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California Gov. Gavin Newsom, shown in 2019, will leave office at the end of 2026 due to term limits. Photo by George Skidmore via Flickr
California FocusOpinion

California Focus: New recall has similarities to Davis dismissal in 2003

Almost all the usual rules of California elections are off today, as the state heads toward its second gubernatorial recall election of the last 18 years.

The list of candidates to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom will surely be interesting, but perhaps not as odd as what voters faced when they decided in 2003 who should replace then-Gov. Gray Davis.

They plainly did not regret choosing movie muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger for his most interesting role ever, reelecting him easily three years later, in 2006.

Like this year’s will be, the timing of that election was a little weird: Oct. 7, a month earlier than normal fall elections. Then there was the post-election interaction between Schwarzenegger and Davis.

Democrat Davis and the nominally Republican Schwarzenegger, whose liberal stances on items like climate change and voting rights made him unlikely ever to win his party’s nomination in a regular primary, often acted like good buddies during the month or so before power peacefully transferred.

We may never know if Newsom, target of much more vicious rhetoric this year than Davis ever heard, would be as gracious. But it’s almost certain he would not pull the kind of stunts ex-President Donald Trump did while he was transitioned out of power and into luxurious exile at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Then there’s the list of candidates. With transgender reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner already on board, the current recall drive just might match the eclectic mix attracted by the unprecedented 2003 vote.

That ballot featured the diminutive former child actor Gary Coleman, who freely admitted he was not qualified and planned to vote for Schwarzenegger, along with former baseball commissioner and Los Angeles Olympics chieftain Peter Ueberroth.

Thus far, no major Democrat has ventured onto this year’s ballot, many prominent figures fearing they would become permanent pariahs in their party if they run. But if a significant Democrat does break loose — and perennial candidates like Tom Steyer and ex-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa no longer qualify as very significant despite Steyer’s billions and Villaraigosa’s name recognition — that could give Democratic voters a kind of license to vote Newsom out.

For sure, it would change the current dynamic that sees Newsom virtually unchallenged when he labels the recall a power grab by Trump supporters.

In 2003, the sole major Democrat on the list was Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who has in fact been a party untouchable since his distant second-place finish behind Schwarzenegger.

There are no figures this year like either Ueberroth, who could claim to be a highly capable nonpartisan technocrat, or former media mogul Adrianna Huffington.

But there are plenty of folks taking ultra-conservative stances even more extreme than those of then Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock, who talked a lot during campaign debates but didn’t win many votes. In the long run, that cost him nothing; McClintock has been a GOP congressman from the Sierra Nevada Mountain foothills east of Sacramento since 2009.

As in 2003, when the recall field included the last previous defeated Republican candidate for governor, financier Bill Simon, 2018 loser John Cox, a San Diego County businessman, is in the race.

Other significant Republicans include ex-San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who often tries to seem like he’s Newsom’s sole rival, and Trump’s former acting chief of national intelligence, Richard Grenell.

So far, there are no single-issue candidates in the field, the way Los Angeles lawyer Bruce Margolin was last time, running solely to help legalize marijuana. That’s been done, so no need for such a candidate.

As large as the field will be this time, it may not match the 135 who ran 18 years ago. But one rule that governed then will also apply now: Newsom can get more no votes on the recall than the total for any candidate on the replacement list, but he would still be replaced so long as the yes votes beat no on the entire recall concept.

All of which makes this vote very different from the norm, when Democrats might almost automatically dominate because of their sheer numerical superiority over Republicans.

And then there’s the fact another run for governor starts the day after recall results are in.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].