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Opinion: Elections matter? Not in California if Gavin Newsom is recalled

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a rally against the recall in San Leandro, Calif., on Sept. 8.
(Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. In a normal universe, this newsletter would lead off with commentary on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack. But this is not a normal universe; this is California. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

Right now should be roughly the start of an election season in California, not the culmination of one. With the recall vote on Sept. 14 — that’s this Tuesday — it’s easy to overlook the fact that a regularly scheduled gubernatorial election is about 14 months away. But if Gov. Gavin Newsom ends up losing his job to Larry Elder (or Kevin Faulconer or John Cox or Kevin Paffrath or Angelyne) in a few days, the results of the quadrennial vote in November 2022 will be effectively meaningless. If the outcome on Tuesday proves that the only way a Republican can win in California is through a recall election, we’ll be deciding whether to abort the term of a Democratic officeholder on a regular basis.

This is a point that has already been made by op-ed columnist Nicholas Goldberg, but it bears repeating before Tuesday because the implication is profound: Absent any reform of California’s law, the result of every regular statewide election in which the winner garners an outright majority risks an immediate, circus-like challenge if disgruntled petitioners gather signatures numbering 12% of the last turnout. I like to think of California’s recall as our version of the filibuster or the electoral college. It’s an archaic legal mechanism that undermines democracy when exploited by interests operating in bad faith.

That is the nonpartisan, good-government argument against removing Newsom, and at this point making it feels like shouting into the void — because like it or not, the governor’s fate will be sealed Tuesday. You could make this procedural argument no matter the candidates and parties, even if it was the duly elected Gov. Larry Elder facing removal in a recall pushed by Democrats who hadn’t won a statewide vote since 2006. But as it turns out, Newsom should remain governor based on the merits, and none of the people running to replace him deserves his job — far from it, in fact.

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The Times editorial board has been arguing against recalling Newsom since before the election was certified earlier this year. Since then, and as the slate of Republican front-runners became clear, the board’s opposition has become more pointed. It has pilloried the candidates’ facile and even dangerous positions on education, homelessness, crime, climate change and the drought.

Whether Newsom should be removed is the first but not the only question on the ballot. The second is which of the 46 candidates (yes, forty-six) should replace him if the majority votes for removal. Taking a harm reduction approach, the editorial board recommends former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer — after, of course, voting no on the recall.

The bootstrap myth believed by many immigrants is helping drive Latino support for the recall. Columnist Jean Guerrero uncovers another reason for Newsom’s precarious situation: “The belief in ‘el sueño Americano,’ which sees this country as a land of opportunity, predisposes some Latinos to dismiss the poor or unemployed as lazy — lacking ‘ganas.’ This view obscures how history and government determine outcomes, including access to basic resources such as clean water, healthcare and roads. Blind faith in individualism, which promotes antipathy for institutions, can lead some Latinos to sit out elections or vote against their interests.” L.A. Times

This is an attempt at a reasonable argument for electing Larry Elder and for removing Newsom: The editorial board of the Southern California News Group, which includes the Los Angeles Daily News and Orange County Register, believes that, in a state dominated by Democrats, recalling the governor poses a threat only to the status quo and not democracy, and that the conservative talk radio host deserves a chance to lead California. Reading the editorial, however, you can’t help but wonder: How are any of Newsom’s failures reason enough to take the extraordinary step of cutting his term short? Why not wait until he’s up for reelection in November 2022? L.A. Daily News

You think California’s recall system is dangerous? Check out the initiative process. Columnist Nicholas Goldberg on California’s other misuse of direct democracy: “Initiatives often impede the running of government. The vast majority are ‘super laws’ in the sense that they can’t be modified by the Legislature — only by another popular vote. And voters can order the state to take action without bothering with where the money will come from, turning legislators into ‘janitors to clean up the mess,’ according to Joe Mathews, a columnist for Zocalo Public Square who has written extensively about direct democracy.” L.A. Times

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Did the terrorists who attacked America 20 years ago win? Our editorial on the upheaval in the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, reads chillingly like an obituary until ending on a hopeful note: “And yet, dark as these two decades have been, all is not lost. For every American who has turned toward isolationism and nationalism, there are younger voters who cherish multilateral cooperation, respect our institutions, care for our planet, and believe cooperation among peoples is the only true path to security. For every hate crime, there have been multiple acts of compassion and understanding. For every abuse of power, there have been advocates demanding that America live up to its principles. The threat of extremist violence remains real and must be confronted, but we know it can come from a number of sources — including the far right here at home.” L.A. Times

Texas, what have you done? That state’s ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy represents an insidious threat to other cherished constitutional rights, warns UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky: “Under the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the Texas case, the only way to challenge ... unconstitutional laws would be to violate them, get sued by a private citizen, and then fight the lawsuit and the statute’s constitutionality. This is a preposterous situation. And yet, this is what five conservative justices allowed in the Texas case.” L.A. Times

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As always, you can share your feedback by emailing me at paul.thornton@latimes.com.


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