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California recall looks like a disaster — and the state's top Democrats paved the way

Salon logo Salon 8/19/2021 Norman Solomon

Gavin Newsom wearing a suit and tie © Provided by Salon Gavin Newsom

Gavin Newsom GettyKevork Djansezian

Four weeks from now, a right-wing Republican could win the governor's office in California. Some polling indicates that Democrat Gavin Newsom is likely to lose his job via the recall election set for Sept. 14. When CBS News released a poll on Sunday, Gov. Newsom's razor-thin edge among likely voters was within the margin of error. How this could be happening in a state where Republicans are only 24 percent of registered voters is largely a tale of corporate-friendly elitism and tone-deaf egotism at the top of the California Democratic Party.

Newsom has always been enmeshed with the power of big money. "Gavin Newsom wasn't born to wealth and privilege but as a youngster he was enveloped in it as the surrogate son of billionaire Gordon Getty," longtime conservative California journalist Dan Walters has pointed out. "Later, Getty's personal trust fund — managed by Newsom's father — provided initial financing for business ventures that made Newsom wealthy enough to segue into a political career as a protégé of San Francisco's fabled political mastermind, Willie Brown." In 1996, as mayor, Brown appointed Newsom to the city's Parking and Traffic Committee. Twenty-five years later, Newsom is chief executive of a state with the world's fifth-largest economy.

Last November, Newsom dramatized his upper-crust arrogance of "Do as I say, not as I do." Photos emerged that showed him having dinner with a corporate lobbyist friend among people from several households, all without masks, in a mostly enclosed dining room — at an extremely expensive Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry — at a time when Newsom was urging Californians to stay away from public gatherings and to wear masks. The governor's self-inflicted political wound for hypocrisy badly damaged his image.

After deep-pocketed funders teamed up with the state's Republican Party to circulate petitions forcing a recall election, initial liberal optimism assumed that the GOP was overplaying its hand. But the recall effort kept gaining momentum. Now there's every indication that Republicans will vote at a significantly higher rate than Democrats, a fact that speaks not only to conservative fervor but also to the chronic detachment of the state's Democratic Party from its base. 

Newsom's most fervent boosters include corporate interests, mainline labor unions and the California Democratic Party. Just about every leader of the CDP, along with the vast majority of Democrats in the state legislature, is pleased to call themselves "progressive." But the label is often a thin veneer for corporate business as usual. 

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For instance, the CDP's platform has long been on record calling for a single-payer health care system in California. Such measures passed the legislature during the time when Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor from 2003 to 2011, and he surprised no one by vetoing the bills. But the heavily Democratic legislature has obliged the latest two Democratic governors, Jerry Brown and Newsom, by bottling up single-payer legislation; it's been well understood that Brown and Newsom wanted to confine the state party's support for single-payer to lip service.

In the same vein, the CDP's current chair, Rusty Hicks, signed a pledge that the state party would not accept fossil-fuel money. But he went on to do exactly that to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. 

As an elected member of the California Democratic Party's central committee during the last decade, I've often witnessed such top-down maneuvers. Frequently, the CDP's most powerful leaders are in a groove of thwarting the progressive aspirations of the party's bedrock supporters — and blocking measures that would materially improve the lives of millions of Californians.

"This is what happens when the culture of high-priced consultants and cult of personality meets a corporate-controlled legislature and party," said Karen Bernal, a Sacramento-based activist who chaired the CDP's Progressive Caucus for six years. She told me: "The campaign promises and vows of support for progressive policy are revealed to be nothing more than performative, while the hopes and dreams of the party's progressive base are sent to die in committee and behind closed doors. The end result is a noticeable lack of fight when it's most needed."

Now, with the recall election barreling down on the state, the routinely aloof orientation of the state party's structure is coming back to haunt it. Overall, the CDP's actual connections to grassroots activists and core constituencies are tenuous at best, while Newsom comes across as more Hollywood and Wall Street than neighborhood and Main Street. No wonder Democrats statewide are less energized about voting on the recall than Republicans are.

If Newsom loses the recall, his successor as governor will be determined by who gets the most votes on "part 2" of the same ballot. In that case, you might logically ask, isn't the "part 2" winner a safe bet to be a Democrat in such a heavily Democratic state? Actually, no.

On the theory that having any prominent Democrat in contention would harm his chances of surviving the yes/no recall vote on the ballot's "part 1," Newsom and party operatives conveyed to all of the state's prominent Democrats: Don't even think about it.

The intimidation was successful. Not a single Democrat with substantial name recognition is on "part 2" of the ballot, so no reasonable safety-net contender exists if the recall wins. As a result, Newsom's replacement looks as likely to be an ultra-right Republican as a Democrat. And even if the replacement is a Democrat, it would almost certainly be a highly problematic fellow — financial adviser and YouTube star Kevin Paffrath, whose grab bag of ideas includes a few that appeal to Democrats (marriage equality, higher teacher pay and promotion of solar and wind farms) but features a lot of pseudo-populist notions that would do tremendous damage if implemented. 

Paffrath's proposals, as described by the Southern California News Group, seek "to make all coronavirus safety measures optional, to ditch income tax for anyone making less than $250,000, to use the National Guard to get all unhoused Californians off the streets and to give trained gun owners more rights." As a clue to the inclusivity of the "centrist solutions" that Paffrath says he yearns for, he introduced himself to voters with a video that "features clips from Fox News and from conservative media host Ben Shapiro." Recent polling shows the 29-year-old Paffrath neck-and-neck with the frontrunning Republican on the ballot, bombastic Trumpist talk-show host Larry Elder.

Whether Newsom will remain governor past mid-autumn now looks like a coin flip. And what's at stake in the recall goes far beyond California — in fact, all the way to the nation's capital.

California's 88-year-old senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, is widely understood to be in poor health and suffering from cognitive decline as she — with increasing difficulty — navigates the U.S. Senate, now evenly split between the two parties. Under state law, if she dies or otherwise leaves her seat vacant, the governor gets to appoint the replacement. In a worst-case scenario, a Republican becomes governor when the recall election results are certified in October and thus, for at least the next 14 months, would have the power to select Feinstein's replacement, thereby once again making Mitch McConnell the Senate majority leader.

Given the looming political dangers, Feinstein should resign so that Newsom could appoint a Democratic replacement. But such a selfless move is highly unlikely. Despite all the talk about loyalty to their party and determination to defeat the extremism of the Republican Party, corporate Democrats like Newsom and Feinstein routinely look out for No. 1. That's how we got into this ominous recall mess in the first place.

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