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California Gov. Gavin Newsom, shown in 2019. Photo by George Skidmore via Flickr
California Focus Opinion

California Focus: Ironic recall bears likely pluses for Gov. Newsom

The colorful internet ad from an organization called Rescue California, a lead sponsor of the petition drive to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, accuses him of posting “The worst record of getting vaccines distributed” of any state in America.

For one thing, that’s not correct. As of Feb. 1, California stood 37th among the states in the percentage of available COVID-19 vaccine doses that had already been administered. Not great, but far from the worst, and the pace has picked up since then.

Then there’s the irony in that ad. Among the early leaders of the Newsom recall have been two organizers and leaders of rallies by the Freedom Angels, a group of hardline anti-vaccination activists. One of that movement’s adherents violently attacked the pro-vaccination leader and Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan last year as he walked in his Sacramento district.

There can be few greater ironies than for anti-vaxx organizers to gripe about a governor not getting enough people vaccinated. Then there’s the fact that almost all recall leaders are part of the Republican far right, which often decries “cancel culture.” Yet, they’re trying to cancel the results of the 2018 election.

The recall drive, of course, likes to play up Newsom’s admitted hypocrisy in attending at least one group dinner larger than the state’s then-recommended limit of 10 persons.

Who are the bigger hypocrites here? Anti-vaxxers like those who shut down the mass vaccination site at Dodger Stadium for an hour the other day, many of whom signed the recall petition, or the governor, who is very human and sometimes slips up?

For sure, not even its blatant hypocrisy will stop the recall movement. So it’s time to examine how a recall that stands some chance of ousting Newsom could also make him a political hero and a martyr to many members of this state’s dominant Democratic Party.

So far, major Democrats are staying off the list of alternative potential governors that will accompany the recall question if and when it appears in a special election.

If this holds up, and Republicans don’t find a candidate with the wide popular appeal of an Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newsom can run a massive ad campaign labeling the whole thing a far-right attempt to usurp power. He could even borrow one of ex-President Donald Trump’s post-election slogans, “Stop the Steal.”

So far, the biggest names willing to put their names on the list of potential new governors are Republicans Kevin Faulconer, the termed-out ex-mayor of San Diego, and his near neighbor, businessman John Cox of suburban San Diego County, defeated easily by Newsom in 2018. Former Sacramento area Congressman Doug Ose also may run. None of them has appeal approaching movie muscleman Schwarzenegger.

When former Facebook executive and Democratic megadonor Chamath Palihapitiya begged off the campaign the other day, it left no well-funded Democrat planning to run.

Prominent Democrats like Congressmen Adam Schiff of Burbank and Ro Khanna of San Jose won’t oppose a like-minded sitting governor, fearing they could become pariahs in their own party if he survives the ouster attempt.

Only one significant Democrat took that risk in 2003, when voters dumped then-Gov. Gray Davis in California’s only successful statewide recall vote. That was former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who did become an enduring party pariah after losing to Schwarzenegger. Another former lieutenant governor, John Garamendi, considered running but backed off and later ran for Congress, where he sits today.

One thing for sure: If and when Newsom beats back the recall, he would instantly win a reputation as someone who put a bunch of far-right populists in their place.

That would give him a leg up in a future race either for president — which every California governor considers — or in a 2024 run for the Senate seat now occupied by Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

Newsom now dreads the likely recall attempt but if it happens, he gets a chance to whip his three most likely 2022 reelection challengers well in advance of that election. He could turn the entire experience into one of the best things that ever happened to him, with the potential of becoming a lasting hero among his fellow Democrats, here and across the country.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].

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