California at a crossroads as recall voters decide fate of Newsom, future of state

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LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: Josh Hodas, left, and partner Serena Delgadillo, right, are among people casting their votes Monday morning in the historic Los Angeles Union Station Ticket Hall or Main Concourse built in 1939 as the largest railroad passenger terminal in the Western United States. The Union Station Hall is serving as a Vote Center for the recall effort against California Governor Gavin Newsom. Union Station on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times).
Josh Hodas, left, and Serena Delgadillo cast their votes in the recall election inside Los Angeles' Union Station ticket hall. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Numerous factors pushed Californians to the polls for Tuesday's recall election: concerns about crime, education, wildfires and the state of the COVID-19 pandemic among them.

But for some, the question of whether to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office — and who should replace him — was as much about charting the course for the future of California as it was a reflection on the decisions and circumstances that led to this moment.

“When you look around the state of California, it’s just sad, really,” said Pasadena homemaker Mary Forrest, 32, a mother of three with another on the way. “I look at my children. There’s more emphasis on homeless people than there is education of our children. That needs to change.”

On the other side of the equation were voters like Wanda James, a retired teacher in her 80s who showed up to vote at the Robinson Park Recreation Center in Pasadena wearing purple sunglasses adorned with rhinestones and a mask with the image of Rosie the Riveter flexing a bicep.

James voted to keep Newsom in office — equating the alternative to an unwanted intrusion of “Trumpism in disguise” into the state’s largely blue backyard.

The closely watched recall campaign carries immense consequences, not just for the nation's most populous state, but for the nation as a whole. However things turn out, the outcome seems set to be cited as evidence of which direction the larger political winds are blowing.

For Republicans, a successful recall would not only deal Newsom a devastating defeat, but shatter the entrenched Democratic hegemony in Sacramento and, they argue, demonstrate voter appetite for significant changes in the priorities and operation of state government. Democrats have decried the effort as an underhanded power grab that threatens to undermine California's values and carries potentially dire consequences, should it succeed.

As of early Tuesday afternoon, about 9.1 million Californians, or roughly 41% of the electorate, had already returned their ballots, according to information compiled by Political Data Inc., a California election research company.

Although every registered voter statewide received a ballot in the mail, many still trekked to their local polling places Tuesday.

Outside Beverly Hills City Hall, Jason Greene, who was waiting for his friend to cast his ballot, said it felt great to be voting to recall Newsom and install conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder, the leading Republican candidate.

“I don’t like how the state is being run," he said. “Elder has more of a practical point of view.”

But when Santana Salas cast her ballot at Jerome Center in Santa Ana, she voted against recalling Newsom. She said her impetus is her unvaccinated 10-year-old sister, Alina.

“I’m thinking about her safety, the safety of kids who aren’t eligible for vaccination,” Salas said. “She’s the only one in our family who isn’t vaccinated right now. The pandemic is still going strong. Other states don’t have mask mandates at schools, and you can see the rise in the virus, especially in kids.”

The trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic was on the minds of many recall voters.

Louie Boucher, 19 and his mother, Eliza Boucher, 50, are weary of the pandemic and what it’s brought: business closures, distancing and especially masks. But the mother and son don’t agree on whether recalling Newsom is the answer.

Minutes after casting her “yes” vote Tuesday morning at the Jerome Center, Eliza Boucher said she isn’t very political but said she wanted to return to what life was like before the pandemic.

“I want a change,” she said. “I’m tired to all the closings and wearing the masks. I want the freedom we had before.”

She said she doesn’t know much about Elder but voted for him because her husband advised it.

Louie Boucher, a Santa Ana College sophomore majoring in chemistry, said he dislikes wearing masks too, but said he does it because he wants to keep himself and others safe during the pandemic. He voted against the recall because he thinks Newsom has done his best to “try to protect the people in this state.”

Boucher said his grandmother contracted COVID-19 and nearly died.

“It’s because people are not doing the most they can for the community,” he said. “Without the mask mandates, we’re just going to go back to square one.”

Though 46 candidates are listed on the ballot as potential replacements, the race for weeks has been framed as essentially a head-to-head matchup between Newsom and Elder.

Elder is pacing the field of Newsom's opponents with 38% of support from likely voters, according to a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Times — a double-digit lead over Democratic candidate and YouTube star Kevin Paffrath, who garnered 10%.

“I think I’ve energized the state, I’ve energized the party.… That’s why they’re bringing in this heavy load,” Elder said recently, referencing the national Democratic surrogates who have campaigned for Newsom.

Democrats have regularly likened Elder to former President Trump, and said his ascension would undermine the state's progressive values and imperil efforts to combat climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Elder has said he would repeal the Newsom administration’s statewide mandates for students to wear masks in public schools and vaccination requirements for healthcare workers and state employees.

At an event in a San Francisco union hall, Newsom gave an 11th-hour stump speech to supporters, encouraging them to reach out and get people to the polls to vote against the recall.

“We can’t allow the economy, not just our public health, to be impacted by a wrong decision tonight at 8 o’clock,” he told the cheering crowd, with his wife, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, and daughter standing by his side. “So what are we going to do? We will turn out and vote no on this recall.”

Republicans have long objected to Newsom's handling of the pandemic and his use of executive powers. They've also taken him to task for participating in a gathering last year at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley.

Newsom's attendance at the event — with several unmasked people outside his household — directly contradicted the state’s COVID-19 guidance to the public at the time and ignited a wave of support for the recall from Californians frustrated with the governor for breaking his own rules.

"You're over here and you say I can't do this, but you're over here doing it?" said Nathaniel Baleanu, 28, a Republican and Air Force veteran who was voting Tuesday at a Riverside County Registrar of Voters polling station. "It's like a parent, 'Do as I say, not as I do.'"

Pasadena resident Bobby Charlie, 33, said his brother recently closed his brewery because of heavy financial losses sustained during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Newsom’s winery stayed opened, but regular people had to close their businesses,” Charlie said. “That’s a double standard.”

Connor O’Sullivan, 25, was happy the recall went through. The Massachusetts native voted for Elder on Tuesday at the William S. Hart Museum in Newhall, citing the GOP candidate's conservative values as a key reason for his vote.

“I think [Newsom] handled the pandemic terribly. I think taxes are crazy — I just don’t think he’s competent to run a state,” he said, noting that he disapproved of the governor's closure of churches during the pandemic.

Terry Lee, 78, had one reason to vote against the recall: “To stop all this ridiculousness that’s happening.”

“California has been taking a lot of hits,” he said. Newsom “is doing fine, as best as he can.”

Lee said the political divide that is growing in the country is worrisome, but he believes the state will be OK.

“California has always survived,” he said. “If there’s one thing I know about this country — and I’ve seen it many times before — is that if it’s a right thing, then that will always prevail.”

Greg Sannes, who has lived in West Hollywood 23 years, said this recall election was “B.S.”

If the Republicans want to run another candidate next year during the regularly scheduled election, he’d evaluate that person on their merits. But this race feels unfair and a distraction, he said.

“In a year's time if they want to run a decent candidate, we can look at it and decide,” he said.

For him, Newsom has been following the science, pushing people to wear masks and get vaccinated.

“There are plenty of social problems, and he has made mistakes,” he said. “But this recall is not a good use of time. “

Several voters echoed that sentiment.

“I’m not a defender of Newsom, but I think he’s done OK or as best as you can during a pandemic,” said Pasadena resident Keith Ashton, 60. “He protected the state’s population with masks and shutdowns and it hurt, but it was the right thing to do.”

Ashton did not like the recall's hefty price tag or that those advocating Newsom’s ouster couldn’t wait until the 2022 election.

“A lot of this doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “This is a big waste of money and time.”

Chef Nneka Nyamekye, a 45-year-old mother of three boys, said she was most concerned about education and the pandemic's effects on California. She didn’t think Newsom was great on either issue but had zero confidence in the recall candidates, especially Elder.

“He’s not going to do anything for California,” Nyamekye said of Elder. “I’ll take the lesser of two evils.”

Among Tuesday's voters were those in the running to replace Newsom, should the recall succeed.

Recall candidate and state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) brought his ballot into a mostly empty polling site at St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Roseville.

Kiley said he is feeling optimistic, despite recent polling suggesting Newsom has a sizable lead in halting the recall attempt. Kiley said, “Gavin Newsom has trotted out Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama” and others, which he called a “sign of desperation.”

“At the end of the day, despite every attempt by our corrupt political class to take power away from the people, the people are still sovereign in this state and the idea of ‘We the People’ still means something,” Kiley said.

Voters and poll workers at Beverly Hills City Hall hovered as Republican recall candidate Caitlyn Jenner stood over a screen casting her vote. When it was all over, she threw her arms in the air — evoking the moment when she won the 1976 Olympic decathlon.

Outside, Jenner told the assembled media that if Newsom prevails, it will be the end of the state as she knows it. Reporters repeatedly asked her about Elder’s claims about fraud in the run-up to the vote.

She sidestepped questions about whether that was appropriate, but noted that anyone was better than Newsom.

“I believe in the system. I believe in the state of California. I believe in our electoral system ... even if I don't get in. I think it’s important that citizens of this state get together and make sure there’s integrity in our voting laws,” she said.

Republican candidate John Cox stopped by Long Beach on Tuesday morning “to make it clear that this race isn’t just about the national political scene. ... This is about the quality of life for Californians.”

As Cox spoke, a man driving by in his car told him, “You’ve got my vote!” Another person biking on the beach boardwalk later called out, “Vote for Larry Elder!”

“The important thing is that we vote yes on the recall ... doesn’t matter if people select Larry or myself,” Cox said. “I’m hoping I have a chance, but yeah, the more important thing is to vote yes on the recall.”

The question of succession won't come into play unless a majority of voters decide to remove Newsom from office. The same recent Berkeley IGS/Times poll showed that 60.1% of likely voters surveyed opposed recalling Newsom compared with 38.5% in favor of ousting him — the latest source of cautious optimism for Democrats after earlier canvasses showed a much tighter race.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the results of the race will be known Tuesday night. And, should Newsom prevail, some Republicans already have begun laying the groundwork to contest the election, despite no evidence of voter issues.

At a small gathering of reporters in a courtyard, Newsom addressed questions about such claims.

“This election fraud stuff is a crock; it’s shameful. And when I say that, I mean that,” he said. “Guys like me come and go. We’re a dime a dozen, politicians — quite literally a dime a dozen. It's about our institutions. It’s about this nation. It’s about trust and confidence.”

Times staff writers Faith Pinho, Melody Gutierrez, Colleen Shalby, Donovan X. Ramsey, Lila Seidman, Dakota Smith, Seema Mehta, Julia Wick, Robin Estrin and Phil Willon contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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