California's recall election.

Plus, a question about “CDC guidance.”
Isaac Saul Aug 18, 2021
️I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

The Gavin Newsom recall. Plus, a question about “CDC guidance.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Quick hits.

  1. Reports have emerged of Taliban fighters scouring neighborhoods for people who worked for the U.S. and preventing them from reaching the airport to escape Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country, is now in the United Arab Emirates. (More details)
  2. President Biden’s average approval rating has dipped below 50 percent for the first time since being elected. (The polls)
  3. The TSA extended its mask mandates for travel on planes, busses and trains through January 18. It was going to expire on September 13. (Read the announcement)
  4. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who was vaccinated against Covid-19, announced that he had tested positive for the virus on Tuesday. (Link)
  5. Lawmakers have scrapped changes that would abolish qualified immunity in their negotiations on police reform, a development that is expected to cause an uproar among progressive Democrats. (Breaking news from Politico)

What D.C. is talking about.

California. (Actually, they’re still talking about Afghanistan — but we’ve got other things to cover!) The latest polls in the state show Governor Gavin Newsom with a slim lead among voters to remain as governor while opponents continue a push to remove him.

Back it up. California is the most populous state in the country. Gavin Newsom, its governor, is one of the most powerful politicians not named “Joe Biden” in the country. Because of California’s size and influence on the economy, it often paves the way for major changes in industries, like Big Tech, immigration, climate change and automobiles. In short: California doesn’t just matter to California, its leadership matters for a lot of people across the U.S.

So what’s happening? In 1911, California passed a law that allowed its citizens to recall — or remove — a governor, even when it wasn’t election season. Many other states have recall laws, but it’s easier to pull off in California than just about anywhere else. Recall attempts are very common (there have been 179 of them since then) and nearly every governor since 1960 has faced one. But usually, they don’t go anywhere. You have to get enough signatures on a petition to equal 12 percent of the turnout in the last gubernatorial election to prompt a recall vote, which takes a lot of time and money in a state of 40 million people. This time, though, there is actually going to be an election. The only other time that happened, Gov. Gray Davis was replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.

Where are things now? Recall ballots are being sent out in the mail, and the election should be over by September 14. The first question on the ballot will ask if Gov. Newsom should remain California’s governor. The second question will ask who should replace him. If more than half the voters in the first question say Newsom should remain, then the election is over and Newsom stays. But if more than half say he should leave, then whoever gets the most responses to the second question becomes governor.

To make things more interesting: after a legal battle was settled, Newsom will not be identified as a Democrat on the ballot, but his opponents’ party identifications will be noted.

Who is the competition? There are 46 candidates on the recall ballots, but only a few with any real shot. Right now, the frontrunner among the challengers is Republican Larry Elder, the conservative talk radio host. Some other candidates include Republican Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego; former Republican Congressman Doug Ose; Caitlyn Jenner, the reality TV star and former Olympic athlete; and Kevin Kiley, a Republican state senator.

The first recall petitions against Newsom were filed by Republicans immediately after he became governor, mainly concerning his policies on undocumented immigrants and his stance on gun control. But it wasn’t until 2020 that a petition gained traction, after a controversy where Newsom attended a party maskless while the state was locked down with Covid-19, outrage ensued and the signatures poured in.

Right now, according to FiveThirtyEight’s averages, 48.8 percent of California voters want to “keep” Newsom, while 47.6 percent want to remove him.

Below, we’ll take a look at some arguments from the right and left on this issue, then my take.


What the right is saying.

The right supports the recall, arguing that Newsom should be removed for his damaging policies across the state.

In The Washington Post, Hugh Hewitt made the case for Larry Elder or Kevin Faulconer and said Gavin Newsom is at “the center” of all of California’s woes.

“California is in the grip of a long-unfolding triumph of special interests and wealthy elites, a stultifyingly dense collection of reality-denying ideologues,” Hewitt said. “The state is living on its seed corn, making promises it cannot keep, especially to public employees whose retirement funds are woefully short of what’s needed to meet pledged commitments. California is a land of worsening wildfires, chronic drought, deeply fractured communities and growing radicalism on the left and right. Every city or town along the coast has smaller versions of the roughly 70,000 unhoused in the county (and city) of Los Angeles.

“California’s once-magnificent higher education system still has Nobel laureates and remains a leader in many fields of the ‘hard sciences,’ but liberal education is another story,” he wrote. “Many faculties are so radical as to defy description in a dozen columns, yet anyone who follows the subject, even at a distance, wouldn’t argue the point. ‘Woke’ is to this decade what the Jesus People were to the 1970s in Orange County and what rock-and-roll was to L.A. in the ’60s: ubiquitous and breathtaking in their self-confidence and ambition… These issues were worsened by a pandemic as badly ‘managed’ here as it has been anywhere.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called Newsom the liberal “fall guy.”

“The recall is in part a referendum on the Governor’s excessive and destructive Covid lockdowns,” they said. “California boasts the third highest unemployment rate in the country (7.7%). Last fall he was caught violating his own Covid rules with friends at the ritzy French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. Weeks later he shut down businesses, including outdoor dining. To many voters, the dinner symbolized progressive detachment from the problems that Californians are experiencing in their daily lives.

“Take crime, which has been surging as progressives have essentially decriminalized drug use and petty theft and released thousands of criminals from jail,” the board added. “Homicides rose 31% last year. Last Monday former California Sen. Barbara Boxer was mugged in Oakland… A homeless man attempted to assault Mr. Newsom in Oakland in June, and fortunately he had a security detail to protect him. Ordinary Californians aren’t so privileged. In April an elderly woman was stabbed to death while walking her dog in a Riverside park by a mentally ill homeless woman who had been arrested and released after a previous attack.”

In Breitbart, columnist and California resident Joel Pollak said Larry Elder “has something few politicians can boast: a nationwide base of fans who have known him for years.”

“Any Republican who manages to oust Newsom would also face a legislature in which Democrats still hold absolute power,” Pollak said. “With their supermajority, they can pass any law and override any veto. The unions that run the state — teachers, nurses, state and local employees — will not allow anyone to touch the state’s pension system or its punishing tax code. The environmentalists and amnesty organizations will mobilize to protect their interests from any would-be reformer.

“But Elder, who would be California’s first black governor, would be an effective advocate for the idea that there is an alternative — that California need not be doomed to discover, too late, the destructive effect of ‘woke’ one-partyism,” Pollak said. “Win or lose, Elder will inspire conservatives nationwide, showing that their ideas transcend race, and can compete — even in the bluest of states.”


What the left is saying.

The left supports Gavin Newsom, arguing that California’s recall system is broken and the alternatives to Newsom are all bad.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board told California to “wake up.”

“Removing Newsom and replacing him with an untested and unprepared alternative who wouldn’t represent the values of most Californians would be a disaster,” the board said. “It would doom the state to months of political and bureaucratic dysfunction and economic uncertainty. And for what purpose?… The critics paint a picture of a state teetering on collapse that is wildly irresponsible and in many cases just flat wrong. The streets are overrun with criminals thanks to Newsom! (Nope.) People and businesses are fleeing California in record numbers because of his terrible policies! (Wrong.) Newsom caused the state’s massive wildfires because he mismanaged the forest! (Ridiculous.) He kept changing the rules during the pandemic — but he also didn’t change them enough! (What?)

“The reality is that Newsom took office in January 2019 amid literal and figurative wildfires: Homelessness was rising and reaching a tipping point,” the board added. “The state’s largest electric utility, PG&E, was in bankruptcy because of negligence that started infernos like the one that wiped out the town of Paradise. The state’s information technology systems were (and still are) hopelessly out of date, leading to one of the first challenges of Newsom’s administration, at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Climate change was and still is accelerating, squeezing the state’s power grid during its transition to renewable energy sources and straining its water supply. These crises were years in the making and — let’s face it — Newsom inherited them from his Democratic predecessor, Jerry Brown. But Newsom had the misfortune to take office just as they reached the boiling point.”

In The Nation, Sasha Abramsky said the recall election could be a “national disaster.”

“So far, it hasn’t gotten quite the national attention it merits,” Abramsky wrote. “But over the next month, the rest of the country will likely realize just how dangerous, and potentially transformative, this fire could be. It threatens to set off a national political explosion that could affect everything from congressional redistricting to pandemic responses to efforts to tackle climate change and maintain green energy and transport policies.

“There’s a strong likelihood that a popular Democratic governor, who won election in 2018 with 61.9 percent of the vote—more than 7.7 million votes—could win nearly 50 percent of the vote in 2021 only to be replaced by an unpopular Republican who wins barely one-third of that percentage,” Abramsky said. “In a state with 40 million people, it’s entirely conceivable that a new governor could be ‘elected’ with fewer than 2 million votes… If this election were held on a regular Election Day, with the mass of Californians engaged and aware of the process, [Larry] Elder wouldn’t reach 30 percent of the vote. He’d be as hammered by Newsom as Trump was by Biden in the state. But this isn’t a regular election; it’s a sneak attack on the political process.”

In The New York Times, Erwin Chemerinsky and Aaron S. Edlin argued that the entire process was unconstitutional.

“The most basic principles of democracy are that the candidate who gets the most votes is elected and that every voter gets an equal say in an election’s outcome. The California system for voting in a recall election violates these principles and should be declared unconstitutional… By conducting the recall election in this way, Mr. Newsom can receive far more votes than any other candidate but still be removed from office. Many focus on how unfair this structure is to the governor, but consider instead how unfair it is to the voters who support him.

“Imagine that 10 million people vote in the recall election and 5,000,001 vote to remove Mr. Newsom, while 4,999,999 vote to keep him in office,” they wrote. “He will then be removed and the new governor will be whichever candidate gets the most votes on the second question. In a recent poll, the talk show host Larry Elder was leading with 18 percent among the nearly 50 candidates on the ballot. With 10 million people voting, Mr. Elder would receive the votes of 1.8 million people. Mr. Newsom would have the support of almost three times as many voters, but Mr. Elder would become the governor… This is not just nonsensical and undemocratic. It is unconstitutional. It violates a core constitutional principle that has been followed for over 60 years: Every voter should have an equal ability to influence the outcome of the election.”


My take.

I hope Californians vote.

My feelings about Newsom are almost irrelevant here, but I’ll share them anyway: I think the Los Angeles Times rightly pointed out his flaws and gave him a fair shake. He’s been in office for two years and he’s governing the most populous state in the country — a job that often seems as complicated and challenging as being president. The idea that he was going to solve California’s housing crisis or pension problems or wildfires or energy issues at this point in his term is absurd. He can seem like a rich, out-of-touch, arrogant putz sometimes, and there is zero question that life in California during Covid-19 has been just about as frustrating and awful as anywhere. But a recall? I’m not so sure.

My feelings about the other candidates are also not particularly relevant, but I’ll share those, too. Larry Elder is not qualified to govern California. I’m not sure he’s qualified to govern California’s smallest city. He has no experience governing — zero — and his political views are totally divorced from the people he’d be tasked with governing. He calls climate change a “crock,” is opposed to a minimum wage and gun control laws, and is a Trump loyalist in a state that loathes Trump. Elder is good at talk radio, and he sometimes strikes a tone about government overreach and radical speech police that I appreciate, but a governor should represent the people he’s governing and Elder isn’t even close. His lack of qualifications are just the cherry on top.

Unfortunately, he’s not alone. Caitlyn Jenner is more aloof than anyone else in the pack and seems to not even understand how the state even works or what her powers would be as governor. Kevin Faulconer, a moderate Republican, is perfectly qualified, has reasonable, well-thought out and earnest views, many of which I am aligned with, and is probably the best non-Democrat, non-Newsom alternative of all the 46 candidates. But, again, he’s not even close to representing your average Californian.

Which brings me to why these feelings don’t matter: the recall system is bonkers. We have elections for a reason; and we have state legislatures and courts for a reason, too. It’s so we can elect our leaders and then hold them accountable with impeachment or removal from office if they step out of line (see: New York). But how is it a functioning democracy to have half of a sliver of the voting population reverse the will of two-thirds of the full voting population in a spontaneous election that many people won’t even cast a ballot in? Answer: It isn’t.

There are more Republicans in California than in many “red” states, and I want their voices to be heard and represented. They’re often forgotten under the misnomer that California is simply “blue.” So the counterargument here might be “well, people should just turn up and vote then.” And I get that. Fine. But this election is costing hundreds of millions of dollars to administer. Given the state of the economy in California, the fact there is an actual election in a year, the pandemic, the return to school and everything else going on, I think Californians may have other things on their minds and probably have perfectly good reasons for not being able to invest time and energy into this.

Republicans are using a tool available to remove Newsom, and there’s nothing currently illegal or wrong about that. But there should be. California’s recall election system should be scrapped, and if Republicans there want Newsom gone they should campaign on the issues and win a real election, with a healthy voter turnout, by convincing Californians their policies are better.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Do you have any idea why the media has been saying that the “Biden Administration is planning to advise” when it comes to Covid, rather than the “CDC is planning to advise?” If we, as a nation, are trying not to politicize covid/vaccines/masks/etc, shouldn’t the advice come from the “scientists” rather than the politicians? Thoughts?

— Jill, Pittsburgh, PA

Tangle: I think it’s a great point. Truly. The reason you hear “the Biden administration” so much is that the leaders of the CDC and many of the people who interpret their guidance and transform it into law are, in fact, people chosen by the Biden administration. And therefore part of the Biden administration. In my experience reading so much news every day, I see a pretty healthy split between guidance from “the CDC” and from “the Biden administration,” though it seems like television reporters are more likely to say “CDC” and print reporters are more likely to say “the Biden administration” (in my very unscientific review).

Ultimately, the CDC is a subset of Health and Human Services, which is a federal agency and thus — technically — “the Biden administration.” That being said, I agree with you that headlines like “Biden administration issues new mask mandate” are bound to get less buy-in than “CDC medical advisory group issues new mask mandates.” Ultimately, it’s not a reporter’s job to frame a story in a way that most effectively passes on the administration’s message (in fact, that’s basically the opposite of their job), so they aren’t really going to take that into account.

It’s also true, as much as I hate to admit it, that the CDC is probably not going to do a whole lot that the Biden administration doesn’t want them to. I don’t want to say they are one and the same, because they aren’t, but I also think there is an obvious relationship there that makes it reasonable to call the CDC’s decisions the Biden administration’s decisions, even if it exacerbates some of our partisan divides.

You can reply to any email and write in with your own question. Just tell me where you’re writing from and whether it’s okay to post your name. You can also fill out this form.


A story that matters.

The National Rifle Association has not addressed rampant financial and managerial misconduct and should be dissolved, according to New York Attorney General Letitia James. The assessment was made in a recent court filing and comes after the NRA’s failed bid for bankruptcy protection. Lavish spending by the organization’s longtime leader Wayne LaPierre is the subject of a current investigation, according to Bloomberg, and James has said the “organization’s leaders intentionally disregarded proper corporate governance, wasted charitable assets, falsely reported improper transactions, and allowed insiders to take advantage of the NRA.” The filing is the latest development in a case that could take down the organization, which has millions of members. (Reuters)


Numbers.

  • 1,495,709. The number of signatures that were needed to trigger a recall election in California.
  • 1,719,900. The number of signatures received.
  • 43. The number of voters who opted to remove their signatures during a 30-day period where they were allowed to change their minds.
  • $276 million. The estimated cost of the recall, according to state budget officials.
  • 46%. The percentage of California voters who are registered Democrats.
  • 24%. The percentage of California voters who are registered Republicans.

Remember.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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