French Laundry. Pandemic. Trump. Chaos. All played big as voters cast recall ballots

California Gov. Gavin Newsom responds to a question
Gov. Gavin Newsom responds to a question while meeting with reporters after casting his recall election ballot at a voting center in Sacramento on Sept. 10.
(Associated Press)

To hear many at the polls on Tuesday, the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom was just another political end run by Trump supporters to bypass the normal election process when they didn’t have majority support.

“I thought all this was going to end after Trump lost,” said Terry Lee, a 78-year-old San Bernardino resident voting against the recall Tuesday. “He argued voter fraud, and [the votes] were recounted and recounted and it changed nothing. But that’s not good enough, is it?”

To hear others, Newsom failed spectacularly in overreacting to the pandemic and is driving California into the dumps.


“I want a change,” said Eliza Boucher, 50, of Santa Ana, after voting for talk show host Larry Elder. “I’m tired of all the closings and wearing the masks. I want the freedom we had before.”

From Los Angeles to Bakersfield, Fresno to the North Coast, Californians turned out to vote Tuesday — on top of the millions who cast ballots days and weeks ago, driven by starkly different realities of the state and the nation, each side painting the other as an existential threat to its core values. By Tuesday evening, early results showed Newsom on the path to beat the costly effort to remove him.

Recall supporters depicted the governor as an arrogant, out-of-touch leader who let homelessness and crime spiral out of control while driving middle-class people away with high taxes that never seem to fix anything. They say he forced small businesses to close while others stayed open, kept millions of children out of school and pushed for vaccine and mask mandates that stripped people of their basic freedoms.

Larry Elder led the 46 candidates on the second question on the ballot hoping to become governor, but that became meaningless after a majority of Californians voted to keep Gavin Newsom in office.

Sept. 14, 2021

Recall opponents largely say that Newsom did his best during the coronavirus outbreaks and that, without his leadership, the state would be suffering a deadly third wave that would further cripple the economy and set back student achievement. Even those who are tepid about the governor didn’t see why he shouldn’t finish his term and fight for reelection next year.

Such a whiplash of views cut through big cities and rural towns, even individual families. In Santa Ana, Boucher’s 19-year-old son, Louie, said that Newsom has done his best to “try to protect people in this state” and that his efforts are what’s pushing California toward the pre-pandemic world that his mom so desperately wants to return to. “Without the mask mandates, we’re just going back to Square One.”


Among the recall’s opponents, some were ambivalent about Newsom, and cast ballots more out of fear of a far right-wing takeover by Elder.

“The last thing I want to do is to roll back everything we’ve accomplished,” said Edgar Montes, a 38-year-old aerospace worker in Sylmar. “We’re not the best state, but we’re not the worst.”

He said he was in line at Sylmar Charter High School to vote no on the recall, mostly to ensure Elder was not able to roll back the state’s measures fighting the coronavirus. “We could easily be in a situation like a Florida or Texas,” he said. “Thank God we’re not.”

Montes said that Newsom would have a stronger challenger during the election in 2022, and that none of the candidates on this ballot would have a chance of beating him in that contest.

Jay Irene, a 71-year-old registered independent and retired library worker, was indignant with how the state has allowed homeless people to suffer. In a parking lot in Montebello, she recently helped an 85-year-old homeless man clean out the car he was living in as the election loomed.

“I ran into him one evening. He’d been parked in the same place, evening after evening,” she said.

“Anybody could do better at homelessness” than our current elected officials, she said. “It breaks my heart.”

But she voted for Newsom in the last election and was still against the recall, which she called “an astronomical waste of money.”

“Couldn’t they just have waited? What’s the rush?” It was a rhetorical question that she answered herself. “The state has become so polarized that there’s no way the Democratic Party could have warded the recall off,” she said. “The opposition was hellbent,” she said. “I just can’t see it being stopped. You get enough signatures and you can recall the dogcatcher, for God’s sake.”

In Sacramento, Rick Avery was one of the ambivalent. While riding his electric blue mobility scooter around the sidewalks, the 69-year-old asked: “Today is the recall?” As he twisted at a small peace sign ring on his pinkie finger, he added: “I don’t really watch the news. Trump turned me off of that.”

Osvaldo Alvarado, 43, a social worker and self-described independent from East Los Angeles, teetered on whether to vote in favor of recalling Newsom because a new governor would have only a year in office and be chosen by a minority of voters. But he didn’t like that the Democrats had near-total control over state governance. Taxes were too high; homelessness was rampant. Ultimately, he voted to recall Newsom on Tuesday and replace him with Elder.

“The concept of having a candidate with 18 or 19% of the vote be the governor … fundamentally I have a problem with that,” Alvarado said. “But ultimately I thought, OK, let’s give him an opportunity to see what he does. If people don’t like him, hey, in a year vote Democrat or however way you want to at that point.”

In Fresno, John Kindler pulled up to his precinct in the white pickup of his window repair company, not caring about who replaced Newsom, just that someone did. He thought the recall election was a waste of money and blamed the governor for it.

“If he had not gone to the French Laundry, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Newsom’s unmasked visit with top lobbyists to the extravagant restaurant in Napa Valley flouted his own safety guidelines and infuriated many Californians across the political board.

“Here he was dropping $15K on a 50-year-old’s birthday party and meantime I couldn’t go to my friend’s funeral,” Kindler said.

He thinks California is in “terrible shape.”

“The state hasn’t spent money on water storage in I don’t know how long. It’s spending billions of dollars on a train and they’ve laid a 20-mile stretch of tracks in 11 years. My 2nd Amendment rights are always under attack. There’s crime and homeless and the roads are terrible. I have a Corvette and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost a fender.”

Other voters were most passionate about an Elder governorship, such as Paramount resident Eduardo Borrego, 55, who called himself a longtime Elder listener and fan.“He’s a straight shooter and I think he’s going to do what’s best for the state,” Borrego said. “Newsom had a chance and failed.”

“Homeless. Crime. I just don’t feel safe anymore,” said Elsy Ruiz, 46, of Bakersfield. “Gas is so high right now. It’s become choosing between a gallon of milk or gas.”

Ruiz has lived in Bakersfield since 1992 and she said she has seen on TV how things have changed for the worse in the state. She wouldn’t even consider visiting Los Angeles anymore — a Third World country is better off, she said.

The tipping point was how Newsom handled the pandemic. “That was the cherry on top,” she said.

It got so bad, she visited Texas and Arizona around June and July to see where she could move with her family. Ruiz believed Elder could help steer the Golden State in a better direction. “Elder has a different perspective,” she said. “Let’s try something new.”

Up and down the state, there was little ambivalence for Elder, just love or hate.

In Pasadena, Wanda James, a retired teacher in her 80s, said he was “absolutely the wrong person to ever be governor of anything.” She said she used to listen to him on the radio because she felt “you need to know what the crazies are talking about.”

Lee, in San Bernardino, felt the recall effort was another way for national Republicans to take their jabs at blue California, at a time of drought and fires.

“California has been taking a lot of hits,” he said.

But he felt Newsom was “doing fine, as best as he can.” Even in these divided times, he was hopeful.

“California has always survived.”

Times staff writers Cindy Carcamo, Andrew J. Campa, Maria L. La Ganga, Diana Marcum, Benjamin Oreskes, Lila Seidman, Donovan X. Ramsey, Anita Chabria, Melissa Hernandez and Colleen Shalby contributed to this report.