OAKLAND — California has recall fever, and no elected official is immune from the coronavirus’ political side effects.
Incensed residents in conservative Shasta County have accused their supervisors of tyranny while pulling papers to oust them from office for their Covid-19 restrictions. Liberal activists accused Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg of having “blood on his hands” for failing to open shelters before a winter storm that killed multiple homeless people, demanding Steinberg resign within 72 hours and then launching a recall.
In the heavily Democratic Bay Area, affluent parents are trading school board recall tips, taking inspiration from San Francisco voters seeking to remove officials who spent hours renaming schools while classrooms sat empty.
While the pandemic-fueled effort to dislodge Gov. Gavin Newsom has drawn the nation’s attention, it may just be the start. Ongoing rage in local communities has spurred efforts across the state to toss leaders, taking a cue from the gubernatorial election that is almost certain to qualify.
“We’re seeing recalls up and down the state of different elected officials, and not because they’ve done anything illegal but because they’ve done things people don’t agree with and quite often something they campaigned on,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco). “It sounds like anytime you disagree with an official you use that as an excuse to threaten them.”
The state has a relatively low bar to qualify recall elections, and Newsom had been the target of five failed attempts before the pandemic upended California’s political landscape. In the months since, virus fatigue has supercharged interest in recalls among disillusioned voters stewing at home.
Anger over shuttered schools has fueled efforts to unseat school board members in San Francisco, the San Diego area and Davis. Local elected officials in rural northern California are trying to survive a backlash to pandemic restrictions. In a parallel but distinct development, voters aren’t waiting for the next election to try and oust the reformist district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles. San Diegans are trying to oust their city council president, accusing her of operating secretively and bending to special interests.
If California state offices are any indication, however, it’s easier to pull recall papers than to qualify an election. There have been 179 recall attempts of state officials since voters gained the power in 1911, and only 10 have qualified for the ballot, according to the secretary of state’s office. The Newsom recall would make 11.
The electorate has recalled six state officials, most recently Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman in 2018 in a battleground district after he voted to raise gas taxes to fund road improvements. Newman took back his seat in the 2020 general election.
Of all the causes of voter unrest, school restrictions have resonated with a singular power. Newsom’s Republican opponents have made it a centerpiece of their argument to remove him.
San Francisco parents were infuriated when the city’s school board took time to rename schools as kids languished at home, making the reliably liberal city a national punchline. Voters who might not otherwise pay attention to school board meetings are galvanized and engaged, organizing a constellation of reopening-focused groups around the state.
One of the parents spearheading the San Francisco effort, Autumn Looijen, said organizers have been hearing from “parents who have never in their lives been involved in politics” but are mulling recall efforts in the Bay Area and Southern California.
“You can usually sit on that board for four years and not do a tremendous amount of damage, but suddenly this pandemic hits and we can see who’s competent and not, who has the interests of children at heart,” Looijen said.
While “a very small percentage of the public” tends to vote in school board elections, now it stands to reason that “people are more engaged, more aware, and it’s being covered much more,” said Julie Marsh, director of the University of Southern California’s Policy Analysis for California Education. She noted that school closures have contributed to a confluence of grievances that includes racial unrest and the coronavirus disproportionately ravaging disadvantaged communities.
Hundreds of miles north of San Francisco and far to the political right, pandemic lockdowns have spurred attempts to recall a trio of Shasta County supervisors. All three voted to rebuke fellow supervisors who had reopened their county chambers in January in defiance of public health orders — a move that resulted in dozens of unmasked protesters entering the meeting room.
Citizens have accused their elected officials of tyranny. A targeted supervisor has decried opponents as “extremists.” Observers have been stunned by the ferocity of a political battle unfolding far from California’s liberal urban centers.
“It just doesn’t make sense, some of the things that are being said,” said Supervisor Mary Rickert, a cattle rancher and decades-long Republican who has been accused of being a socialist. “I’m conservative. It’s all pretty puzzling to me.”
“The world has changed in the last year," Rickert said. "I think politically we’ve become as a nation more polarized and I think this is just another indicator.”
Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at Wagner College’s Institute for Government Reform who writes a recall blog, said recall attempts have proliferated in recent decades. High-profile attempts have bolstered interest, and it’s become easier to generate support due to the ease of online fundraising and the increasing nationalization of politics.
Coronavirus restrictions in particular tend to harden peoples’ political positions, he said. “There are people who are extremely in favor of no masks, or we need to be back in school,” so “the recall moves out of the realm of local issues and into a national issue where you can divide the two more easily.”
Recall campaigns are familiar territory for former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, who floated a failed effort to recall Newsom just months into the Democratic governor’s term. DeMaio’s organization is supporting both the latest Newsom recall and an effort to dislodge a La Mesa-Spring Valley school board member who denounced a school reopening push as racist.
DeMaio said he has been “inundated” with calls from people seeking to claw back city council or school board seats. He argued the Newsom recall has galvanized voters who were already fed up with the fruits of liberal hegemony in a state where Democrats control every statewide office and impermeable two-thirds supermajorities in the Legislature.
“The reason there’s so much talk of recall is the Democrats have really overreached,” DeMaio said, but he argued the Newsom recall was also inspiring voters. “I do believe it’s quite empowering to see what’s going on against Gavin Newsom and the grassroots are realizing wait a minute, we don’t need to wait for some Republican Party political operative.”
But where DeMaio sees opportunity, critics see political opportunism. Newsom and his allies have repeatedly denounced the recall as a cynical conservative effort to reverse the 2018 election and sneak into the governor’s mansion.
Defenders of progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón see a similar dynamic at work, arguing that entrenched law enforcement interests are trying to override the will of voters. Law enforcement unions spent heavily to defeat Boudin and Gascón, and rank-and-file Los Angeles prosecutors are trying to block Gascón’s reforms with the aid of a statewide prosecutors’ group.
“I think what we’re seeing is a conservative element in this country fighting past the finish line, and when the results are not the outcome they’re working towards — we’ve seen it nationally and now here in this state — they’re seeking to undo democratically elected officials,” said Cristine Soto DeBerry, who heads an alliance of progressive prosecutors that includes Gascón and Boudin.
Opponents of the embattled district attorneys reject that argument, saying the prosecutors have undermined public safety and insulted victims by going far beyond their campaign pledges. “He campaigned on a whole different thing,” said Desiree Andrade, who was motivated by Gascón’s office seeking lesser sentences for her son’s murderers, and “it’s not about Newsom. It’s not political. It’s about what’s right and what’s wrong.”
While the prosecutor recall efforts do not flow primarily from coronavirus fatigue, former Los Angeles Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky argued law enforcement issues and pandemic restrictions have created distinct camps of Californians who “have been cooped up in their houses for a year.”
“I think Covid is one of those issues, and criminal justice is one of those issues, where everybody has an opinion,” said Yaroslavsky, who now heads the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Those broadly shared experiences are fueling a shared political moment. Even as rising vaccinations and plummeting infections have California poised to emerge from its ordeal, fed-up voters aren’t waiting until 2022 to hold their representatives accountable.
“People hear enough about recalls and they say, ‘I’m going to recall my city council member I’m dissatisfied with.’ Certainly the pandemic and more folks being stuck at home is giving people time to simmer,” said former San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim. “I think a lot of political leaders don’t have answers because we’ve never seen anything like this before, and I think mistakes have been made, but it’s not unexpected given the unprecedented nature of what we’ve been facing.”
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