people and allies (a group that could have been a key demographic for her). As an atypical moderate, Jenner has struggled to receive support from the left or right, with each one citing her fiscal and social policies, respectively. Jenner’s campaign for Governor is like Kanye West’s run for President – inexplicably entertaining, yet unlikely to have an impact at the polls (although Jenner stands a far greater chance here than West did in the race for President last year). Because it wouldn’t be US politics if most candidates didn’t have a legal issue, Jenner has also had her fair share of legal woes, including a highly publicised car accident several years ago. Jenner is one of the two Republican candidates to call on Elder to pull out of the race.
The other candidate calling for Elder to pull out is Kevin Faulconer, the former Mayor of San Diego, and one of the only candidates in the race who legitimately seems normal. The only moderate in this race, Faulconer has struggled to gain support on a national level as politics becomes more and more divided. Nonetheless, his centrist views could become popular, especially amongst anti-Paffrath Democrats searching for a solution. As a moderate, Faulconer brings back some of the ideologies of the Romney/McCain era: while Mayor he laid out a climate action plan to reduce carbon emissions and was concerned for public health as evidenced by his responses to the San Diego Hepatitis A outbreak and Covid-19 pandemic. Faulconer, despite being fiscally conservative and a proud Republican, is more liberal socially than some might expect - he is an outspoken Republican supporter of the Civil Rights Act, a long-time ally of the LGBTQ+ community, pro-choice and in favour of banning police chokeholds.
One final challenger in the race for California Governor is businessman and 2018 Republican candidate John Cox. Cox has flip flopped between supporting Trump and backing the more moderate branch of the Republican party. For example, Cox didn’t publicly support Trump in 2016, yet he did share some of his views, including Trump’s strongly pro-life stance (as evidenced by Cox’ declaration that ‘abortion is murder’). Since then, Cox has shifted back and forth between the centre and the far right, but has never found a stable spot, meaning he’ll probably struggle to make a major impact in the recall election. And that guy who got subpoenaed in the middle of a debate (yes, this really happened) – well, that was John Cox. The last thing any campaign needs a month from election day is their candidate being legally required to testify in a criminal trial. Even worse, he’s being subpoenaed regarding a financial issue with his own campaign - winning may be impossible.
WHAT'S THE RIGHT DECISION?
Of the two issues at hand, the question of whether to recall Newsom is easier to answer than the question of his replacement. Should Gavin Newsom be recalled? No – it’s as simple as that. Those who launched the recall campaign never had a legitimate reason to launch it – just distaste for his policies – and the notion of allowing recall elections, in general, is a slippery slope. While his Covidiot dinner party in Napa wasn’t great, especially considering he broke his own rules, it isn’t really a reason to kick him out of office, but more an issue to be considered in the 2022 regular election.
But, if Gavin Newsom is to be recalled, who is the next best choice? This is a little less straightforward – it can even feel a lot like picking the best of a bad bunch. Despite the lack of choice, I believe that Kevin Faulconer would make a great Governor of California. Do I think Newsom would be better? Yes – but Faulconer could help chip into the effort of recentring American politics. Faulconer has shown the ability to listen to multiple viewpoints and has pursued progress in a centrist and politically safe way during his tenure as Mayor of San Diego. Perhaps most importantly, he would likely do a lot less damage than any of his counterparts: Elder, Paffrath, Jenner and Cox are borderline extremist, immature, politically inexperienced and indecisive, respectively. Though not ideal, a centrist like Faulconer would by no means be a disaster. And who knows, he could be a key player in bringing the Republican party out of the Trump era…