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Opinion: California’s values, not just Gavin Newsom, are on the recall ballot

Gavin Newsom stands in front of a sign that says "Stop the Republican Recall"
California Gov. Gavin Newsom in East Los Angeles on Aug. 14.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In opposing the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, we have said that California’s values are at stake as well. The leading Republican candidates, particularly front-runner Larry Elder, don’t support the values most Californians hold dear.

And what are those values? There’s no official definition cast in bronze at the state Capitol in Sacramento. Values are ideas that live separately in the minds of everyone, but collectively they form a culture that embraces multiple people, communities and generations. They are given actual form in policies and goals that build a more welcoming, tolerant, prosperous, healthy and equitable state.

And they are in danger. Here’s how:

Protection of natural resources
California could be just another uninspiring patch of dirt were it not for its stunning geography: sunny beaches, towering mountain ranges, gentle rolling hills, rugged coastlines, soaring forests, fertile inland valleys and breathtaking deserts. Most of the Golden State’s history is a tale of exploitation of this seemingly endless abundance. Gold! Timber! Open land!

Only in the last half a century have California’s leaders started to rein in the predation by protecting the state’s natural resources and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

Yet many of the leading Republican recall candidates seem to have no interest in maintaining the climate or environmental goals supported by this governor and are more inclined to seek policies that would make things worse — much worse. Several candidates have said, for example, they would seek expanded oil drilling and fracking operations, encourage more logging of forests and suspend environmental rules wholesale.

We are already losing much of the beauty of California and its flora and fauna to the poor choices made by decades of short-sighted leadership. If we lose much more, it may not be worth saving.

Diversity, tolerance and equality
From its early days, California has represented a meeting and mixing of peoples, a destination for risk-takers and refugees, entrepreneurs and escapees. But it hasn’t been a bastion of tolerance and equality for most of its existence, as evidenced by the displacement of Indigenous communities, the embrace of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and ballot-box assaults on immigrant rights in 1994, affirmative action in 1996 and same-sex marriage in 2008. But over the last decade, California has evolved into a beacon of tolerance and equality that inspires the rest of the nation and, indeed, freedom-loving peoples everywhere.

Do the policies sometimes swing too far, such as when the Legislature banned travel by California state employees to states that passed anti-LGBTQ laws or when the governor bent over backward to ensure equity in COVID-19 vaccine distribution and ended up only temporarily delaying the rollout? ? Perhaps, but those are rare examples.

The efforts the state has taken under Newsom’s leadership to reverse discriminatory polices and ensure equal access — such as reforming a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects people of color and supporting the creation of a panel to examine reparations to Californians descended from enslaved people — are at risk. We fear the state’s position as a fighter against intolerance will end if Newsom is recalled, as many of the leading Republican recall candidates deny that racial discrimination and inequality even exist.

Embracing democracy
While Republican legislatures and governors in other U.S. states have passed laws to make it harder for citizens to vote, California has gone about as far any state to expand access to the franchise. (Colorado, which pioneered many of the voting reforms California adopted, is another.) It did this by adopting automatic registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles, same-day registration, early vote centers and generous grace periods for late ballots.

Sadly, it is the misuse of the state’s generous support of citizen engagement — its direct democracy system that allows the citizens to make and repeal laws, and to remove elected officials — that has led to this threat.

At least one of the recall candidates, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin), told the Los Angeles Times editorial board he supports voter ID, which is one of the main ways that Republicans in other states have sought to suppress voting among communities of color.

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Support for the marginalized
California is an extravagantly wealthy state. But it’s also a land of searing inequality and entrenched poverty. Homeless encampments and shantytowns should be an eternal source of shame. Caring for the state’s inhabitants in need, regardless of their economic situation or immigration status, is one of the most fundamental of California values.

What this means in practical terms is an expansion of the safety net such as the state has done, including providing relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring sick pay for workers and pouring billions of the state’s budget surplus into programs that help and house the unsheltered.

This also means continuing to reverse decades of counterproductive criminal justice efforts that have resulted in excessive sentences and crippling, unnecessary costs — on taxpayers, on communities struggling to recover from crime and on offenders who have learned their lesson and want to live responsible lives but remain stuck in prison.

Newsom understands this. But if he is removed, would his successor? Probably not. Most of the recall candidates think the criminal justice reforms should be stopped.

How do we know these are values shared by Californians? Simple. These changes did not happen organically; they were shepherded by elected officials, such as Newsom, who were supported by a majority of Californians.

Ultimately, what’s on the recall ballot is the most important value of all: democracy.


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