It has been a rocky year of change for all of us, but few have had a rockier road than California Governor Gavin Newsom. Due to some early gaffes in the COVID-19 crisis, like a mask-less dinner at the French Laundry, he is now facing a recall election. Thanks to California’s election laws, an avalanche of candidates have stepped forward to potentially replace the governor – most notably, the transgender, former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner. Well, if history is a teacher, those who backed the recall may have just given Governor Newsom a golden political opportunity.
To understand California politics and the recall process, one must go way back more than a century to the time of Hiram Johnson. In the early 20th century, Johnson had an incredible career in government, serving as Governor, then Senator, and at the height of his career as Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party running mate. Johnson led a number of reforms of state and local government including the ability to recall elected officials and the passing of laws through public initiative. At the time, San Francisco politics was in the palm of a shadowy political establishment helmed by a man named “Boss” Abe Ruef and his hand-selected mayor Eugene Schmitz. Johnson got his start on the road to political reform by prosecuting both.
A recall is a mechanism intended to keep politicians honest, literally. If they are guilty of malfeasance or corruption, the voters of California have a way to get rid of them during their political tenure. Over the years, the mechanism and its threshold for triggering a special election to oust an elected official has become a topic of some debate. Most recently, we are most familiar with the case of a Governor of California, Gray Davis, being recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger being elected in his place.
But to go back to San Francisco in 1983, and you will see where an unsuccessful recall strengthened an elected official by the name of Dianne Feinstein. When she won the recall, it cleared the decks for her re-election and gave her a national spotlight. Feinstein suddenly became Mayor of San Francisco upon the assassination of George Moscone in 1978. A year later, she won a full four-year term. Then, as 1983 started, a group of San Francisco political activists circulated a petition to recall even though there would be a mayoral election in November of that year.
They had to gather just over 19,000 signatures – an extremely low threshold politically speaking – to get this on the ballot. The joke at the time was that you could get an initiative for an overhead sewer line down Market Street with 19,000 signatures. Anyway, at a cost of over $350,000 a special recall election was held on April 26, 1983. It was also one of my first experiences working on a campaign.
Soon after, a massive effort to organize in San Francisco’s 700 voting precincts was put together by Fred Ross. It started with volunteers going out as an “ironing board” brigade and signing people up to vote by mail. Every part of the city was covered, each Saturday and Sunday, and folks stood behind ironing boards registering voters and enlisting them to vote at home. Precinct captains were recruited from this bunch and other duties such as phone banking and house sign placement were organized.
By the time Election Day rolled around, the get out the vote effort was a snap. By eliminating all of the “hell or highwater voters” (those who voted in all elections) and those “never” voters (those who did not vote in both the 1980 Presidential and 1982 Gubernatorial elections) as well as all those voting at home, many precinct captains only had about 100 voters to contact on election day. The result was an ultra-landslide – Feinstein beat the recall with 81.2% of the vote. Almost a third of the vote, 51,033 ballots, were cast by mail.
Her landslide victory paved the way for the rest of her political career. When the fall rolled around, she had no serious opposition and won re-election with 80% of the vote. A year later, San Francisco was hosting the Democratic National Convention, and Feinstein was seriously considered to be Walter Mondale’s running mate. Feinstein was elected to the U.S Senate in 1992 and has remained there ever since.
Feinstein turned the crisis of a recall election into an opportunity. Although there were some strong candidates against her – such as members of the Board of Supervisors and other elected officials – nobody wanted to take on someone who had a massive organization and tons of money.
Newsome could easily do the same with this current recall attempt. Since his unfortunate dining experience, he has led California through the COVID response. At this date, the infection rate of Covid in California is nine-tenths of a percent. Almost 13 million Californians, a third of the state, are fully vaccinated. On top of that, he has appointed a United States Senator and a state Attorney General without the Blagojevich stink and drama.
Yes, some have filed to replace him, notably Caitlin Jenner and 2018 GOP opponent John Cox, but they are not considered anywhere near as serious as Schwarzenegger was in 2003. According to a study from FiveThirtyEight, Newsom will “likely” survive the recall based on similar historical analysis.
Sure, there are significant parts of California that do not like and will not vote for Newsom. Next year, he is up for re-election, but for now, it is likely that he beats back this most current effort. Currently, 56% oppose a recall. If Newsom turns this crisis into opportunity, and this number holds or grows, it will be difficult to see if anyone serious will take him on when he runs in 2022.