SACRAMENTO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is framing the burgeoning effort to remove him from office as a fringe Republican movement backed by right-wing extremists, Trump supporters and QAnon conspiracy theorists.
But Newsom isn’t telling the whole story about who supports his recall.
Democrats and independent voters — who together dominate the state’s electorate — have also signed the recall petition, motivated by frustration with Newsom’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. Even Californians who helped elect Newsom to his first term in 2018 are angry over prolonged school closures, the whipsaw of business closings and openings and closings, vaccination chaos and turmoil at the state’s unemployment agency — which has been plagued with fraud, website failures and devastating backlogs that have left legions of residents without benefits.
“I’m not anti-mask, I’m not anti-science,” said Hastin Zylstra, 34, a Santa Ana Democrat who owns a laundromat and voted for Newsom in 2018. He signed the recall petition earlier this year, in part because he feels Newsom hasn’t done enough to help struggling small businesses.
“It sucks to be lumped into a group of white supremacists and anti-mask Republicans when a few months ago I was text-banking for Joe Biden and helping in the Georgia runoffs,” he added. “It feels a little bit like a knife in the back.”
Zylstra and other Newsom voters are chafing at the governor’s escalating attempts, in campaign advertising and on national television, to cast the recall drive as a partisan power grab. He told CNN on March 16 that his leadership during the covid-19 pandemic “saved thousands and thousands of lives,” and the same day on “The View,” Newsom dismissed recall supporters as extremists who don’t believe in science.
“It’s the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, not just the mega Trump donors,” Newsom said on the ABC daytime talk show. It’s also “the conspiracy theorists and militia members that are behind this recall.”
It’s true that the leaders of the recall petition are connected to Republican donors, right-wing extremists and QAnon, and that many conservatives have signed the recall petitions. But Democratic and independent voters say they’ve lost trust in the once-rising star of the Democratic Party.
A recent Emerson College poll found that 58% of Democrats and 55% of independent voters — those registered under no-party preference — would be open to dumping Newsom in favor of another Democratic candidate. And back-to-back polls this year by the University of California-Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the Public Policy Institute of California showed Newsom’s poll numbers dropping, although they are higher than those of former Gov. Gray Davis before his recall in 2003.
“I would vote for another Democrat over Gavin, of course I would,” said Mara Kolesas, 51, a Berkeley mother of two who voted for Newsom and didn’t sign the recall petition but believes he has failed students. “He had an opportunity to lead, but he’s putting politics and labor unions above kids.”
The Republican recall organizers have seized on unpopular decisions Newsom has made since last March, when he issued the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order, shuttering businesses, churches and schools across California. His mask mandate further fired up recall backers, but Newsom’s attendance at a birthday dinner with lobbyists last November at the high-end French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley marked a turning point that gave recall supporters momentum.
More than 2.1 million Californians have signed the petition to recall Newsom, according to campaign organizers. They need 1.5 million to place the question before voters, and the secretary of state’s office has so far validated nearly 1.2 million. Local election officials have until April 29 to certify the remaining signatures.
“The governor’s pandemic response is clearly driving voter attitudes, and concerns about his performance are not limited to Republicans,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which predicts the recall will take place in November. “And people who never signed a recall petition are going to be asked to pass judgment on how the governor has been doing.”
Nathan Click, Newsom’s campaign spokesperson, argues that controversy surrounding the governor’s pandemic decisions will not result in his ouster, with powerful Democrats still backing Newsom. Newsom’s allies have characterized the movement as a waste of money and a distraction from ending the pandemic.
“Gov. Newsom followed science and moved aggressively to keep Californians safe during the pandemic. His actions saved countless lives,” Click said. “What we are seeing up and down the state is Democrats uniting around the governor to stand up against this Republican recall.”
He always has the right things to say, but I feel he will do things that are expedient for him and not necessarily the public he’s serving.Debbie Blake
Now, as California’s massive economy begins to reopen quickly — the state is allowing restaurants, gyms and theaters to open for indoor patrons — some public health experts warn that the state is once again prematurely loosening restrictions. While cases and deaths have declined since the winter peak, they say, the drop is leveling off and case rates nationwide are beginning to rise, presenting worrisome signs for California. Most concerning is the spread of new, more infectious and deadly variants.
“I’m afraid we’re doing the same thing we did in May and June and October — opening too soon,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, a UC-Berkeley expert on infectious diseases. “Nobody can predict the future, but I think it’s likely we’re heading for a swell in new cases.”
The quick pace of reopening is angering some Democrats.
Butte County resident Debbie Blake strongly supported Newsom’s decision last March to order a statewide lockdown but said now she’s disappointed with his quick pace of reopening, vaccination chaos and inadequate testing early on. She said she wants to vote for another Democrat should a viable candidate emerge.
“He had us. Then he lost us,” said Blake, 64, a lifelong Democrat and retired school administrator who voted for Newsom in 2018.
“I felt like by opening up so fast, he succumbed to business pressures. And once you open up, it’s really hard to shut back down,” she added. “He always has the right things to say, but I feel he will do things that are expedient for him and not necessarily the public he’s serving.”
And as schools in the rest of the country have begun to reopen, the frustration among many California parents has boiled over.
Parents accuse Newsom of caving to the powerful California Teachers Association union — one of his largest political contributors — which rebuffed his calls for educators to return to campuses without strict health and safety measures in place, rather than requiring them to come back sooner to teach in person.
Jen Tarbox, a Folsom mom of two high schoolers, said Newsom went too far and didn’t consider the social-emotional impact on kids left at home, sitting in front of screens, disconnected from their friends, teachers and coaches.
“He messed with our children,” said Tarbox, 40, who led a protest at the state Capitol in February. “Any parent — Republican, Democrat, I don’t care what political belief — is going to fight for their child.”
And when Newsom lamented earlier this month in his State of the State speech about his four children’s experience with distance learning and “Zoom school,” Tarbox said he was not being honest. His kids attend private school and started to return in person in October.
“He called himself a Zoom parent,” said Tarbox, who signed the recall petition. “Absolutely laughable.”
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
[Update: This story was revised at 5:45 p.m. ET on March 30, 2021, to clarify that Mara Kolesas has not signed the petition to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.]