Essential Politics: In California, a reopening now and a recall vote soon?

A sign on the ground reminds people to observe social distance rules while shopping at a Grass Valley store.
A sign on the ground reminds people to socially distance themselves while shopping at Yuba Blue, a women’s clothing store in Grass Valley.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

This is the June 14, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

It’s been a long road back.

On Tuesday, 468 days after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an unprecedented state of emergency in response to the fast-moving COVID-19 crisis, California will take a major step toward returning to normal.

Sweeping mask mandates will disappear. Capacity rules on businesses and other venues will be lifted. State and local health officials will focus more on prevention — vaccinations — and less on limitations.


For Newsom, whose administration has largely been on a war footing for the last 15 months, the decision to loosen the restrictions probably comes with little short-term political risk. Even the muddled messaging about what the reopening means seems to have largely been sorted out.

But other political challenges loom large — most notably, this week’s focus on a not-yet-settled state budget pact and the rush to schedule the recall election, which could threaten Newsom’s political legacy.

It’s likely to be a big week in California politics.

Ready. Set. Reopen.

With state officials now estimating that 72% of California adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, Tuesday’s reopening appears to be poised to hit the sweet spot between science and politics.

Still, viewpoints about the pandemic vary. Researchers at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California said last week their latest public poll found that coronavirus fears are still considerably higher in communities of color. And there’s a correlation, they noted, between these communities and the workforce that earns a living as an essential worker. That’s probably a key reason why Newsom and public health officials continue to promote vaccinations as the answer, with the governor returning to game-show mode last week to hand out more cash prizes for vaccinated Californians.

Nonetheless, Tuesday will see the end of the color-coded tiers by which counties have restricted various activities and retail businesses have limited their capacity for in-person shopping. More than 62% of Californians live in a county that already has graduated to the least restrictive tier of the system put in place late last summer.

The statewide mask mandate also comes to an end Tuesday, following the lead of more than two dozen other states that dropped the requirement after recent findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even so, mask rules won’t change for the unvaccinated. And there’s a lingering headache for Newsom from the confusing early signals sent by a state advisory board about workplace masking — essentially leaving existing on-the-job mask mandates in place until the end of the month. That board is scheduled to vote Thursday on ending most of the mask rules.

But the overall metrics of the public health crisis have all gone Newsom’s way since he first announced plans in April for the June 15 reopening. And it’s a key reason why many of his fellow Democrats want to speed up the recall election — believing Newsom’s best chance for political redemption will be before the end of the summer.

Democrats eye recall election this summer

When then-Gov. Gray Davis was ousted in 2003, the rules governing recalls were pretty simple: If enough valid voter signatures were submitted, state officials had to schedule the election for a Tuesday 60 to 80 days later. The signatures on the Davis recall were certified on July 23 of that year and the election in which voters chose Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace Davis was held on Oct. 7 — a total of 76 days.

If those rules were still on the books, the Newsom recall would take place in July.

But Democrats rewrote the rules in 2017 in an attempt to save state Sen. Josh Newman of Fullerton from a recall sparked by his vote for a hotly debated gas tax increase. Their goal was to consolidate Newman’s recall with the 2018 primary election where more Democrats would likely cast ballots and keep the senator in office. (They succeeded on the timing but failed to save Newman, even though he won his seat back in 2020.)

Last week, Democrats decided the 2017 slowdown rules were bad for Newsom and sprang into action. Hours after state finance officials released a $215-million estimate of the recall election’s cost, legislative leaders offered a bill to limit the mandatory wait time and allow the final certification of recall signatures as soon as July 1. That means the odds are now high that voters will decide Newsom’s fate before the end of the summer, possibly even in late August.

But there’s a new wrinkle: The bill introduced last week bans counties from using some of the special rules under which the November election was conducted, including a reduction of in-person voting sites intended to encourage pandemic-safe voting by mail. Some counties now believe that going back to the regular rules will take more prep time and are prepared to tell legislative leaders this week to choose: the 2020 election rules and a late summer election or the traditional rules and a recall election in the fall.

Newsom, Democrats haggle on budget

The new recall rules proposed by Democrats would be part of the coming fiscal year’s state budget, the second big thing this week with a target date of Tuesday.

But legislative leaders plan to vote on a budget bill on Monday, meeting their constitutional obligation to pass a spending plan by June 15 or forfeit their paychecks.

Here’s the problem: The bill they’re poised to pass is a placeholder, reflecting their wish list and not a deal struck with Newsom. It’s a huge loophole in the constitutional amendment that voters passed in 2010 — as it turns out, no deal, no problem. For the second year in a row, legislators will buy themselves an additional two weeks of haggling with the governor before the new fiscal year begins July 1.

So what’s key to getting a deal? Budget watchers point to (at least) four items: differences over how much the state can afford to expand child-care slots and services; how to dole out the $27 billion in new state pandemic relief from the federal government; funding levels for higher education and student aid offerings; and tax revenue projections for the next few years, with lawmakers insisting on a rosier forecast that would allow additional government spending.

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Newsom lashes out at judge on gun ruling

The governor didn’t mince words last week when it came to his view of U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, whose ruling against California’s ban on assault-style weapons sent shockwaves through the ranks of gun control advocates.

“Judge Benitez is a stone-cold ideologue,” Newsom said Thursday. “He is a wholly owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Assn.”

Newsom and state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta announced the state was appealing the ruling, one in which Benitez said the weapon ban had proved to have no real effect on mass shootings.

In the court of public opinion, at least, Newsom and his fellow Democrats could seek to capitalize on the ruling. The most recent state public polling on gun control, conducted in fall 2018, found 64% of those surveyed believed gun laws should be made stricter.

California was the first state in the nation to ban assault weapons when it acted more than three decades ago after a 1989 school shooting in Stockton that killed five children and wounded 29 others.

National lightning round

— Apple informed former White House counsel Don McGahn and his wife that the Justice Department had subpoenaed information in 2018 about accounts belonging to them, a person familiar with the matter said Sunday.

President Biden finished three days of meetings with Group of 7 leaders Sunday, lauding new agreements by the world’s leading democracies to collaborate on efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, combat climate change and counter the growing threat of autocracies, with a rebuke of China for human rights abuses.

— Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland on Friday vowed that the Justice Department would fight voting restrictions and controversial audits pushed by Republican state legislatures in response to former President Trump’s falsehood-filled campaign challenging the results of the 2020 election.

— There is no shortage of job openings for local elections officials in Michigan. It’s the same in Pennsylvania. Wisconsin, too.

— Democrats say they are committed to passing legislation this year to curb prescription drug prices, but it boils down to finding a balance: How big a stick should Medicare have to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies?

Today’s essential California politics

— For months, attention has focused on the high-profile campaign to remove Newsom from office. But he is far from the only California politician fending off a people’s revolt.

— It took COVID-19 to give millions of Americans the option of telling their doctor about their aches and pains by phone. But policymakers are divided over how much taxpayer money to keep spending on telemedicine.

— Newsom, California legislators and other state elected officials were approved to receive a 4.2% salary increase this year after a state panel cited improving state finances and higher raises going to rank-and-file state workers as factors in the decision.

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