The campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom has turned into a money magnet — for Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Newsom's anti-recall campaign raked in more money in its first five months — $54 million — than the $50.2 million his 2018 gubernatorial campaign raised over four years.
Most of the money came in six- or seven-figure donations from longtime Democratic financial backers, including government employee and trade unions, as well as people and interest groups that stand to gain from a relationship with California's governor. Even allies of the governor have expressed concern about the amount of money flooding in.
Netflix co-Chief Executive Reed Hastings, a major supporter of charter schools, topped the list of individual donors with $3 million. The California Teachers Assn., which has clashed with charter school advocates for years, gave $1.8 million.
The Service Employees International Union and its local affiliates, which together represent about 700,000 members, including government employees, donated a combined $5.5 million to Newsom's anti-recall campaign. Others in the $1-million-and-up club include associations representing California Realtors, home builders and Democratic governors.
Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman said the political calculus for writing big checks to Newsom's anti-recall committee is easy to understand.
Newsom still is favored to defeat the attempt to remove him from office and to be reelected to a second term in 2022. Even if he is ousted, the odds are slim that a GOP candidate who takes his place will last more than a year in office in such a heavily Democratic state, Stutzman said. No matter the outcome of the recall election, California will have a gubernatorial election next year.
"If the guy that's likely to be governor for the next five years calls and asks you for help, you're likely to help — and to want to help in a way that he remembers," said Stutzman, a former advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took office in 2003 after the state's only successful recall of a governor.
The recall election provides an opportunity to do just that, thanks to an exception in California's strict laws limiting political donations. While donations to individual candidates are capped at $32,400 per election, there are no contribution limits for committees devoted solely to promoting or opposing the recall.
Stutzman said the millions that Hastings and his wife, Patricia Quillin, contributed was a wise political move because the Silicon Valley executive supported Newsom’s opponent, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. That donation could salve any lingering animosity Newsom may harbor, he said.
Newsom's anti-recall committee has raised tens of millions of dollars more than the committee pushing for him to be removed, as well as the top Republicans hoping to replace him. Several of those candidates have alleged that the wellspring of donations in support of the governor is evidence that he is beholden to unions and Sacramento's special interests.
Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) accused Newsom of closing public schools last academic year under pressure from the California Teachers Assn. and other teachers unions despite guidance from federal health officials that it wasn't necessary.
"Teachers unions just funneled Gavin Newsom another $2.1 million," Kiley tweeted in late July. "It's unclear if this is a bonus payment for last year's shutdown or prepayment for the one to come."
Prompted by Newsom's decision to implement distance learning at public schools during the pandemic, Kiley supports placing a statewide measure on the 2022 ballot that would provide "school choice" with a voucher system, allowing parents to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize tuition at any school, including private schools.
Becky Zoglman, associate executive director of the California Teachers Assn., said the union had some strong disagreements with the Newsom administration at the outset of the pandemic about safety measures needed to protect the health of students, teachers and school staff. But, she said, the association never doubted Newsom's commitment to education or addressing the pandemic.
Newsom and the California Legislature approved record funding for education and expanded programs essential to the success and well-being of schoolchildren, including pre-kindergarten and counseling services, she said, and all of those gains would be at risk if Newsom is recalled and one of his Republican opponents assumes office.
"Quite honestly, the entire future of public education is at stake because at least three or four of [the replacement candidates] have talked about dismantling or privatizing public education and allowing school vouchers to take money away from our neighborhood public schools and send it to private schools," Zoglman said.
Among the largest donors to the anti-recall campaign is Service Employees International Union 2015, which represents nursing home workers and in-home caregivers in California and contributed $2.25 million. The governor has been a strong advocate for expanding access to healthcare, including for long-term and elder care in California.
"Gavin's actions speak for themselves," said Alma Hernández, executive director for SEIU California. "He's extended paid sick leave, he's protecting workers at the workplace. He's worked on healthcare for all Californians regardless of immigration status. Those are the values that we share."
The political arm of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. donated $1.75 million to the anti-recall effort just weeks after prison guards won $5,000 bonuses from the state for hazardous duty during the pandemic.
Newsom also collected a combined $2.7 million from eight of California's Native American tribes, all of which operate casinos, including $500,000 each from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs and the Federated Indians of Granton Rancheria in Rohnert Park.
The tribes are major backers of a 2022 ballot initiative that would allow their casinos to offer sports betting, but to do so they would be required to negotiate gaming compacts with the governor.
Even some of the governor's supporters have expressed concern about the massive amount of money Newsom's campaign is bringing in.
"The burden is going to be on Newsom not to deliver everything these folks want, and do what is best for the public," said Kathryn Phillips, the recently retired director of Sierra Club California.
Phillips said she was wary of the $250,000 in contributions from Beverly Hills billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick. Their San Joaquin Valley farming empire grows water-intensive pistachios and almonds on more than 100,000 acres and has a major interest in state and local water policy.
The political arm of the California Building Industry Assn. contributed $1.5 million in early July as the California Energy Commission was considering a ban on natural gas in new construction, a proposal advocated by environmentalists and opposed by home builders. The commission this month decided against the ban when it adopted the state's 2022 building energy efficiency standards.
Environmental advocacy groups don't have the financial wherewithal to compete with that, Phillips said. Still, Phillips said she's opposed to the recall, not only because some of the Republicans in the running also are accepting money from developers and other interest groups, but also because she said they support policies that threaten the environment.
For instance, conservative talk show host Larry Elder, who recent polls show leads the field of gubernatorial hopefuls, has called for an increase of oil and gas extraction in California, including the controversial use of hydraulic fracturing.
Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic political strategist and publisher of the California Target Book, a guide to state politics and elections, said he doesn't expect any attacks on Newsom for accepting millions in campaign contributions to be a factor in the recall. Voters think all politicians do the same thing, including those criticizing Newsom, he said.
"I can state with great certainty that ordinary voters think that they're all crooks," Sagrow said. "Do they think the Democrats are worse than the Republicans or that the Republicans are worse? No. They just think everybody in the business is on the take."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.