A California Coup? Gavin Newsom Has a Problem on His Hands

After nearly a year under some of the nation’s — indeed, the world’s — toughest Covid-19 restrictions, Californians are increasingly frustrated. With little sympathy from elected officials, they’ve endured mass layoffs, wrecked businesses and lost schooling. They’ve even lost their Disneyland annual passes. Yet the virus has still devastated the state.

Now they’re taking out their frustrations on Governor Gavin Newsom, who for many epitomizes governmental high-handedness and dysfunction. It doesn’t help that the governor suffers from what could be called resting smug face. Or that he comes from San Francisco, which exemplifies the combination of scary vagrants, general disorder and sky-high housing prices that makes Californians wonder how their state got so broken. (Not to mention the school district is against George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.)

Petitions to force a vote on whether to recall Newsom look likely to succeed — despite the obstacles to collecting signatures during a pandemic. Instead of relying on paid canvassers outside supermarkets, campaigners have to convince supporters to circulate and mail petitions individually.

“When I went to sign it [online] they wanted me to print a form, physically sign it, and then physically mail it,” says recall supporter Robbie Haglund, a West Hollywood resident who does online marketing for a law firm. “I dont have a printer, so I didn’t do it.” Overcoming such frictions suggests serious motivation.

The recall has until March 17 to submit signatures. If it qualifies, the special election would include two items: a yes-no vote on whether to recall Newsom and a gubernatorial ballot to pick his replacement if the recall passes. So voters would have some idea of the possible alternatives.

Potential candidates include former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who has said he’ll challenge Newsom in next year’s regular election if the recall fails, and venture capitalist and former Facebook Inc. executive Chamath Palihapitiya, a Democrat with 1.3 million Twitter followers.

Democratic officials are trying to stigmatize the recall movement as a collection of dangerous kooks. “This recall effort, which really ought to be called the California coup,’ is being led by right-wing conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, anti-vaxxers and groups who encourage violence on our democratic institutions,” state party chair Rusty Hicks said in a January press conference. A few days later, the Los Angeles Times expanded his talking point into a major article titled “Far-right movements including QAnon, virus skeptics linked to Newsom recall.”

“Recall Newsom” signs are certainly prominent at anti-vaccine and pro-Trump rallies, and the petition’s official language is a litany of talk-radio grievances that have more to do with immigration than the pandemic. But if supporters were really limited to the right (far or otherwise), the governor would have nothing to worry about.

California is an overwhelmingly Democratic state — which is exactly why a recall campaign is appealing to frustrated citizens. Without an effective alternative party, the state’s Progressive Era legacy of direct democracy is one of the few ways to check elected officials. Regardless of what happens with the recall, the threat alone seems to be having an effect.

The discontent isn’t just coming from Republicans or Trump supporters. Newsom’s numbers are on the skids among people who used to like him. Two recent polls show a significant decline. Among likely voters, the Public Policy Institute of California found a slight majority of 52% giving the governor a favorable rating — a drop from over 60% in the early days of the pandemic.

Among the larger population of registered voters, the most recent survey by the Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies finds a bare 46% approval, with 48% disapproving. In September, by contrast, approval topped disapproval 64% to 36%. “This represents a big shift in public sentiment from last year when large majorities approved of the job Newsom was doing,” writes Mark DiCamillo, the poll’s director.

Three specific offenses seem to catalyze the change. The most infamous was the birthday dinner with lobbyists at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, held even as Newsom was telling Californians not to have family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Faulconer was among the critics who immediately pounced on the governor’s inconsistencies, tweeting that “He can celebrate birthday parties. But you cant.”

That was in November. By then discontent with Newsom had already been growing for months, probably beginning in July when he announced that schools wouldn’t reopen. As the reality of another year of homeschooling dawned on California parents, many blamed the governor for not working to reopen schools. Interest-group politics, not science, seemed to be driving policy.

Newsom has now come around, bucking opposition from teachers’ unions with a plan to reopen elementary schools. The political calculus is straightforward. The unions aren’t likely to abandon him, but a significant number of homeschooling-weary voters might.

The final straw was in early December, with a statewide ban on outdoor restaurant dining. It went into effect almost immediately after a local judge ruled that Los Angeles County hadn’t demonstrated that eating outdoors posed a significant risk. Without an explanation for why outdoor dining might be dangerous, the statewide ban infuriated not only restaurateurs but also their customers.

“I see all these interesting-looking restaurants in my neighborhood, so many run by immigrants,” says a Los Angeles recall supporter who asked to remain anonymous. “Small places, using amazing ingenuity to maximize use of outdoor space to accommodate diners. And then all shut down by fiat. And we never see the data behind that fiat — though the governor said his decision was based on science.”

Newsom reversed the outdoor dining ban in late January, citing reduced pressure on intensive care units. Since the administration keeps the models it uses to make such decisions secret, the reversal came as a surprise to both businesses and local officials. With no good explanation of why the ban was justified in the first place, many people viewed the reopening as equally arbitrary — driven less by falling numbers of new Covid cases than by the decline in Newsom’s approval ratings.

The odds are still stacked against a successful recall. When voters booted Democratic Governor Gray Davis in 2003, replacing him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Davis was much less popular than Newsom, with disapproval ratings topping 70%. But Californians don’t need a recall to get rid of the governor. There’s a normal election next year and a primary system that could easily leave an unpopular incumbent without a place on the November ballot.

By giving alternative candidates an early media boost and amplifying voters’ dissatisfaction, the recall effort has accelerated the regular campaign. And, judging from his policy reversals, Newsom is getting the message.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her next book, "The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World," will be published in November.

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