California small business owners are powering recall efforts. Will they succeed?

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder speaks during a campaign stop outside a restaurant in San Diego, California, U.S. September 3, 2021. Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters.

Tina Van Curen has always been interested in politics. But she took her political engagement to another level when her store, Autobooks/Aerobooks, was forced to close last year due to COVID-restrictions.

“It’s not like I spent my weekends marching in the streets,” Van Curen says, sitting inside her Burbank store dedicated to car and plane books memorabilia. “But with everything that’s happened the last couple years, [Gavin] Newsom is destroying California. I’m not the only person that can see that. … I just couldn’t sit by and watch anymore.”

Van Curen is among the many small business owners — frustrated by Governor Gavin Newsom’s politics and behavior during the pandemic — who applied to turn their businesses into signature gathering sites for California’s gubernatorial recall petition in the past year. In all, recall supporters gathered roughly 2 million signatures. Now with just one day left to vote in the recall election, Van Curen hopes her efforts will bring a change in leadership atop the world’s fifth-largest economy.  

“It's a grassroots movement from people like me,” Van Curen says. “People who used to have a job in a store, work in a gym, or have a business who think … that our state is completely mismanaged and they want to do something about it.”

Perhaps no sector of the state’s economy suffered more during the pandemic than small businesses. At the height of lockdowns last year, some 15,000 small businesses in Los Angeles were forced to close, half of them for good, according to a tally by Yelp. Many parts of the economy have since recovered, but many small business owners have yet to recuperate their earnings.  

That includes folks like Allen Brodetsky, whose family runs the Valley Inn Restaurant and Martini Bar in Sherman Oaks. This restaurant has played host to candidate-specific activism, most recently a campaign appearance for GOP frontrunner and conservative local radio personality Larry Elder. 

“Many of the high-rise office buildings that you see around you remain partially empty,” Brodetsky says outside his family’s restaurant while introducing Elder. “[We] used to have a thriving lunch shift, serving the community. We are now closed completely for lunch. Gavin Newsom is responsible for residents and businesses fleeing our state.”

Not every small business owner supports the recall. Many who lost money do not hold California’s governor responsible. And in deeply blue California, the odds are stacked against recalling Gov. Newsom from his office. In fact, recent polls suggest the governor will prevail. 

But the timing of this election could give an advantage to Republicans. Older, more conservative voters are more likely to cast ballots in off-year elections. 

For Angela Marsden, owner of the Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grill, anyone other than Newsom will do. She created a viral video last year during the height of the pandemic, showing her bar’s outdoor patio sitting empty and comparing it to a makeshift lunch tent set up for a film crew next door.

“I was behind $65,000 in rent in January — just rent,” Marsden says. “So now you have all these people going into September that are hundreds of thousands of dollars behind. We can't find staff, our costs are up and Newsom gave us nothing.”