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Essential Politics: Newsom’s challengers face recall deadline

Gov. Gavin Newsom
Recall challengers to Gov. Gavin Newsom must file candidacy papers by Friday afternoon.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

This is the July 12, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Almost four months to the day that critics of Gov. Gavin Newsom submitted the final batch of voter-signed petitions to trigger a statewide recall election, the historic contest finally comes into clear focus.

Replacement candidates, step forward.

In or out: Candidates face Friday deadline

For a recall election that seemed so far away for so long — after all, the petition seeking Newsom’s removal was filed more than 500 days ago — events are now happening quickly, and we’re just two months away from voters deciding the governor’s political fate.

Perhaps the most important issue of all will be settled this week: Which Californians will offer themselves on the Sept. 14 ballot as a replacement to Newsom, should voters choose to oust the Democrat?

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Seventy men and women had filed statements of intent to run in the gubernatorial recall as of Sunday afternoon, according to state records. But getting on the ballot requires new paperwork along with a filing fee of $4,194.94 (or 7,000 voter signatures in lieu of the fee). It also means submitting copies of five years’ worth of personal income tax returns, the first use of a law that took effect in 2020.

The deadline to complete those steps is 5 p.m. Friday. Candidates will file paperwork in their counties of residence and their tax returns with elections officials in Sacramento. State officials expect to have an early, unofficial list of candidates sometime on Saturday.

Will the prominent players actually run?

Of the 70 Californians who have filed statements of intent — 16 Democrats, 30 Republicans, 24 who are either unaffiliated or belong to the Green or Libertarian parties — few would bring either significant political experience or a public following to the recall election.

The highest-ranking elected official poised to run is Ted Gaines, a Republican on the state Board of Equalization who served 13 years in the Legislature. More visible, so far, is a trio of GOP contenders: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, 2018 gubernatorial candidate John Cox and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner. Some would add to that list Doug Ose, a former Republican congressman from Sacramento, and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin).

No prominent Democrats have stepped forward to challenge Newsom. The most notable party member who has filed a statement of intent appears to be Kevin Paffrath, a Southern California real estate investor whose YouTube channel has more than 1.6 million subscribers.

It’s the candidates, not just Newsom

Some observers have insisted that the unique nature of a recall election, in which voters choose to keep or fire the incumbent, means that it won’t really be a candidate-versus-candidate contest. That viewpoint seems to assume voters will consider Newsom’s removal on its own merits, without considering whether the alternatives are better or worse than what they already have.

But that’s not how it went down 18 years ago.

As those of us who covered the 2003 gubernatorial recall can attest, the campaign largely became a contest between then-Gov. Gray Davis and Republican challenger Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, it’s possible Davis might have squeaked by and survived the recall without the star power of the celebrity activist who promised to revitalize California and serve as “the people’s governor.”

(Another proof point that the 2003 recall didn’t play out as two elections: the failure of then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to convince voters that Davis should remain in office, but they should choose Bustamante as a political insurance policy.)

Simply put: The candidates on the second part of the Sept. 14 ballot will make Newsom look worse or better by how they run their campaigns. Voters aren’t likely to fire the guy in the job if they don’t want to hire any of the replacements.

And none of the hopefuls begin the race with the political and cultural star power of Schwarzenegger. Nor will they have the advantage he and others had in 2003 of nipping at a Democratic incumbent who was sinking in public opinion polls as the state’s fiscal crisis grew worse by the day.

Finally, consider the challenge most candidates will have in just breaking through the noise. When all was said and done in 2003 — an election featuring a gobsmacking 135 replacement candidates — more than nine of every 10 votes on the replacement question ended up going to either Schwarzenegger, Bustamante or then-state Sen. Tom McClintock.

To be, or not to be, a Democrat on the ballot

A court ruling is expected Monday on whether Newsom, the titular head of the California Democratic Party, will be identified as a Democrat on the Sept. 14 recall ballot.

On Friday, the governor’s attorneys squared off against counsel representing Secretary of State Shirley Weber over her insistence that only a judge can allow Newsom to add his party affiliation after he missed the deadline established by a law that, um, he signed as governor in the fall of 2019.

Not that Weber is opposed to Newsom’s request, as her attorney pointed out. The only pushback in the court hearing came from attorneys representing the recall’s proponents and Jenner, who joined the case as an intervenor.

“The governor of California has to follow the law,” Eric Early, an attorney representing the recall proponents, told Judge James Arguelles. “This might be a bitter pill for the governor to swallow, but swallow it he must.”

If Arguelles’ name sounds familiar, your recall IQ is high. He’s the same Sacramento judge who extended the circulation period for recall petitions and who is a former law partner of the attorney who represented recall proponents in that case.

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National lightning round

— For months, aides to President Biden refrained from criticizing Republicans who played down the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations or sought to make political hay of the federal government’s effort to get shots into arms. Not any longer.

— The possibility of Texas Democrats staging a second walkout to stop one of America’s most restrictive new voting measures grew louder Saturday, as hundreds of people waited hours to rail against the GOP’s plan.

Gina McCarthy, a top advisor to Biden on domestic climate policy, said administration officials and congressional Democrats are still discussing how to include a clean-energy standard for utilities in broad infrastructure legislation.

— Local school boards around the country are increasingly becoming cauldrons of anger and political division, boiling with disputes over such issues as COVID-19 mask rules, the treatment of transgender students and how to teach the history of racism and slavery in America.

— The personal has always been the political for Biden. Far more than his recent predecessors, the president publicly draws on his own experiences when he makes connections with voters and considers his decisions.

Today’s essential California politics

— A melee broke out at Rep. Katie Porter’s district town hall meeting Sunday, with her supporters scuffling with supporters of former President Donald Trump who were loudly interrupting the congresswoman as she spoke.

— Check out The Times’ complete coverage of the announcement that Biden has nominated L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti to be the next U.S. ambassador to India.

— California’s unemployment agency has extended its contract with Bank of America to issue debit cards containing jobless benefits, despite criticism from state lawmakers that criminals were able to tap into the cards to commit widespread fraud.

— Newsom has asked Californians to voluntarily cut back on water consumption by 15% compared with last year as drought conditions worsen and temperatures continue to rise.

— Debates about hospital building standards aren’t new in California. This time, they have resulted in an impasse between some of the most powerful forces in state politics: labor unions and hospitals.

Programming note: The Essential Politics team is taking some time off this month. We won’t be sending newsletters on Friday, July 16 and Friday, July 23, but you can still keep up with the week’s political news from Washington and Sacramento in our Monday and Wednesday newsletters.

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