Anatomy of a Growing Recall: The People vs. The Governor of California

In California, it’s tricky to predict earthquakes, but it appears a big one is coming, and it’s threatening to topple Governor Gavin Newsom’s political career.
February 4, 2021
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at the California Department of Public Health on February 27, 2020 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In California, it’s tricky to predict earthquakes, but it appears a big one is coming, and it’s threatening to topple Governor Gavin Newsom’s political career.

Though usually pretty laid-back, suffering citizens in the Golden State are translating their upset at state mismanagement during the COVID-19 pandemic into a rapidly growing recall movement that is poised to shake the political landscape of our nation’s most populous state.

California’s recent surge into the epicenter of coronavirus deaths follows months of hospital overcrowding, a poorly executed testing system, sharply rising unemployment, insurance fraud at taxpayer expense and an excruciatingly slow rollout of vaccinations for desperate health care workers and the vulnerable elderly.

For months, citizens have been treated to inconsistent and incomprehensible top-down rules from Sacramento banning religious services (while liquor stores remain open) but allowing lines at grocery stores (while outside restaurant dining and even beaches and parks have been opened and closed and opened again).

For months, citizens have been treated to inconsistent and incomprehensible top-down rules from Sacramento.

Families are reeling from economic devastation, and many children are suffering declining educational results and mental health crises. Millions are out of work and face dwindling savings, with a looming cut-off of worker’s compensation insurance.

As residents approach the one-year anniversary of the pandemic in the state with the strictest stay-at-home lockdowns, parents, students, workers and shopkeepers from every ethnicity, social class and walk of life are grappling with the immense pain of lost lives, jobs, family savings, and school semesters. And they are moving from annoyance to distrust to contempt for a governing class that appears both incompetent and deeply elitist. In my prior piece for the Journal, I detailed that the state’s policies and unaffordability have even been driving a wave of emigration.

People dine along 5th Avenue in the Gaslamp Quarter before an imposed curfew on November 21, 2020 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

While Governor Newsom isn’t solely responsible for the high cost of living and declining quality of life in California, he seems to epitomize the “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” tone-deaf attitude that irks the citizenry. The problem with his now-infamous fancy dinner party at French Laundry in November 2020 isn’t just the casual hypocrisy of swanky indoor dining without wearing a mask; it is his controversial chumminess with his pay-to-play insider lobbyist hosts.

As the Governor, the buck stops with Newsom, and he is likely to pay the price as the public finally catches on to the fatal flaw of contemporary statism — elected leadership is far more responsive to special interests than to the people.


For most of American history, political organizing of public employee unions was illegal, and good government advocates have consistently cautioned against unions “capturing” elected officials.

Unions raise funds from mandatory membership dues and then contribute large election campaign contributions. In return, they expect favorable legislation and massive budget allocations for their member’s salaries, benefits and pensions.

Government reform expert David Crane has been leading efforts to promote the general interest of the public, not the single interest advocacy of public employee unions

For example, the state provides health insurance to active government employees. But unlike most employers, the State also provides health insurance to retired employees and their dependents, even when the retiree or dependent has another job that offers insurance, is covered by Medicare or is entitled to premium support from the Affordable Care Act or the California State Premium through Covered California, which provides the highest levels of premium support in the country.

The total amount of taxpayer liabilities for state employee salaries, health care benefits and pensions runs in the tens of billions of dollars annually and includes story after story of outrageous sums of monies paid out to even young retirees, many of whom are double-dipping with outside salaries after their well-paid government service.

The power of the unions can be quite fearsome. Recently, against the wishes of many parents, students and teachers, the California Teachers Association (CTA) stubbornly fought to prevent opening up of schools, though studies have repeatedly shown (and private schools that are open confirm) that young children have low risks of vulnerability to the COVID-19 virus and are unlikely to pass it along to teachers.

Students in small groups at a time are allowed to enter to pick up their school books at Hollywood High School on August 13, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

The CTA has come to dominate not just the politics of public education in the state, but has sponsored statewide tax increases as it asserts its muscle in California politics. The education establishment also pushes a radical ideological agenda, such as the campaign for a statewide K-12 Ethnic Studies Curriculum that has been well documented as concerning to the Jewish community. In Cupertino, third-graders are being forced to deconstruct their racial identities and rank themselves according to their power and privilege. And in San Francisco, the school board is seeking to rename 44 schools, (out of 125 district schools), including those named after George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere and even Diane Feinstein.

As Californians consider both the power of special interests and the rise of woke politics, all roads seem to lead to the dominance of San Francisco’s Democrats in statewide politics.


The nation’s most populous state includes the fertile Central Valley, the populous Inland Empire, the majestic mountain interior and the vast northern third of the state, but the state has long been dominated economically, politically and culturally, by the two power centers of the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California (centered in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties).

In 1970, Los Angeles and San Francisco were roughly co-equal in economic output. The Southern California economy featured light manufacturing, including many defense contractors, which supported American efforts in World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the Cold War. San Francisco was a financial center rapidly developing a strong network of venture capitalists and academic centers. But at the end of the twentieth century, it was the north that began to benefit from the information technology era that created high wage jobs.

Culture was mostly produced, once upon a time, in Hollywood. Founded by Republicans who promoted the American dream (including Louis B. Mayer, who was Chairman of the California Republican Party), the entertainment industry provided such GOP political leaders as George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Since the 1960s, of course, the entertainment industry has moved sharply to the left, counting many studio heads and wealthy movie stars among the major donors to the Democratic party.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is sworn in as the 38th governor of California by California Chief Justice Ronald George (R) as Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver (C), looks on November 17, 2003 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In the twenty-first century, as Silicon Valley’s big tech companies, like Google and Facebook, became the wealthiest enterprises in the world, California’s political figures with roots in the Bay Area grew to statewide and even national prominence. Prolific as fundraisers, this class of Bay Area politicians has included:

  • Jerry Brown, who served 4 terms as governor and was also variously the secretary of state, attorney general and mayor of Oakland.
  • Former San Francisco Mayor and County Supervisor Diane Feinstein, who has been California’s senior U.S. senator for 3 decades.
  • Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who also served as the longtime Speaker of the California Assembly.
  • Kamala Harris, appointed to two statewide Boards by Willie Brown before rising quickly as a prosecutor in San Francisco, was twice elected as district attorney before becoming California attorney general, U.S. senator and now vice president.
  • San Francisco area Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Gavin Newson, who rose from city commissioner to county supervisor, to mayor of San Francisco and then lieutenant governor prior to his 2018 election as governor.
  • George Gascon, whom Newsom appointed as San Francisco district attorney in 2011. Gascon later moved to Los Angeles, where he defeated incumbent D.A. Jackie Lacey, a Black Democrat.

Although the Biden administration appears to celebrate California as a model for America, many working-class families feel far less than favorable to this elite San Francisco Democratic political machine.

Although the Biden administration appears to celebrate California as a model for America, many working-class families feel far less than favorable to this elite San Francisco Democratic political machine.


The Recall Governor Gavin Newsom effort began in the summer of 2020 as a political long shot. As of January 6, 2021, the Secretary of State’s office had verified some 410,000 signatures — less than one-third of the amount needed to trigger a recall vote. Officials rejected about 15% of the signatures that the campaign had turned in for verification.

However, a steadily growing volunteer signature gathering effort has now developed into a real citizen’s movement, with some 5,000 people deployed every weekend to gather signatures. Though limited by COVID-19 lockdowns and stay-at-home restrictions, the forgotten men and women of California — an ethnically diverse group of parents and workers, homeowners and renters, from big cities and small towns alike — are rising up to make California dream again.

The recall effort is now also increasingly supported by donors and professional signature-gathering firms as it seeks to meet the March 17, 2021 deadline for submission of signatures. Over 1.3 million signed petitions have now been submitted, with tens of thousands more arriving daily. 200,000 signatures have been received via a direct mail effort, and over 1,000,000 signatures have now been gathered by volunteers.

Signatures are gathered in one of three ways: individuals can print, sign and mail it into the campaign themselves; the campaign can send out petitions in mailers that voters return to them; or citizens can sign at petition-gathering tables set up at shopping mall parking lots throughout the state.

One must be registered to vote in California to sign the petition, and the recall campaign vets signatures for accuracy and duplicates before sending them off to a third party for yet another screening. Completed signature petitions are then sent to volunteers in each county who take them to county election officials for verification. The counties then report their results to the state. Counties will have until April 29 to verify the signatures, after which the Secretary of State’s Office has 10 days to determine if there are enough to qualify the recall for the ballot. California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis must then call a recall election between 60 and 80 days from the date of certification, meaning likely in July or August.

Governor Newsom’s response to the recall may consider several factors.

1)   History

Although 19 states permit recall elections for governors and other state officials, only two state governors have ever been recalled. The first was in North Dakota, which kicked out Gov. Lynn Frazier in 1921. Most recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker fended off a recall attempt in 2012.

The second was in California, where every governor elected since 1966 has been targeted by recall attempts, but only Governor Gray Davis was dismissed, in 2003.

2)   Democrat Supermajority

Many citizens angered at Sacramento have already fled the state and the millions who remain are lopsidedly liberal. Some 75% of registered voters in the state of California are Democrat or decline-to-state.

Voter registration statewide has the GOP at less than 25%, now in third place, behind both registered Democrats and Independents.

The last time a Republican won a statewide U.S. Senate seat in California was in 1988 (Pete Wilson). The current U.S. House delegation from California is 41 Democrats, 11 Republicans.

All current statewide elected constitutional officers are Democrats, and the state legislature in Sacramento features a supermajority in the State Senate (30 of 40 Senators are Democrats) and in the State Assembly (60 of 80 Assemblymembers are Democrats).

3)   Liberal Media Coverage

California’s statewide political media coverage is rather limited these days, with most television stations and many newspapers barely covering state politics. And there are very few outlets that are not favorably disposed to the Democrats. Some op-eds have denigrated the chances of recall and other stories have smeared the entire recall movement as the handiwork of the far-right.

But those paying attention to populist movements — from the Tax Revolt to the Tea Party to the Trump rallies on the right to Occupy Wall Street, the massive anti-Trump rallies and the BLM protest movement on the left — recognize that disgruntled citizens across traditional party lines are rising up to challenge insiders, elites and what they consider to be corrupt swamp creatures.

disgruntled citizens across traditional party lines are rising up to challenge insiders, elites and what they consider to be corrupt swamp creatures.

4)  Political Calculation

Newsom’s best chance to avoid a recall, of course, would be a sharp rebound in the California economy and the mood of the voters.

Perhaps some personal humility might help, too. So far, that hasn’t been the approach taken by the California Democratic Party, whose formal, initial response was to call the recall effort a “coup” and “treasonous.”

This seems badly out of sync with a widely agitated electorate. Even hard-nosed Democratic strategist Gary South, who advised former Governor Gray Davis when he lost the 2003 recall, said this response to the recall effort was bad messaging. “That was a misfire in a lot of ways,” South said. “It’s not a coup. This is a valid process under the California Constitution.”

In recent days, some Democrats have finally been challenging Governor Newsom’s lack of communication about the health science behind his decision-making. Democrats may also begin to re-think the same assumptions they had about Gray Davis not being recalled in 2003. In that election, Democrats belatedly put forth then Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante as their candidate to succeed Davis should he be recalled. He lost soundly to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Although there may be no celebrity candidate like “the Terminator” on the 2021 ballot, several interesting candidates are mulling bids to replace Newsom, including the 2018 GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox, San Diego’s recent Mayor Kevin Faulconer and billionaire tech investor Chamath Palihapitiya. Activists are also rumored to be drafting conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder, which may excite school choice advocates in minority communities.

Talk about a grassroots revolution:  Hell hath no fury like the parents of suffering children.

Larry Greenfield is a Fellow of The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.

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