The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A recall of California Gov. Gavin Newsom takes a big step forward

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) speaks in Delano, Calif., last month during a visit by first lady Jill Biden.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) speaks in Delano, Calif., last month during a visit by first lady Jill Biden. (Mandel Ngan/Pool/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The campaign to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) a year before his first term is scheduled to end cleared an important procedural threshold Monday when state officials certified that enough valid signatures have been gathered to put the question to voters.

In certifying the more than a million and a half petition signatures, state election officials started the clock on what will almost certainly be California’s second gubernatorial recall election. The first, held in 2003, saw voters recall second-term Gov. Gray Davis (D) and, on the same ballot, elect Hollywood movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who served in the office until early 2011.

Schwarzenegger is the last Republican to hold the top elected office in this increasingly Democratic state. Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco and two-term lieutenant governor, won the open governor’s seat easily in 2018.

But the coronavirus pandemic took a political toll on the governor, even though recent public opinion polls have found that only 40 percent of state voters would cast ballots to recall him. He would face voters in November 2022 if he survives the recall vote.

“This election will be about two different visions for California,” Juan Rodriguez, manager of the “Stop the Republican Recall” campaign, said Monday in a statement. “The Republican recall — backed by partisan, pro-Trump, and far-right forces — threatens our values as Californians and seeks to undo the important progress we’ve made under Governor Newsom — fighting COVID, supporting families who are struggling, protecting our environment, common-sense gun safety laws. There’s simply too much at stake — we will win.”

The recall effort, which started during the Trump administration with ideological origins in opposition to the governor’s immigration policy, has since focused mainly on Newsom’s managing of the coronavirus crisis and the economic strain his public health policies have had on the state.

But although the recall petition effort gained momentum over a winter of rampant coronavirus infections and a statewide economic shutdown, voters are likely to be casting recall ballots at a more optimistic moment.

The most severe coronavirus restrictions have now been lifted across California, and the state has the lowest new daily case rate in the nation. Newsom has set June 15 as the day the state’s economy will reopen fully.

No date has been set for the recall election. The ballot will pose two related questions: Should Newsom be recalled? If a majority say “yes,” he will be out of office, and voters’ answer to the second question — Who should replace him? — will determine the next governor.

If Newsom survives the first question with a majority of “no” votes, the second question is moot. The Los Angeles Times reported Monday before the certification that the recall election, likely to be held less than a year before the regularly scheduled governor’s race, will cost an estimated $400 million.

With the certification, the anti-recall effort has about six weeks to persuade those who signed the petition to withdraw their support. If enough do — a very, very long shot — the question will not make the ballot. The California secretary of state’s office certified 1.62 million valid signatures, about 125,000 more than needed. That stage is scheduled to end June 22.

If enough signatures stand, the state finance department and the legislature have about two more months to debate the cost of the recall. Then the secretary of state can schedule a date, which would probably fall between mid-November and early December.

More than 100 candidates signed up to replace Davis in the 2003 recall, given that the winner does not need a majority to secure the state’s top office. Newsom is not allowed to appear on the ballot of those who would replace him.

The Republican candidates who have gained the most attention after declaring so far are Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego; Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender rights activist, former decathlon gold medalist and reality TV star; and, John Cox, the San Diego businessman who lost to Newsom in 2018.

“Californians from all walks of life are seizing this historic opportunity to demand change,” Faulconer said in a Monday statement. “Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are coming together to support this recall and get our state back on track. As the only candidate who’s won tough elections and enacted real reform, I am ready to lead this movement.”

No prominent Democrats have mentioned publicly the possibility of joining the race, which many party leaders say would be viewed as an act of betrayal toward Newsom.