Editorial: Gov. Newsom doesn’t deserve to be recalled

A woman raises her fist while shouting with a sign that says Recall Gavin Newsom
Protesters gather April 20 in Sacramento to call for the removal of California Gov. Gavin Newsom and rally against COVID-19 restrictions.
(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)

There’s no question that California Gov. Gavin Newsom has fumbled at times while leading the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He’s made some poor personal and policy choices. His public communication has been unclear or confusing on occasion, and he’s alienated political allies unnecessarily. He’s changed course on the pandemic abruptly and sometimes mysteriously. The largest fraud of public money in state history happened under his watch. The governor will have to answer for all such missteps if he seeks reelection in 2022.

But are these shortcomings grounds to remove him from office in favor of an untested replacement who has no experience guiding the largest state in the nation as it tries to emerge from the largest health crisis in more than a century?


Certainly not. That would be insanity.

Astonishingly, there are more than a million people who disagree, and who apparently think it is perfectly reasonable to waste taxpayer money on a recall just months before the governor will be judged by voters in a regularly scheduled gubernatorial election.

It’s worth remembering that the 2003 recall campaign was like a months-long circus, with 135 candidates including minor celebrities, a porn star, publicity-seekers and of course one of the most bankable A-list actors in the world, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose fame was likely the lever that ousted Gov. Gray Davis from office. A recall election in the politically polarized era of 2021 is likely to look more like bedlam than a big top.

The effort by Newsom’s conservative critics would have probably petered out naturally, like five other recall petitions filed against him did, were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic. A court-ordered extension to gather signatures and a well of discontented people looking for someone to blame drove this recall to the point that organizers say they have more than 1.4 million signatures. (They need 1.5 million valid ones to qualify.) Driven by fringe players, COVID-19 deniers and Republican opportunists, this movement is now looking like it might go mainstream.

That would be quite unfortunate. Not just because recall elections are expensive — a special statewide election could cost taxpayers $100 million, by some estimates. And not just because it would be a major distraction at a time California needs its leader to stay focused on the much more important task of distributing COVID-19 vaccines fairly and speedily. But also because Newsom simply doesn’t deserve to be recalled.

This is not to say he has been a perfect governor; he hasn’t, and there are many things we wish he would do differently, starting with his tendency to withhold important information and his failure to communicate clearly and candidly. Nor are we saying he deserves a second term should he seek one in 2022. That’s a separate question. The standards by which we should judge whether to oust someone from office are different, and much higher, than those to evaluate a reelection bid.

Recall elections offer an important safety valve for the citizenry in the event that they have unwittingly elected truly dangerous or corrupt people who are destroying the institutions they were elected to defend. Newsom may have flaws, but he is not a threat to the structure of government.

Indeed, there is ample evidence that he is trying, if not always succeeding, to make the right decisions in a situation where there is no guidebook or historical precedent. He’s building a mass vaccination program where none existed. And, until just weeks ago, he had little help from the federal government. Of course there are going to be some missteps that require a change in course.

And let’s be real. There is no way that anyone could have governed through the last year without alienating people, particularly when the federal government largely left governors to deal with the pandemic while the president actively undermined their measures to keep people safe. Newsom’s had to make tough and unpopular decisions, such as how best to prevent hospitals from being overrun and how to distribute the scarce COVID-19 vaccine.

A recall election would also largely be pointless. Even if it qualified next month, it wouldn’t take place until later this year, or even next year, when the gripes of today are likely to be forgotten. And there’s no guarantee it would result in changed leadership. Indeed, recent polls suggest Newsom would keep his job, even as his overall favorability rating has dipped.

We hope this means that enough Californians recognize that a recall isn’t justified, and that the campaign to remove Newsom fails to get the final signatures it needs. Let’s stop beating on the governor and focus on beating the coronavirus.