Democratic leaders rally behind Newsom to fight recall, but how enthusiastic is the grassroots?

Magaly Colelli owner of Magaly's restaurant talks with Gov. Gavin Newsom and actors Danny Trejo in San Fernando, Calif. Thursday, April 29, 2021. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool)

This was the week that the campaign to defend Gov. Gavin Newsom from a recall election that could send him to an early, involuntary retirement began in earnest. Naturally, it started on Zoom.

The stated purpose of the California Democratic Party’s online convention this weekend was to do the boring business of party politics: drafting rules, passing resolutions and electing new leaders or re-electing old ones. 

But the weekend’s virtual meet-up also served another obvious political purpose: To rally the party’s often quarrelsome troops behind Newsom.

“You could theoretically call this the kick-off of the anti-recall campaign, with Democrats circling the wagons,” said Brian Brokaw, a political consultant to the governor.

The Newsom cheerleading was loudest during the headline speeches today. It was a lineup designed to remind Democrats of the people and constituencies who have the governor’s back. There were national party leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris, both Californians, and progressive heroes like Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakash and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland.

“Gavin’s proactive measures and leadership save lives,” Lee said. “That’s why Governor Newsom has my unequivocal support and why we will and must defeat this right-wing driven recall.”

The lineup of speakers also showed off some of Newsom’s most politically notable achievements since becoming governor in 2019: Alex Padilla, California’s first Latino U.S. senator; Attorney General Rob Bonta, the state’s first Asian American top cop; and Secretary of State Shirley Weber, the first woman and Black person to hold that position. All three were appointed by Newsom. 

Newsom, himself, speaking toward the end of the afternoon, rattled off his administration’s top accomplishments — soaring vaccine numbers, low COVID infection rates, a state stimulus spending package — and warned that a successful recall would undermine all those achievements.

“National Republicans and extreme right wingers, they’re not sitting back, they’re putting everything they can (into) their recall power grab, all in the hopes of rolling back all the important progress we have made together,” Newsom said, echoing some of the rhetoric he used during his State of the State speech in March.

The 2021 convention of California’s dominant party was, like the GOP’s confab earlier this year, all done online — the orating, caucus-going and hobnobbing, with less opportunity for dissenting voices.  

Gavin Newsom, governor of California, speaks during a news conference in Sacramento, California, U.S., on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Newsom outlined his plan to lift restrictions in the most-populous U.S. state, saying a reopening depends on meeting a series of benchmarks that would remake daily life for 40 million residents. Photographer: Rich Pedroncelli/AP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Democratic party faithful put forward five resolutions — eventually folded into one — opposing the effort to remove Newsom, though no one called it “the California coup,” as Chairman Rusty Hicks did in January, only to be forced to walk it back. This time, Hicks merely labeled the campaign a “cynical ploy” from a Republican party that hasn’t been able to win a regular statewide election since 2006.

Ditto from former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who said the recall will plunge the state into the political “chaos” that she said characterized the Trump administration. And famously foul-mouthed former party chairperson John Burton urged delegates to “give the Republicans the message that they can’t f— with us.”

Not everyone was on the same page. Pelosi spent the bulk of her pre-recorded speech touting the early accomplishments and aspirations of the Biden administration and her Democratic caucus. She praised Newsom, but did not drop the R-word. Nor did Bonta or Padilla, who both have to run in 2022 to keep their new jobs.

This year’s convention was scheduled long in advance, but for Newsom, the timing couldn’t have been better.

While the path to the now all-but-inevitable recall election is a long and tortuous process, Monday marked a turning point when Weber’s office confirmed that the recall campaign had gathered more than enough valid signatures to put the question of Newsom’s political future on the ballot later this year.

Then came a few well-timed rejoinders benefiting the governor.

Wednesday night, the Public Policy Institute of California released a poll, showing that a large majority of Californians approve of Newsom’s handling of both the economy and school reopenings during the COVID-19 pandemic. That was discouraging news for recall leaders, who have made the state’s stifled economy and its shuttered schools the crux of their case against the governor.

The next day, Newsom went to the vote-rich San Fernando Valley. When his job security may hinge on the support of small business owners and the state’s largest potential voting bloc, Latinos, Newsom found a well-publicized way to appeal to both. At a sushi bar owned by local restaurateur Cesar Garcia, the governor signed a bill granting $6.2 billion in state tax relief to businesses that had received federalrescue loans.

Though Assemblymember Autumn Burke of Inglewood was the bill’s main author, the governor was instead joined by Arleta’s representative, Luz Rivas, who praised the bill —  and the governor — in Spanish. So, too, did Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce President Maria Salinas. 

Actor Danny Trejo, the star of “Machete,” was also there. Unprompted, he took the opportunity to blast the recall effort: “This guy has been trying to save our lives since this s— — this pandemic — started.”

The state party convention began that day, Thursday, and continues through the weekend. 

Garry South, a Democratic political strategist, contrasted this weekend’s message of unity with the 2003 party convention in Sacramento that he attended with his former boss, then-Gov. Gray Davis. 

“The governor spoke and, boy, it just didn’t have the right feel at all. There was a lot of grumbling about Davis,” South remembered. Seven months later, Davis was the first and only governor to be recalled.

This year is different. Then, Davis’ approval numbers were in the tank. Now, Newsom’s approval is above 50% — at least for now. Then, Arnold Schwarzenegger was waiting in the wings. This week, Caitlyn Jenner announced she’s running, but so far, no one with the “Terminator’s” star power and bipartisan appeal is seeking to depose Newsom. 

In 2003, a fellow Democrat, then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, jumped into the race. 

In lining up behind Newsom this weekend, Democrats seem to be doing everything in their power to discourage anyone in their ranks from pulling a Bustamante, said South. 

“Newsom is doing at this convention, and the party is doing at this convention exactly what they need to do, which is to make sure the party is unified behind him and that there’s no wiggle room: You have to beat the recall.”

Volunteers with the Recall Newsom 2020 campaign hold a petition signing event at SaveMart in Sacramento on Jan. 5, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

But Newsom will have to do more than keep party activists in his camp. In a race in which one side — pro-recall voters — are hell-bent to give a reviled leader the boot, Newsom has to ensure that enough of his supporters are just as enthusiastic to enough to “come out and defend him,” said Christian Arana, vice president of policy with the Latino Community Foundation.

If the governor is worried about polls showing lukewarm support from Latinos, “there are ways for Newsom to campaign without campaigning,” said Arana. For instance, allow undocumented immigrants 65 or older to sign up for Medi-Cal, the state health insurance program for low-income Californians. 

Some progressive activists — who make up a significant share of the California Democratic Party’s delegates — believe Newsom could afford to do more to solidify their loyalty. Despite promising to deliver a state-run health insurance program for all Californians, Newsom did not lift a finger to help a bill that would have pushed the state in that direction before it stalled in committee two weeks ago. 

Likewise, despite a 2018 campaign pledge to ban fracking, Newsom only promised to ban the oil extraction method in California by 2024 — an announcement that elicited an emphatic “meh” from many environmental activists.

Amar Shergill, chairperson of the party’s Progressive Caucus, is not a reflexive defender of the state’s Democratic leaders. 

“For progressive folks it’s the worst of all worlds,” he said of the virtual convention. “You are there to attend speeches by people you’re not particularly enamored with, but you also don’t get to organize with your friends from around the state.”

The invitation on the convention website to join the Progressive Caucus meeting on Thursday specified that “feckless centrists & corporate lackeys need not attend.”

But Shergill said his position on the recall election was a no-brainer. 

“Even the most progressive Democrats who are ill at ease with Gavin Newsom don’t want a Trump-lover for governor, so we are all going to be working hard to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

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