Joe Mathews: Gray Davis couldn’t save his own job, but maybe he can save Gavin Newsom’s

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Former California Governor Gray Davis might be the most powerful ally for Governor Gavin Newsom and the state’s ruling Democrats in defeating this year’s recall campaign. That’s according to Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews. Photo of Gray Davis (left) by Neon Tommy (CC BY-SA 2.0). Photo of Gavin Newsom (right) by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Nearly half of California voters now oppose the campaign to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office, which is up from 45% a few months ago. That’s according to a new poll from the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. Researchers also found that nearly half of the Democrats surveyed said they’d like to see another Democrat running on the ballot this fall — if Newsom is recalled. The current governor and many party leaders have opposed that so far. 

Zocalo’s “Connecting California” commentator Joe Mathews says former Governor Gray Davis could fit the bill. Californians voted to recall Davis in 2003 and replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Read Mathews’ column below:


The most head-scratching political puzzle in California has only one solution: Gray Davis.

Perhaps paradoxically, Davis, the former governor who voters recalled in 2003, may be the most important ally Gavin Newsom and California’s ruling Democrats have in defeating this year’s recall. 

On Election Day this fall, voters will face two questions. First, they must choose, yes or no, whether to remove Newsom from office. Then, they will have the option to vote for a replacement candidate.

The conundrum facing Democrats is whether they would be better off preventing anyone from within their ranks from running to replace Newsom, or whether the party should place one prominent Democrat on the ballot.

There are strong arguments on both sides. Newsom himself, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and most of the Democratic establishment argue that fielding an attractive Democratic candidate would give more Democratic voters permission to vote to recall the governor. They want to keep the Democratic base firmly behind the governor, and offer the voters a stark choice: Support Newsom or risk turning the governorship over to one of the pro-Trump Republicans running in the replacement race.

But other Democrats — notably former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown — say that’s reckless. They think the Democrats should rally behind an alternative of their own, which could keep the governor’s office in Democratic hands if Newsom is recalled. Without such a backup in place, one of those Trump-backing GOP contenders could become governor.

But what if there were another way — or rather, a way to have it both ways? What if Democrats could find a replacement candidate who would signal opposition for the recall — without outshining Newsom?

That candidate is not an ambitious Democratic politician like former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, or 2020 presidential candidate Tom Steyer. Too many Democrats might prefer one of them over Newsom, making the recall a contest between different factions of Democrats. To beat the recall, the Democrats need party unity not competition.

What the Democrats need is a replacement candidate with no political future, a backup choice whose opposition to the recall, and support for Gov. Newsom, would be unquestioned.

Gray Davis alone fits that bill.

Davis is 78 years old. He’s not charismatic. If Democrats put him on the replacement ballot, he’d clearly be there only to serve out the rest of Newsom’s current term. 

And his very presence on the ballot would reinforce opposition to the recall. Davis bitterly fought the 2003 recall. He knows, better than anyone, the defects of the process. 

And Davis, who has worked on governance reform efforts since leaving office, could remind voters that recalls actually don’t change that much in California, where constitutional formulas and old ballot initiatives determine most things.

To illustrate that point, Davis could describe how his successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, relied on Davis’ own aides and continued many of Davis’ policies. Davis could recount how he and Schwarzenegger became friends, with Davis frequently speaking at Schwarzenegger’s USC institute. The two men even saw each other over a recent Christmas. 

Davis has been among those who oppose putting a replacement candidate on the ballot — which reinforces the fact that he would be a perfectly unambitious replacement. He could campaign with Newsom, whose efforts the former governor has relentlessly praised. Indeed, Davis, by taking on all questions about the recall itself, could reinforce Newsom’s strategy of focusing on his job as governor, and what he can do for Californians. On recall matters, Davis already has been a media surrogate for Newsom on local TV around the state. In an appearance on KABC in Los Angeles, Davis even lapsed into referring to Newsom and himself as “we.” 

In other words, David would join the ballot as a clear member of team Newsom, thus satisfying the strategic imperatives of both sides of this puzzle. Davis would keep up the attack on the recall while keeping it separate from Newsom, who can focus on bigger, more urgent issues. And Davis’ presence would provide a unifying Democratic insurance policy in case Newsom can’t get a majority to vote to retain him in office. 

Gray Davis couldn’t save his own governorship. But he’s the perfect person to save Newsom’s.

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



Darrell Satzman