Prior to the pandemic, California Governor Gavin Newsom boasted a high approval rating of 60 percent in September 2019. However, his handling of the pandemic ignited frustration in many residents, especially small business owners. Now, there are comprehensive efforts to recall Newsom with recall activists claiming they have collected over one million signatures advocating for his removal from office.
Newsom has enjoyed a long and successful political career since he was first appointed to the Parking and Traffic Commission in 1996 by Willie Brown. He quickly ascended from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to mayor and the governor’s office. Newsom has many connections to the elite world of California politics, as his family is distantly related to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He also has deep ties to the prominent Getty family and the Brown family—of former California governor Jerry Brown. Because of this, it seemed he was destined for stardom in California politics. However, his troubles in office began just after the pandemic started.
Newsom’s Handling of the Pandemic
Newsom first announced a state of emergency on March 4, 2020, citing the need to give the state access to more resources and additional time to prepare an extensive public health response. This was an early response compared to other states, and typified the strict regulations Newsom would use to handle the pandemic. In early March, Newsom banned large gatherings, encouraged vulnerable elderly populations to stay home, and transitioned restaurants to a take-out only policy. The first legally enforceable stay at home order was issued on March 19, lasting until late August with varying levels of restrictions during the summer.
In August, Newsom announced the Blueprint for a Safer Economy, which imposed a stringent set of statewide restrictions and a slow plan for reopening. The plan relied on two metrics—number of cases per 10,000 residents and positivity rate—to determine when sectors within a county could open. It broke down the counties into a four-colored tier system based on the community spread. The tiers were ranked red, purple, orange, and yellow from substantial to minimal spread. It also prioritized a slow ascent from tier to tier, with a minimum of two weeks of meeting the criteria before a county can be considered for moving up.
Backlash to this new system came primarily from small business owners, who accused the government and Newsom of moving the goalposts and having inconsistent criteria for reopening. For instance, under the tier restrictions, Legoland, a theme park in Carlsbad, was forced to close but SeaWorld San Diego could remain open under the “Zoos and Museums” category. Additionally, media stories highlighted business owners like the Del Gaudio sisters in LA, who amassed $70,000 in debt from the closures of their yoga studio. The sisters were frustrated by the changing guidelines and closures and joined the Recall Newsom movement to attend rallies and raise awareness about how hard small businesses have been hit. However, the restrictions and public outcry would only worsen as 2020 went on.
As holiday gatherings increased and cooler weather hit in November, COVID-19 positivity rates rose. Hospitalizations tripled across much of California in three weeks and cases soared, leading Newsom to introduce a new regional system based on ICU capacity on December 3. The lockdown divided the state into five regions and restricted regions if their ICU capacity fell below 15 percent. The Southern California region caused controversy, as it covered counties hundreds of miles apart from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. It also grouped together San Diego and Los Angeles County, two of the most populous areas in California, accounting for more than half the state’s forty million population.
Critics of the regional order argued that the governor had no authority to arbitrarily group counties together and treat them as one contiguous unit. With the surge of cases in Los Angeles County, Southern California quickly fell under the required 15 percent availability for ICU beds within two days of the order’s announcement. Experts pointed to covid fatigue as the cause of the surge, saying people were overwhelmed by the stay-at-home restrictions and started to have gatherings with friends and family.
The entire state reached 0 percent ICU capacity by Christmas Day 2020. The increased restrictions were particularly tough on small business owners who depend on holiday business, with almost forty thousand restaurants closing across the state by September. This frustration translated to the start of recall efforts for Newsom. The order continued until January 25, when Newsom decided to reverse the regional system in favor of the previous county-based system. This reversal of the regional order directly coincided with ramped up recall efforts, causing the governor’s critics to accuse him of politicizing COVID-19 restrictions when it was convenient for his reelection chances. California residents are now under fewer restrictions, which has produced goodwill between the governor and voters who previously criticized his dictatorial legislative style.
Scandal at the French Laundry
On November 6, 2020, Newsom was spotted eating dinner in a large unmasked party at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, a three-star Michelin restaurant. He was eating dinner to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of political advisor, Jason Kinney. Other connected guests included California Medical Association CEO Dustin Corcoran and lobbyist Janus Norman. Photos from the event show a group of at least one dozen people seated unmasked at a table—it is unclear whether it is located indoors or outdoors. As of the guidelines updated on October 9, indoor dining was banned in California, but outdoor gatherings with persons from more than three households were also banned.
These photos sparked outrage when they first appeared in the media. Newsom issued a statement claiming that his family followed state guidelines and restrictions because the dinner was held outdoors. Critics argued that Newsom was a hypocrite for asking Californians to limit all gatherings, indoors and outdoors, including those with extended family during the pandemic, only to enjoy a lavish dinner with influential lobbyist friends. They charged it as a perfect example of “Do as I say—not as I do” exemplified by elite California officials and Newsom’s opponents have taken advantage of growing resentment among California voters in advocating for recall. However, in the backlash following the incident, Newsom apologized more fully and claimed “his family should have modeled better behavior and not joined the dinner.”
The reaction to the French Laundry scandal was overwhelming, as restaurant owners struggled to keep their businesses afloat during the pandemic without indoor and outdoor dining to drive their profits. More than 110,000 restaurants closed in 2020, with many more expected to close as the pandemic rages on. In particular, this incident was frustrating as the fate of restaurants in California has been a struggle between the courts and state health orders over enforcement. In late November, LA County introduced a ban on outdoor dining citing increased COVID-19 cases and minimal hospital capacity. However, LA County Superior Judge James Chalfant ruled that the county acted “arbitrarily” in closing outdoor dining and lacked scientific evidence to back their claims that outdoor dining in particular was causing a spike in cases. Despite this decision, the regional health order overrode the judge’s tentative ruling and outdoor dining remained closed. Meanwhile, restaurants were left in a tug of war between the state and courts and had no ability to recoup their financial losses under the current restrictions. Newsom’s appearance at the French Laundry targeted a nerve in business owners who are desperate to stay afloat, as he flouted the rules in an already fraught economic environment.
Since the French Laundry incident, Newsom’s approval with voters has slipped with the latest poll from UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies calculating his approval rating at 46 percent, a 15-point drop from his rating in the middle of the pandemic. However, the IGS poll indicates that only 36 percent of registered voters would recall Newsom if given the opportunity, suggesting there is not enough public support to recall Newsom at the moment.
Recalling Newsom would involve a lengthy process to ultimately trigger a special recall election. First, a petition must be presented to the California Secretary of State alleging a reason for recall, in this case Newsom’s mishandling of the pandemic. Supporters must then collect almost 1.5 million signatures from California voters. After signatures are certified, a special election must take place within 60-80 days of signature certification. For the Newsom recall effort, the deadline for signature collection is March 17, 2021 meaning that if passed, a special election must occur by the end of October once certification is completed. Once the recall is on the ballot, a majority is required to vote for removal in order to formally recall Newsom.
Chances of Success
Compared to other states, California’s threshold for recall is much lower than others—it is the second lowest in the country. This does not bode well for Newsom’s chances of retaining the gubernatorial position. If Newsom’s opponents are able to mobilize the current discontent over the mishandling of the pandemic, it is likely that a recall effort will make its way onto the ballot. However, successfully achieving a majority vote on recall is much less probable given that Newsom still maintains a high level of support among Democrats and he was elected with 62 percent of the vote.
Ultimately, it would require a massive political undertaking in order to displace Newsom. While Republican challengers—former San Diego mayor Kevin Falconer, previous challenger John Cox, among others—have presented themselves as an alternative, the possibility of dividing the vote amongst several Republicans diminishes the chance for success. What this recall effort does prove, however, is that power remains in the voters’ hands and Newsom must be mindful of that collective power. Although he claims otherwise, it cannot be a coincidence that Newsom abandoned the regional stay-at-home order in favor of the less restrictive county based order at the same time as the political movement to replace him was flourishing. For Newsom to stay in voters’ good graces, he must be responsive to the growing frustration amid the pandemic and promote legislation to support restaurant owners, small business owners, and workers who have been devastated during 2020.
The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 International license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Gage Skidmore and can be found here.