Joe Mathews: Is the Newsom recall effort good for California?

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Governor Gavin Newsom speaking in 2020. Photo by Office of the Governor of California, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The drive to force a vote on removing Gavin Newsom from office is picking up steam, spurred on by anger over coronavirus restrictions and other conservative grievances. It remains to be seen if backers can collect enough valid signatures to put the issue on the ballot - or whether voters in deep blue California would consider axing the first-term governor. Those questions aside, Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says the recall campaign could turn out to be a positive development for the state. It’s already forcing Newsom to reassess his response to the pandemic.

Read Mathews column below:

Scared straight


Californians should love me, even when I’m used against a politician you like.

So I hope you’ll appreciate me if Gov. Gavin Newsom, who remains popular in polls, faces a recall election later this year.

Newsom’s team is already attacking me as extreme, anti-democratic, and expensive. But those arguments, while understandable, are misguided. When you fight me, you’re fighting democracy itself.

I, the recall, am a direct democratic tool that allows citizens to petition for a vote to remove elected officials from office before their terms are over. My petitions and elections are quite valuable, forcing politicians to be more responsive, even when the targeted official survives the recall attempt (as most do—I am merciful).

The wisdom of providing a democratic, non-violent means of removing public officials has never been more apparent.

Since I don’t operate at the federal level in the U.S., American voters just spent four years with no democratic way to remove a lawless, authoritarian president. Your constitutional tools for removal—the 25th Amendment and impeachment—are too weak because they depend not on voters but on elected officials to have the courage to remove a politician.

Imagine if I had been available in America these past four years—could I have provided the checks and balances that Congress neglected? Would I have been a better way to blow off steam, as opposed to posting on Twitter? Could I have eventually removed the dangerous president? Without me, your nation descended into anti-democratic  political violence.

In this context, California’s long embrace of me is a difference worth celebrating. Since voters added me to the state constitution in 1911, Californians have considered recalls of hundreds of local officials, and attempted the removal of state officials 165 times. You don’t have to wait until the next election—you can use me to fire politicians at any time.  

My biggest moment was in 2003, when California became the first state since 1921 to recall a governor. This time around, I’m an underdog because the politics of the Newsom’s recalls right-wing backers are way too Trumpian for California. Some stated reasons on the petition knock Newsom for actions that are popular—like his sanctuary protections for immigrants, criminal justice reform, and requiring childhood vaccinations. (The governor’s pandemic management mistakes don’t appear on the recall petition, which was filed before COVID shutdowns.)

But none of this means I’m doomed. I can win again in California if support for me can grow beyond the right, via a replacement government candidate with mainstream appeal. That’s what California got in 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger commandeered the recall campaign from conservatives and convinced Californians he could take on their broken governing system.

Despite Schwarzenegger’s efforts, that system remain broken. Newsom hasn’t fixed it, while struggling with pandemic response. So, if a top-notch crisis manager with deep commitment to systemic change were to emerge, I could once again throw out a California governor.

As of right now, that seems unlikely. The best-known replacement candidate, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, couldn’t manage an office lease. And your governor is already making smart adjustments that could allow him to survive me—shaking up his staff, and offering more focused plans for school reopening and business assistance.

Still, I would suggest that a recall election, and the debates it produces, might be healthy for your state. The pandemic has revealed urgent problems with state agencies and local governments too weak to respond in emergencies. And California has been so focused on fighting off attacks from the Trump administration that it’s overdue for a look at itself, and whether its institutions can handle 21st century challenges.

I, the recall, would be the perfect vehicle for that kind of self-examination.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.  



Joe Mathews