Gavin Newsom and the Politics of Rage

After a near-perfect political career, the Golden State Governor is fighting a recall–and a California political system that can devour a governor.

History is repeating itself in California, which is just one of 19 states that allow the recall of a sitting governor. Only two governors in the U.S. have been successfully recalled: Gray Davis in California in 2003 and Lynn Frazier in North Dakota in 1921 who, a century ago, was in a fight with the Socialist Party over state ownership of industriessomething that, it’s safe to say, has not been an issue in Bismarck for some time. For his part, Davis got the boot just 10 months into his second term after a slew of conflicts—a budget crisis, backlash over an immigration reform that provided driver’s licenses to undocumented citizens, and the state’s response to wildfires. All that and more pushed Davis out of office in 2003 and pulled Arnold Schwarzenegger in. Now, a petition to recall Governor Gavin Newsom has collected enough signatures to trigger a recall election in the fall. The petition still needs to be verified. That is expected to toss out tens of thousands of signatures, but recall supporters say they’ve gathered around 2 million, far surpassing the official 1.5 million needed to put Newsom on the chopping block. 

Newsom acknowledged this month that the recall effort has the requisite signatures and cast it as a Trump-backed ploy to undermine the state’s progressive values. The recall was spawned by conservatives much like the Davis recall which was funded in large part by Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican, who was returned to the House in November and has made a fortune on anti-theft devices for cars.

The problem for Newsom is that what started as a fringe right-wing rebellion, with ties to QAnon and virus skeptics, has now become a bonafide threat to the Democratic governor even in a state where the Biden/Harris ticket won over 63 percent of the vote—a stronger blue performance than all but a few states such as Hawaii and Vermont. (The anti-Davis rebellion followed a similar trajectory: incubated on the right and then burgeoning elsewhere.) The discontent driving the recall is directed at the state’s failure to contain the virus, restrictions on businesses, and failure to re-open schools. Mainstream California Republicans have adopted the recall effort and launched Rescue California, a PAC to fund their efforts. 

As recently as October, Newsom’s approval ratings neared 60 percent, with even higher support for his pandemic response. But then a month later, the governor was famously pictured without a mask, supping at The French Laundry in the heart of Napa Valley, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the United States with prices to match. (It runs $350 per person to dine, and the wine list can send the tab higher still.) Even more embarrassing, the governor was with Dustin Corcoran and Janice Norman—the CEO and the lobbyist for the California Medical Association. Short of kicking a puppy, it couldn’t have been worse for Newsom.

Just a few weeks later, Newsom suffered another embarrassment after news reports revealed that the state’s unemployment system had been scammed for billions of dollars by fraudsters. Newsom also faced criticism from some on the left back in January after lifting the state’s stay-at-home orders even as the coronavirus mortality rate remains higher than when the stay-at-home rules were adopted in December. Some commentators called the relaxation a cynical effort to temper the recall’s momentum. As the Los Angeles Times’ veteran capitol journal columnist George Skelton wrote at the time, the two back-to-back controversies made Newsom look simultaneously like an out-of-touch “elitist” and an incompetent head of state. 

Now, Newsom’s approval ratings have dropped to 46 percent, according to a recent Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll

The recall is the first bump in Newsom’s charmed political life as the scion of a politically connected family. His father was appointed to the appeals court by Gov. Jerry Brown during Brown’s first gubernatorial stint in the 70s. Gavin was close to the Getty family, and his rise from a county supervisor seat (a position he was appointed to thanks to former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown) was fueled by his connections. When he was elected mayor of San Francisco at 36, Newsom was the youngest person to lead the city in a century. Then, as Lt. Governor to Jerry Brown, during Brown’s second gubernatorial tour of duty, Newsom was in the perfect position to win the top job in 2018. Few politicians seemed so golden. Unlike Andrew Cuomo, he had not pissed off staff, legislators, and just about everyone else.

Can Newsom get kicked out? Probably not, but you wouldn’t want to bet your savings on it. California has trended much more Democratic in the 18 years since Davis’s recall. Newsom is a more talented, adroit politician than Davis (who had also served under Jerry Brown). He’s brought in a strong team to manage the recall, including Cory Booker advisor Addisu Demisse, a protecting-the-fort move that Davis didn’t make until it was too late. Also, Davis faced Schwarzenegger who had 100 percent name ID and, as a moderate if not an apolitical first-time candidate, could tap Democrats and Republicans. 

But there’s an ominous sign for Newsom: Once a recall measure qualifies, the odds aren’t in favor of the incumbent winning back the office, according to researcher Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at New York’s Wagner College and an expert on recall campaigns. In his findings, 60 percent of recalls result in the lawmaker being removed (although only a handful of cases involved a state governor such as former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the Republican, who survived one). 

As Newsom, now 53, is fond of noting, this is his enemies’ 6th run at a recall, which began just as he took office. Before the pandemic, recall backers were easy to dismiss as fanatics swimming in the conspiratorial waters that have festered since the John Birchers of the 1960s. The campaign also has support from a far-right secession movement in rural Northern California which proposes carving a new State of Jefferson and could be seen at the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6th. Newsom’s having been married to former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, now Donald Trump, Jr’s girlfriend, hasn’t bought him any truck with the right. 

After implementing strict coronavirus restrictions and putting the state on lockdown last spring, the governor faced right-wing anti-virus protests in Orange County and Northern California, which further fueled the recall effort. 

Newsom’s strategy to paint the recall as the effort of right-wing nuts falls short because Libertarian-minded tech moguls are among his chief critics. Before the recall effort took off, a tech revolt had been brewing in Silicon Valley. Several tech billionaires, most notably Tesla CEO Elon Musk, have accused Newsom and Californian Democrats of driving business out of state. Their frustration with taxes and regulations only escalated with the state’s coronavirus restrictions, which prompted Musk to play chicken with Newsom. Back in May, he kept his Tesla plant in the Bay Area open during the shutdown, daring the Governor to shut it down. Newsom blinked, leading to more criticism from his liberal base. 

The South African-raised Musk has announced he’s leaving California for Texas. Other tech leaders have joined the “Calexit” movement, saying they’ve fled to “pro-business” states like Florida. 

According to Bloomberg, contributions from Silicon Valley moguls account for 16% of the funding raised by the Rescue California PAC. Notably, Doug Leone of Sequoia Capital, the family of Dixon Doll, and the tech executive David Sacks have all notched substantial donations to the campaign. 

The alliance between Silicon Valley and the recall campaign now has a leader. The billionaire venture capitalist and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya endorsed the recall campaign back in January and announced his bid for Governor. The 44-year-old and high finisher in the World Series of Poker vows to cut income taxes to zero, which he says will double revenues, a position that would seem to require a poker face. 

With California’s history of electing celebrity governors with little political experience like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan, you can’t count out an eccentric billionaire like Palihapitiya. 

Another political figure who has endorsed the recall campaign poses a more serious challenge to Newsom: former San Diego Republican mayor Kevin Faulconer. Before getting termed out this past year, Faulconer was one of the few Republican mayors to lead a major city. As mayor, he staked out moderate positions on immigration and environmental reform and supported gay marriage. It’ll be hard for Newsom to portray him as a right-wing crank. 

It’s not just a previous recall that should worry Newsom. The state’s ballot initiatives, a product of the state’s Progressive Era heritage of direct democracy, have frequently turned California rage into unexpected populist victories and enduring problems like the 1978 Prop. 13 measure capping property taxes, which has crippled state government for decades. When voters cast ballots on everything from cage-free eggs to affirmative action, it’s not exactly a surprise that at least some feel emboldened to cut short the term of a Governor whose policies they find abhorrent. That Newsom has to worry at all about finishing his first term says a lot about California and this very uncomfortable moment in American politics.

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Luke Goldstein

Luke Goldstein is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly and a recent graduate from Wesleyan University.