Recall puts elections chief in political pickle

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Secretary of State Shirley Weber speaks during a press conference in 2020 in Sacramento. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom isn’t the only person at the center of action surrounding the Sept. 14 recall election.

There’s also Secretary of State Shirley Weber — who has been thrust into the awkward position of administering an election that could oust from office the very man who appointed her to the role. Weber, a San Diego Democrat and former state lawmaker, faces a politically precarious task: defending California’s recall process — even if she thinks it has “some serious problems” — and encouraging residents to vote without giving the impression of supporting Newsom.

The trickiness of this balancing act was evident Tuesday, when the Associated Press reported that California election officials are spending $16 million on a voter education campaign intended to boost turnout — a move that will likely benefit Newsom, given the state’s nearly 2 to 1 ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans.

The campaign is officially nonpartisan, but the California Republican Party has accused the agency running the campaign — the Sax Agency of Los Angeles — of being pro-Democrat, citing its 2020 work with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and an Instagram post celebrating President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ win. (During the November 2020 election, then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office came under fire for awarding a $35 million voter education contract to a firm tied to Biden’s presidential campaign.)

Joe Kocurek, Weber’s press secretary, told me Tuesday that the two leaders of the voter education campaign are registered as Republican and no party preference. “We have that perspective intentionally,” he said, adding, “The fact is, we have a state full of voters of both parties. Elections are supposed to reflect the will of the people, and you don’t have that if people don’t turn out.”

Nevertheless, critics questioned the appropriateness of Weber and Attorney General Rob Bonta — another Newsom appointee, who’s publicly endorsed the governor — holding a press conference to remind Californians of their voting rights ahead of the recall. During the event, Weber emphasized that it’s “a sacred part of this democracy for every Californian to vote in this election and every election.” But she also appeared to stop mid-sentence when explaining the recall ballot, potentially to choose more neutral words to describe the second question.

  • Weber: “It’s a ballot with two questions on it, really, do you or do you not want to recall the governor, simple yes or no. And the second question is if for some reason you want — he is recalled, who would you want as his replacement?”

However, Republicans praised Weber for adhering to the letter of the law and not granting Newsom’s appeal to list himself as a Democrat on the ballot despite his lawyers missing the filing deadline to do so. She’s also been the defendant in other high-profile lawsuits: one from recall frontrunner Larry Elder, who challenged tax return requirements (he won and got on the ballot); and one from three California voters who argued the recall was unconstitutional (they lost).

During election season, though, the line between state official and politician can get blurry. At an Oakland vaccine clinic on Tuesday, Newsom noted that 80% of eligible Californians have received at least one shot and encouraged hesitant residents to get vaccinated. But then he pivoted to campaign mode. “Simple request,” he said. “Vote no and go to the mailbox. Simple no vote. Don’t even turn the page and consider the other 46 questions that are being asked. Simple no vote and turn that ballot in.”