Gavin Newsom recall closes in on signature count with 7 weeks to go. Is it enough?

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Sophia Bollag, Lara Korte
·9 min read
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On a blustery Saturday afternoon, opponents of Gov. Gavin Newsom set up shop in the parking lot of a Rancho Cordova sporting goods store.

Under a small blue canopy adorned with yellow balloons and vinyl banners, volunteers for the Recall Gavin Newsom campaign welcomed passing shoppers, handing them clipboards and encouraging them to sign their petitions to remove the Democratic governor from office. Some drivers honked in support. Others waved and said they’ve already signed.

Hundreds of volunteers just like them busily collect signatures throughout the state, spending weekends in California parking lots discussing the need for a change in power. Parents put down their names, worried about the mental health of their virtually schooled children. Business owners sign, their livelihoods crushed by the state’s crackdown on coronavirus. Others are mad that he hasn’t done enough to get the homeless off the streets.

All of them want the governor gone.

So far, recall supporters say they’ve collected 1.2 million signatures — though the state has verified only about a third of them. That’s still short of the 1.45 million minimum to qualify in a state with more than 22 million voters, and well below the estimated 2 million they’ll need to turn in to state officials by March 17 to ensure they have an adequate number of valid signatures.

Many political experts saw the effort as a longshot from the outset. Yet the progress the largely volunteer group has made now alarms some California Democrats, suggesting an anger about the establishment’s liberal politics and handling of coronavirus closures that isn’t going away.

“However it ends up, they’ve collected a lot of signatures,” said Michael Arno, who runs a professional signature-gathering firm. “That’s a lot of people saying, in one way or another, and a lot of people volunteering to do this, saying that they’re very dissatisfied with the job that he’s doing… This is a wakeup call, not just for Newsom, but for Sacramento.”

Democrats respond to recall

The California Democratic Party signaled it was taking the effort seriously earlier this month, when it held a press conference about the campaign and compared it to a “coup.”

Garry South, a Democratic strategist who worked for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis when he was recalled, said California Republicans have used recalls for years in an effort to remove Democrats they couldn’t beat in a regularly scheduled election. But the Democratic Party’s recent messaging was a mistake, he said.

“That was a misfire in a lot of ways,” South said. “It’s not a coup. This is a valid process under the California Constitution.”

Stephanie Suela, who organizes recall volunteers in Sacramento county, says they typically host four to seven petition events a week like the one in Rancho Cordova, collecting about 100 signatures in a six-hour period. After the first 90 minutes of the Saturday event, volunteers had gathered 15 signatures, with several people taking stacks of blank forms home for their friends, neighbors and coworkers to sign.

“There’s no way that this is a coup,” Suela said in between greeting signers. “We are just citizens. It’s a grassroot movement, and we want him out of office.”

The California Republican Party has seized on the support for the recall as evidence of Newsom’s failures. On Monday, when Newsom lifted the stay-at-home orders, party chair Jessica Patterson tweeted that the decision was fueled by his fear of recall.

“This Governor’s decisions have never been based on science,” she wrote. “Him re-opening our state is not an attempt to help working Californians, but rather an attempt to counter the Recall Movement. It’s sad and pathetic.”

Newsom pushed back against that accusation, calling it “complete, utter nonsense,” during a Monday press conference, insisting he based his decision on scientific projections of how full intensive care units will be in the coming weeks. The state’s top health official released the detailed formulas the state used to make its decision on Tuesday.

Signature gathering

As of Jan. 6, the Secretary of State’s office had verified 410,000 signatures, less than one-third of the amount needed to trigger a recall vote. Officials rejected about 15% of the signatures that the campaign turned in for verification, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Signatures come in one of three ways: individuals can print, sign and mail it into the campaign themselves, the campaign sends out petitions in mailers that voters return to them, or they can sign one at an event like the one in Rancho Cordova.

You must be registered to vote in California to sign the petition, and the recall campaign vets signatures for accuracy and duplicates before sending them off to a third party for another screening. Then, the signatures are sent to volunteers in each county who take them to county election officials for verification. The counties then report their results to the state.

The whole process can take about three weeks, Heatlie said. Volunteers in large counties are currently making weekly trips to drop off signatures to county registrars, he said, but the campaign is waiting until March to turn in signatures from less-populous counties.

Counties will have until April 29 to verify the signatures, after which the Secretary of State’s Office has 10 days to determine if there are enough to qualify the recall for the ballot. The Department of Finance then estimates the costs of such an election and runs it by the Joint Legislative Budget committee, the governor, lieutenant governor and Secretary of State. After a 30-day review period of the costs, the lieutenant governor must call a recall election between 60 and 80 days from the date of certification.

If all goes to plan, campaign organizers say they hope to have a recall election in July or August.

Campaign donations

So far, the committees raising money for a recall effort have reported raising $2.4 million. That’s short of what many political experts say they need for a big statewide signature gathering effort.

The recall saw its biggest donation in late December: $500,000 from Orange County investor John Kruger, who said he opposed the governor’s decisions to keep churches closed during the pandemic. Last week, the campaign reported another round of six-figure donations, including $150,000 from both DGB Ranch of Los Angeles and Geoff Palmer of Beverly Hills. Palmer, a real estate developer, has donated millions to former President Donald Trump in the past.

Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant who worked on the successful effort to recall Davis, said so far the effort appears to have an impressively high validity rate for its signatures. But he cautioned that it doesn’t seem on track to actually qualify the measure for the ballot. In California, it’s unheard of for a campaign to qualify a measure for the ballot without a multi-million dollar paid signature-gathering effort.

To do that, the campaign would need to raise more money, Stutzman said.

“I think it’s more likely to qualify than it was a few weeks ago, but still it’s a less than 50% chance… There’s never been a successful petition effort without having gatherers out on the street collecting signatures,” he said.

The effort hired Dave Gilliard, another Republican political consultant who worked on the successful Davis recall. So far, Gilliard says the only paid signature-gathering work the effort has funded is to mail petition packages to voters. He said that’s largely because the pandemic has made it harder for signature gatherers to solicit signatures on the street and outside big stores the way they typically do.

According to state records, the recall effort has spent about $50,000 on consultants like Gilliard. Another large cost is signature verification, which has cost the campaign at least $75,000. The effort runs mostly on the power of volunteers, and has few paid employees. Most of the funds go toward things like postage, website hosting, and, in one case, $315.73 for new tires for a campaign trailer.

Recall draws in extremists, anti-vaxxers

The recall effort has gained a significant following since it launched in June, including some conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine crusaders and white supremacists, according to a recent investigation by the Los Angeles Times.

It found some recall supporters have teamed up with people peddling fringe ideologies, including anti-vaccination groups and QAnon supporters, to collect signatures for the campaign.

Heatlie, who launched the campaign last spring, said he tries not to let discussions in the recall’s Facebook groups descend into conspiracy theories about the election, vaccines or COVID-19, though he admits members of fringe groups are still involved.

“We are aware there are people in this movement from the entire political spectrum and from all walks of life,” Heatlie said in an email. “These include liberal and environmental groups angry about his lack of leadership regarding climate change, and his signing off on oil fracking permits, to anti vaxers, anti maskers, open schools, open California, groups and pro trump and pro Bernie Sanders individuals.”

“Just because a person or group may endorse the recall, does not mean the recall management supports or endorse them,” he added.

Many petitioners say they want to recall Newsom because of his governing style and political beliefs, but others say it’s also a way to tear down part of a corrupt political regime that exists in the highest levels of the federal government.

“There’s just a lot of things his aunt, Nancy Pelosi, is doing – things that we don’t agree with. And we see that our election was stolen,” said Ralf Schuler, a contractor from Carmichael who signed the recall petition on Saturday. “So we just live in a really corrupt time. And we’ve got to do our part to get rid of them.”

Election experts and officials say there is no evidence that the election of President Joe Biden was fraudulently won, and such conspiracy theories are not based in fact. Pelosi at one point was related to Newsom through marriage, though that ended after their respective family members divorced. She was never his aunt.

Frustration with Newsom

Gilliard pointed to the party Newsom attended at the French Laundry even as he encouraged other Californians to avoid gatherings as the biggest change in fortune for the recall effort.

“When that news broke, we saw a big uptick in interest in people signing the petition,” he said.

Since then, bad news about the pandemic in California has continued to plague the Newsom administration. Now, frustration over the slow vaccine rollout is spurring more people to sign, Gilliard said.

Arno noted that the recall effort could hurt Newsom in the long run even if it isn’t successful.

“If you look at most recalls, they don’t succeed. But the person is tarred with that, and they don’t have a very long political life,” he said. “If Newsom had national political aspirations, people would think twice because he almost got recalled.”