Joe Mathews: Exasperated by Newsom recall effort? Blame it on San Diego

By Joe Mathews

A man hides his face with a “Recall Gavin Newsom” sign at a "Patriot Rally" at Pacific Beach during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in San Diego, California, U.S., February 13, 2021. Photo by REUTERS/Bing Guan

It’s been a rough year. Californians should spend this summer enjoying post-pandemic barbecues and family get-togethers, perhaps hitting the road for vacation, and kicking back on the couch to take in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.   

As you might be doing some or all of that, your airwaves are going to be increasingly filled with political speeches and rallies. These are connected to the campaign aimed at removing Governor Gavin Newsom from office.  

Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says that if you’re looking for someone or something to blame, you only have to cast your gaze south. 

Read Mathews’ column below:

Why are you so desperate to seize the governorship, San Diego? 

The recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom has many geographic roots. Its original proponent was a Yolo County sheriff’s deputy. The recall petition drew considerable support in North State communities. And right-wing Republicans from across America have funded it.

But a recall is about replacing one governor with another. And for the second gubernatorial recall in a row, San Diego County and its frustrated politicians are driving the process.

In 2003, the frustrated San Diegan behind the recall of Gov. Gray Davis was Congressman Darrell Issa. An ordinary gubernatorial election didn’t hold much hope for a conservative Republican like Issa, but the recall election — with a huge field of replacement candidates — looked like an opening. So Issa, a car alarm magnate, provided the money to qualify the recall and started running for office — before abandoning his campaign in the face of media attacks. 

This time, two ambitious San Diegans lead in early polls of who would replace Newsom if the recall succeeds.

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, long a gubernatorial aspirant, might be too moderate to win in a regular, California top-two election. But he saw the wide-open recall race as an opportunity, and launched his campaign before all the signatures were verified this spring. 

San Diego-based businessman John Cox, who lost badly to Newsom in the regular 2018 gubernatorial election, sees the recall as a second chance. He is throwing his fortune behind his recall candidacy, broadcasting ads statewide that show him with a bear, symbolizing the “beastly” changes he promises the state.

Why is San Diego the home of recall ambition? 

One answer is that the state has changed politically. While San Diego, which routinely voted Republican in 20th century presidential races, has become more Democratic, it still elects Republicans like Faulconer, who is popular enough with local Democrats to convince himself he might win statewide. 

Another answer lies in San Diego’s little-known status as a leader in direct democracy. San Diego often produces signatures for ballot initiative campaigns at twice the per-voter rate of other counties.

But San Diego’s affinity for the recall goes beyond politics to identity. San Diego is big — it’s America’s eighth most populous municipality. But its influence doesn’t match its ambitions because America’s Finest City, as it bills itself, is located in California. San Diego would be the largest metropolis in 43 states, but here, it’s only our fourth most populous metro region, with fewer folks than even the Inland Empire. So it doesn’t get the statewide attention that San Francisco and Los Angeles do.

San Diego is also different culturally than its coastal big brothers. LA and the Bay Area are global mega-regions, proudly out-of-step with the United States. San Diego, by contrast, is the most unabashedly American of California cities — full of military installations and veterans. Its location on an international border also reinforces its American identity.

San Diegans often see the rest of California as flouting American traditions. So it’s not hard to see why the recall, a reactionary tool, might have special appeal there.

But that doesn’t mean the recall will install a San Diegan in Sacramento, much less slowing down California change. Back in 2003, the San Diego-funded recall was ultimately won by a foreign-born movie star from Los Angeles. It also doesn’t help the prospects of Cox or Falconer that the last California governor from San Diego, Pete Wilson, has curdled into a full-throated supporter of Donald Trump. Late in life, Wilson, whose statue was briefly taken down in San Diego last fall, still defends anti-immigration politics with the fervor of a man who wants to go down in history as California’s answer to George Wallace.

This year, San Diego’s attempts to take out Gavin Newsom have succeeded in producing another recall election, which is no small feat. But since the election became a certainty, Gov. Newsom has grown more energized and popular. 

In today’s California, San Diego has enough horsepower to demand the state reconsider who should be governor, but probably not enough to take the reins itself. 

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



Darrell Satzman