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A Tale of Two California Recalls

Real Clear Politics logo Real Clear Politics 4/20/2021 Wayne Avrashow
Gavin Newsom wearing a suit and tie © Provided by Real Clear Politics

For better or worse, California often leads the nation's political discourse. Central to that discourse at the moment is the expected recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom; a recall of Los Angeles County's district attorney, meanwhile, is building steam. Each reveals something telling about the Golden State and its voters.

First Newsom. The announcement is imminent — insiders expect the recall to qualify for the ballot with an October election.

Who challenges him?

In 2003, Gov. Gray Davis was removed by the recall process by Arnold Schwarzenegger. A reprise of that successful effort is doubtful. Arnold was the unique candidate. Who else announces his candidacy on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show"?

Expect a significant celebrity candidate to pass on the opportunity, but a lesser-known one seeking attention is likely. Caitlyn Jenner, a self-described "LGBT conservative and social liberal," has made noise about filing. But even in California, you need more to gain political traction. If Jenner runs, the most likely outcome is some noise -- what older newspaper reporters would call "good copy" -- but it's challenging to see victory.

Billionaire and former presidential candidate Tom Steyer commissioned a poll to gauge his chances. Steyer has the deep pockets to make an impact, but a week after news of the poll was leaked, he announced he would not run.

California's major political forces remain with Newsom

The California Teachers Association was handed a plum when the legislature approved a $6.6 billion education incentive package. The State Building and Construction Trades Council provided more than $90 million to state candidates and campaigns in the past four years. Lobbyists for the nurses' unions exert influence over health care legislation.

Assume these forces stay with Newsom — which Democrat would want to incur their wrath? Who wants to be on the receiving end of millions of dollars of paid media as "anti-education," "opposed to health care," or "intends to send construction workers into poverty"? No prominent Democrat figures to break from Team Gavin.

Two prominent Republicans are poised to run. Kevin Faulconer served six years as San Diego's mayor and earned widespread praise. He was reelected in 2016 with 57% of the vote against a well-funded independent who trailed a distant second at 23%; the Democratic candidate was third.

Faulconer has the credentials but not the proper party. In California, Republicans and "Decline to State" voters jockey for second place among the electorate, each with 24%. The rhetoric against any Republican will sizzle with fury, if not truth. Any GOP candidate can expect to be labeled as "extreme right-wing" and "insurrection supporter." It will not be pretty.

Time is on Newsom's side

The state should be in a superior mood by the October election.

  1. Vaccinations. More than 30% of Californians are fully vaccinated, and over 50% have received at least one dose. By October, all who desire a vaccination will have one.
  2. The schools will be reopened, with parental anger defused.
  3. Businesses will reopen. Restaurants are returning to indoor dining; the weather is hospitable for outdoor dining — so unemployment figures to decrease.
  4. The public psyche will warm. With COVID's impact moving into the rear-view mirror, Californians' anger will diminish.

I am the author of the novel "Center Stage — A Political Thriller," a fictional account of a rock star's campaign as a political independent for the U.S. Senate. As noted before, celebrity candidates are sometimes victorious, but there is no Schwarzenegger on the horizon.

The prestigious UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs just published its annual Quality of Life Index, a comprehensive survey of Los Angeles County residents that measures attitudes on social and political issues. The index had Newsom's favorable to unfavorable results as 52%-39%. Recalling him is a long shot, but the recall of Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, also a Democrat, is a much closer call.

Will Gascon survive?

The UCLA Index had sobering news for the DA. The same polling universe as Newsom's showed Gascon in a near dead heat, 31% to 32%, favorable to unfavorable. Only 9% of respondents viewed him "very favorably" with 22% "very unfavorably." There is a base of distrust against the DA, who just took office in December.

I was campaign manager for two successful Los Angeles City Council campaigns, chairman of a Los Angeles County ballot measure, and served on two L.A. government commissions. There is a groundswell of opposition brewing against Gascon that a well-managed campaign can tap into.

Bet on the D against the R in any statewide election, but county elections such as district attorney are nonpartisan. Los Angeles County is a deeper blue than the state. It may be counterintuitive, but the recall of uber-progressive Gascon -- who was previously San Francisco DA -- is very possible.

Last November, Gascon prevailed by eight percentage points over the liberal incumbent, an African American woman Jackie Lacey, campaigning on criminal justice reform. To most Angelenos, this was a welcome signal to not incarcerate minor drug offenders, administer justice free of any racial bias, but still focus on violent crimes. Not Gascon. He instructed his staff to ignore state laws by never seeking enhanced penalties if a criminal uses a gun in the commission of a crime.

Victim groups are outraged. The union representing county deputy district attorneys filed suit to halt his reforms. As one DA stated, "We enforce state laws; we don't make state laws."

California is a one-party state, but the November 2020 election revealed an independent streak if the issue is not a Democratic-vs.-Republican one. The tech industry prevailed against organized labor on a ballot proposition involving gig workers. California also rejected reinstatement of affirmative action in government granting preferences in public hiring, college admissions, and public contracts.

The bottom line in this case: Gascon is a prosecutor who fails to prosecute. With a rising crime rate, that is a dubious political profile.

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