Editor’s Note: Lanhee J. Chen, Ph.D., is the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution and the director of Domestic Policy Studies in Public Policy at Stanford University. He previously served as policy director on the Romney-Ryan 2012 presidential campaign and senior adviser on policy to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is taking the recall attempt against him seriously, going on a media tour to tout his accomplishments and push back against his detractors. The deadline for the submission of recall petitions was Wednesday this week, and proponents say they have turned in 2.1 million signatures, surpassing the 1.5 million needed to put Newsom’s recall before the voters later this year. State officials will now go through a complex verification and administrative process, with final certification of the recall and setting of an election date not likely to occur before mid-September.
Newsom has branded this the “Republican recall” and tried to tie the effort to former President Donald Trump as well as to “anti-mask and anti-vax extremists.” But such branding is deeply misleading. The recall proponents claim that more than a third of the signatures gathered came from either registered Democrats or those expressing no party preference.
Most importantly, the issues driving the recall effort have little to do with partisanship. Voters don’t want to recall Newsom because of his stances on climate change, race relations or cultural wedge issues. Instead, much of the public disaffection is rooted in Newsom’s mismanagement and inadequate leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic.
And the effort to recall him took life when Newsom made the incomprehensible decision to attend a posh dinner with lobbyists at a Napa Valley restaurant — in contravention of his own guidance to Californians to avoid gatherings and stay at home. (He later called the decision “a mistake.”)
Recall attempts of California politicians are nothing new. Each year, there are multiple attempts to recall local officials, state legislators, and, yes, even governors. Newsom himself noted this week that he’s been the target of six recall attempts since taking office in 2019. But recalls rarely qualify for the ballot, so something is different this time.
The most visible sign of Newsom’s poor response to the pandemic are the many public schools throughout California that remain closed to in-person learning. One analysis revealed that as of mid-February, approximately 80% of California students were enrolled in districts that offered only distance learning.
Governors in other states, including the progressive state of Massachusetts (where Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has ordered all K-8 schools to return to full, in-person instruction in April), have used executive authority or the bully pulpit to call for full reopening of their public schools. Meanwhile, Newsom has tried to have it both ways on school reopening — arguing on the one hand that he’s doing all he can and, on the other, trying to accommodate the demands of his biggest political benefactor, the California Teachers Association.
Last year, Newsom gave local officials the ability to layer on additional requirements before kids could get into classrooms. Facing the threat of a recall, he’s backed a weak school reopening plan that doesn’t even establish clear parameters for how many hours or days a school must offer in-person instruction.
Newsom has also come under fire for decisions he’s made regarding economic shutdowns in the state — ones that were arrived at opaquely and without reference to the specific data that supposedly underpinned them. In some cases last year, businesses were forced to shut down only days after reopening. Most recently, decisions made in late January to abruptly reopen the economy blindsided even leaders of his own party in the state Legislature, who were given little to no advance warning that the rules were changing.
More recently, the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in California appears to have been mismanaged, despite Newsom’s claim that the state has the “most robust vaccination program in America.” According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control, California lags the national average in the share of Covid-19 vaccine doses used — in fact, only eight states plus the District of Columbia are doing worse.
There are constantly changing rules regarding who can get a vaccine and when. For example, the state initially prioritized some essential workers (like those in public transit and at airports), along with the homeless and incarcerated, then shifted to an age-based system in late January, only to abruptly restore those categories of workers in the last week. And the state’s vaccination website, MyTurn, which was designed to make sign ups easy, has faced technical challenges that have made it unusable for many.
Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, has been the mismanagement of the state’s unemployment insurance program during the pandemic under Newsom. On his watch, the Employment Development Department (EDD), which administers the program, initially suspended requirements to verify both initial and ongoing eligibility for the program. The agency itself admitted that it paid about $11 billion in fraudulent claims between March and December 2020, with another $20 billion in claims that were “potentially” fraudulent. It got so bad that a fraudster (and former EDD employee) pretending to be California Sen. Dianne Feinstein got paid $21,000 in benefits.
Worse yet, many who need economic assistance are still waiting. The program faced huge backlogs while EDD tried to clean up its fraud problem at the end of 2020, and there are still more than 1 million claims awaiting processing.
Newsom may argue that this recall effort is a partisan “power play,” but such a claim is an affront to the millions of Californians who have experienced his poor leadership during the pandemic. While proponents of the recall have an uphill climb in the effort to remove him from office, they have succeeded in getting Newsom’s attention. This sets the stage for 2021 to be the most eventful year in California politics since the last time the Golden State’s governor was successfully recalled 18 years ago.