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Opinion: Yes, you were right to panic over the recall election even though Newsom won easily

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a rally against the recall in Long Beach on Sept. 13.
(Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. Let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

Gov. Gavin Newsom easily defeated the recall attempt that ended Sept. 14, and as dutiful news consumers surely you’ve read takes from faraway commentators who filter the results through their nationally focused lens and glean lessons for the 2022 midterm. Some have even implied that the pre-vote panic over Newsom’s feared ouster was overblown, a fact that any astute, data-driven observer should have known all along.

I’m here to tell you that you — actually we — were right to panic. For it was only 18 years ago that Californians replaced an unlikable Democrat with a superstar actor via a recall, and only three years ago that voters in Orange County aborted the term of a Democratic state senator. Plus, we actually faced the prospect of living under the governorship of a Republican who promised to borrow the pandemic policies of states undergoing deadly COVID-19 surges and long ago mentored none other than Donald Trump’s white supremacist conscience, Stephen Miller.

The consequences for California from a Newsom loss would have been immediate and potentially life-threatening: Think unvaccinated children sent to schools without a statewide mask mandate and police officers emboldened by a governor who doesn’t think law enforcement brutality is a big deal. In California, these aren’t just political implications or punditry fodder — they’re our lives, our public schools, our pandemic protections.

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So it’s OK to express, as The Times editorial board did, profound relief over the recall’s decisive defeat and the rejection of a front-runner with “extremist, intolerant” views. The wide margin of support for keeping Newsom also validates the state’s strong pandemic protections, likely putting down any statewide agitation for any rule rollbacks and ensuring that schools and much of the economy can remain open. Newsom’s defeat would have signaled precisely the opposite: that an increasingly extremist state GOP could gain a toehold in Sacramento without any attempt at moderation, and all our pandemic protection measures would soon end.

This was worth all the fear and panic you read and felt over this — and you know what? It served a purpose.

What is the last recalled governor thinking? Gray Davis was removed in 2003 and has kept pretty quiet since then, including during this recall. He told columnist Nicholas Goldberg: “I don’t believe in moaning and groaning. The recall is a fact of life in our politics. It’s been around for 110 years and if you don’t like it, maybe you shouldn’t run for office in California.” Davis concedes that a recall election is a huge distraction, and he wants to do away with the first yes-or-no question and just have all the candidates run in the same race against each other, including the incumbent. L.A. Times

Today’s Republican Party is nothing like the one that triumphed 18 years ago. Kurt Bardella looks back at 2003 as a sort of high-water mark for the GOP, when the moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger defeated the radical faction of his party to become governor and pledged to reach out to people of all political ideologies and races. Today, Bardella says, the Republican Party is getting smaller, more radical and less electable, having lost in several races it would have won with more moderate candidates. L.A. Times

This nicely sums up where California is post-recall (even though it was written before polls closed Tuesday): We’re “meh” on Newsom but certainly not on radical Trumpism, and there is growing unease with the status quo. The governor may have triumphed, but Miriam Pawel notes the unsettling undercurrent to all this: Half of Californians believe we’re in a recession, and wildfires, homelessness and the affordable housing crisis won’t make it easy for Newsom to run on his record in 2022. New York Times

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This is no way to run a recall. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a system for removing a wayward elected official, says the editorial board. The problem in California is that our mechanism for doing so can produce a very undemocratic outcome, with the lead candidate among several dozen possibly replacing a governor who garners many more “no” votes in the first question (and remember, for the incumbent, “no” is good). A better system would be one in which a recalled governor is replaced by the independently elected lieutenant governor, says the editorial board. L.A. Times

The QAnon cult is now targeting the U.S.-Mexico border. Conspiracy theorists posing as journalists and activists are recording interactions between asylum seekers at the border and U.S. officials, implying that migrant children are being drugged by traffickers and imported for sex slavery. There’s not a shred of honest evidence for any of this, but columnist Jean Guerrero warns that the border version of QAnon’s beliefs are gaining traction in mainstream conservative circles: “We must recognize the threat their disinformation poses to our democracy and work to stop its viral spread.” 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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