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Column: Get ready for California’s $400-million recall election circus

John Cox stands behind a podium with a bear on his right and a bus behind him that says "Meet the beast"
Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox launches his campaign tour in Sacramento with Tag, a 1,000-pound bear.
(Phil Willon/Los Angeles Times)

In the fall of 2003, I drove to the Orange County fairgrounds in Costa Mesa and watched Arnold Schwarzenegger campaign to replace Gov. Gray Davis with a spectacular stunt.

The action hero gave the signal and a crane dropped a wrecking ball on a Buick bearing the words “Davis Car Tax.” The car exploded, and so did the crowd, which wanted to recall Davis and elect Schwarzenegger.

Legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, who was standing beside me, was flummoxed. Looking like someone who’d just landed on another planet, he turned to me and asked what the heck was going on.

Welcome to California, I said.

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And now here we are again.

Schwarzenegger — who indeed trimmed the car tax by $4 billion as governor, blowing a crippling $4-billion hole in the budget — isn’t starring in the 2021 recall sequel. And if you thought he’d hold on to the title for turning a recall election into a circus, think again.

For starters, we’ve got John Cox, who launched his campaign to unseat Gov. Gavin Newsom several days ago by trotting out a bear.

Why a bear?

“It’s a choice between the beauty and the beast,” Cox said, calling Newsom a “pretty boy” and saying, “it’s time to unleash the beast.”

If and when that happens, let’s hope the bear takes a swipe at Cox for using the poor animal as a prop.

Cox, on the other hand, is a nearly extinct species — a California Republican. If you had trouble remembering why his name sounded vaguely familiar, it’s because Cox lost to Newsom in 2018 in the biggest landslide in more than half a century. He got more banged up more than Arnold’s Buick.

And yet we are all but assured of a recall election this year, just one year short of the scheduled 2022 election, at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $400 million. And that’s despite the fact that opposition to the recall has been running in the mid-50% range in recent polls.

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So what are Cox’s big ideas this time around? On his website you’ll learn that he is going to “reopen our economy,” which of course is already reopening. He’s going to “open our schools,” which of course are already reopening. And Cox, who made his millions as an investment counselor, is going to “slash taxes” while somehow also addressing the “root causes” of homelessness.

I often hear from readers worked into a lather about homelessness, and they can’t wait to tell me that clueless Democrats, clearly, are to blame. And sure enough, Dems at every level of government deserve to be called out.

But Republicans have not exactly been innocent bystanders through several decades of Wall Street-friendly economic and tax policies that have driven the staggering levels of income inequality that help fuel homelessness across the U.S. So I’m looking forward to the details on how Cox addresses those root causes.

Joining Cox on the ballot will be Republican Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympian and reality TV star who calls herself a “thoughtful disruptor.”

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I’m not sure, but Jenner, who is transgender, might be the first trans candidate opposed by trans activists, in part because of her siding with the GOP in wanting to ban transgender athletes’ participation in girls’ sports. In her campaign ad, Jenner promises to lead California to new heights by clearing all of its “big hurdles,” but if the first one is having something of substance to contribute as governor, she’s already tripped.

In addition to Cox and Jenner, adult film star Mary Carey says she’s running again, as she did in the last gubernatorial recall — if only to remind us that, in California, politics and pornography are sometimes indistinguishable.

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, another Republican, is also in, and seems to be the most legit and accomplished candidate. Like Faulconer, who told me back in November that he was considering this run, I’ve had issues with Newsom, and there are more than a few nits to pick.

Newsom has been inconsistent at times in handling the pandemic, and his now-infamous dinner at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant, while we were all dutifully hibernating, was a big, hypocritical blunder. The unemployment benefits scandal has cost billions, and although he didn’t create it, the fixes have been slow in coming.

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Then there’s the aforementioned homelessness and the fact that California has both the most robust economy and the highest rate of poverty.

But Newsom was voted into office by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, and he’s handled the unprecedented dual challenges of COVID-19 and climate change reasonably well and far better than the imbecile Trump. The state now has a healthy budget surplus, and things are generally looking up after a singularly dreadful year.

The recall effort includes some Democrats, but it’s overwhelmingly led by those on the right. So I asked longtime California GOP consultant and Trump foe Mike Madrid if Republicans might have been better off grooming a candidate to rebuild and reenergize the party and take a run at Newsom a year from now.

Madrid’s response?

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There is no Republican Party to rehabilitate. Not in California, and not in the U.S.

“Nobody can tell you what Republicanism means anymore, or what it stands for. They can only tell you what they’re against. … And you can’t build a movement based on what you’re against,” said Madrid, who has argued for years that the party ensured its own demise by alienating and scapegoating minorities rather than inviting them into the tent.

“The Republican Party has become a countercultural movement,” Madrid said. “It’s not trying to engage in a party or governance system in the way we have known it in the past. In fact, it’s trying to do just the opposite.”

Madrid noted that in last year’s presidential election, the GOP didn’t even have a platform. Six months after a decisive victory by President Biden, Arizona is recounting votes, and leading Republicans still insist the election was stolen.

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In fact, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is being crucified by party leaders for telling colleagues to wake the hell up and accept that Trump lost. And one of Trump’s most loyal dupes, California’s own Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), is pummeling Cheney for having the gall to state an indisputable truth.

This being the sorry state of GOP politics, Madrid is not at all surprised that Cox put a bear on the campaign payroll.

“This signifies the victory of performative politics over substance,” he said, noting that at least Schwarzenegger used the wrecking ball to pound out a specific point at the center of a governing philosophy. “Our democracy is collapsing, and that’s dangerous for all of us because the void will be filled by carnival barkers, despots and authoritarians. That’s what Trumpism is.”

In most of California, thankfully, it doesn’t play so well.

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Steve.lopez@latimes.com


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