Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell teaches in the political science department at Columbia University. His most recent book is “San Francisco Year Zero: Political Upheaval Punk Rock and a Third-Place Baseball Team” (Rutgers University Press, 2019). The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom is gaining momentum and is almost certain to gather more than enough signatures to make it to the June ballot. Californians will then be faced with the question of whether or not to recall the man they elected with 61.9% of the vote in 2018 and who is up for reelection next year. The recall is strongly backed by the Republican Party, because while a Republican would have a very difficult time winning a normally scheduled election for governor of California, a recall might pose a rare opportunity.
The case for recalling Newsom, a liberal Democrat, is centered on his alleged failures on Covid-19, the general state of California and Newsom’s personal foibles. It was the third category that gave initial energy to the recall effort. On November 6, 2020, Newsom attended a dinner at the French Laundry, one of California’s most famous and best restaurants. This occurred while California was under a partial lockdown and gatherings of a dozen people like this were forbidden, even if held outdoors.
To make matters worse, the dinner was a birthday celebration for a lobbyist. This was a scandal tailor made for Newsom’s opponents. The affluent liberal from San Francisco having an expensive dinner with a lobbyist and other friends while flouting Covid rules. This was an enormous misstep by Newsom, for which he offered a less than entirely convincing apology.
It would be reasonable, if not expected, for Newsom’s 2022 opponent to use the French Laundry scandal against him, but it is does not rise to the level of provoking a recall – a process that skirts regularly scheduled elections and should be limited only to urgent situations.
This minor scandal, however, is only a small part of the recall rationale. The larger issue is Newsom’s mishandling of the Covid crisis. By now we have all heard the stories about how Covid has ravaged California and how the state’s early successes against the pandemic have been overshadowed.
California is the country’s most populous state and has often drawn a lot of attention from the national media, so it is not surprising that the bad Covid news there is a national story. And if the state’s chief executive badly mishandles a crisis like Covid, maybe there is an urgency to replacing him.
Before California voters rush to do that, it is worth looking at another side of the story – one that is driven by data, not media coverage. The truth is that California’s Covid response under Newsom has been, relative to other states, about the middle of the pack or slightly better. Among all states, and Washington, DC, California’s cases per capita are 25th highest and deaths per capita are 33rd.
During the last few months, another major Covid issue has been the distribution of vaccines – and Newsom has been on the receiving end of a substantial amount of criticism for how this has been done there. Again, the data tells a different story. California is 19th out of 51 in the proportion of its population that has received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Newsom’s first two plus years as governor have not been perfect by any means. In addition to the Covid controversies, he has not solved any of the major problems that have dogged California for years. These include the housing crisis, forest fires and more. But, in fairness, failing to solve such massive issues in a few years’ time and against the backdrop of a global pandemic does not merit a recall.
On balance, Newsom’s term in office has been mixed. He has generally supported positions and legislation consistent with the liberal majority in his state, but has not yet delivered on ambitious campaign promises such as bringing universal healthcare coverage to California or creating 3.5 million new housing units.
Like all governors, whatever plans Newsom might have had were thrown off course by the Covid pandemic. His record there has been considerably better than the coverage of California politics would suggest, but he has made missteps in his handling of the crisis and has become a target of voter anger seemingly driven as much by exhaustion and frustration with the pandemic itself than with anything specific that Newsom has done.
Newsom has not been a transformative governor. He has not left his mark on the state the way his predecessor Jerry Brown, or earlier California governors, such as Pat Brown or Ronald Reagan, did, but Newsom has not yet been in office three years.
The question facing Californians, though, is not whether Newsom has been a great governor, but whether he has failed badly enough that he should be prematurely forced out of office. Other than a scandal at the French Laundry, which was a stupid mistake, there is simply no reason to recall a governor for the crime of doing a slightly better than average job fighting the coronavirus pandemic.