What You Need to Know About the California Recall, Explained

The 12 questions that help explain the historical, political and logistical forces behind the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom of California.

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The coronavirus pandemic is rapidly receding in California, but for Gov. Gavin Newsom, at least one side effect has lingered: the Republican-led push to relieve him of his job.

How a Democratic star in the bluest of blue states could have ended up confronting a recall remains one of the more remarkable mysteries of the moment. In a perfect storm of partisan rage and pandemic upheaval, the effort to oust Mr. Newsom has become only the second recall attempt against a California governor to qualify for the ballot.

With only a few procedural steps remaining, a special election appears destined for autumn, or perhaps even sooner. Next week marks an obscure yet significant milestone: the Tuesday deadline for voters who signed the recall petition to change their minds and have their names removed.

If you haven’t been paying attention to every detail — every in-the-clutch mega-donation, every Kodiak bear appearance — we totally understand. So here is the California Recall Encyclopedia of 2021.

So what’s with California and recalls?

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California Republicans are pushing to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Direct democracy is a big part of Golden State political culture. Since 1911, when California approved recalls as part of a sweeping Progressive-era reform package, 179 recall attempts have been made against state officeholders. Launching a recall in California is easier than in almost any state, and every governor since 1960 has faced at least one.

But the vast majority of those efforts against governors fizzle. California is enormous, with a population of nearly 40 million and at least five major media markets. The cost of campaigning statewide tends to thwart all but the most moneyed and determined critics.

Besides Mr. Newsom’s, only one other recall of a California governor, Gray Davis, has ever reached an election. Mr. Davis lost in 2003 to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went on to face his own blitz of attempted recalls.

How do California recalls work?

A recall petition must be signed by enough registered voters to equal 12 percent of the turnout in the last election for governor. The organizers do not need to give a reason for the recall, but they often do. The petition must include at least 1 percent of the last vote for the office in at least five counties. Proponents have 160 days to gather their signatures.

The signatures must then be examined and verified by the California secretary of state. If the petitions meet the threshold — 1,495,709 valid signatures in this case — voters who signed have 30 business days to change their minds. Mr. Newsom’s critics have turned in more than 1.7 million signatures, and voters have until June 8 to reconsider.

After that, the state finance department has up to 30 days to determine the cost of a special election and a joint legislative budget committee has up to 30 days to weigh in. Those calculations are underway, but the cost of a special election has been estimated at more than $100 million.

The secretary of state must then officially certify the petition, and the lieutenant governor has to set an election that is 60 to 80 days from the date of certification. If the proposed date is so close to a regularly scheduled election that the two could be reasonably consolidated, the deadline can be extended to 180 days.

Who can run in a recall?

Candidates to replace the governor must be U.S. citizens registered to vote in California, and must pay a filing fee of about $4,000 or submit signatures from 7,000 supporters. They cannot be convicted of certain felonies, and they cannot be the governor up for recall. They have until 59 days before the election to file.

The ballot asks voters two questions: Should the governor be recalled? And if so, who should be the new governor? If the majority of voters say no to the first question, the second is moot. But if more than 50 percent vote yes, the candidate with the most votes becomes the next governor. The 2003 winner, Mr. Schwarzenegger, had only 48.6 percent of the vote.

Who is challenging Newsom?

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John Cox, a San Diego businessman, has been touring the state with a live Kodiak bearCredit…Mike Blake/Reuters

Thirty-seven candidates have officially announced their intention to challenge Mr. Newsom in the recall. The most high-profile candidates are Republicans. No serious challenger has emerged from Mr. Newsom’s party.

The Republicans include Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego; Doug Ose, a former congressman from Sacramento; John Cox, a San Diego businessman who recently distinguished himself by touring the state with a live Kodiak bear; and Caitlyn Jenner, a reality television star and former Olympic athlete.

Who started the recall?

Three sets of critics tried five times to recall Mr. Newsom before the sixth recall petition caught on in 2020. The first two groups were led by unsuccessful Republican candidates for Congress in Southern California, and the first papers were filed three months after Mr. Newsom’s inauguration in 2019.

All three groups were Trumpian conservatives who, at least initially, raised familiar arguments against the governor’s liberal stances on such issues as the death penalty, immigration, gun control and taxes.

The lead proponent of the current recall campaign is Orrin Heatlie, a retired Yolo County sheriff’s sergeant who had handled the social media for one of the earlier failed recall bids. He and his group, the California Patriot Coalition, took issue in particular with the Newsom administration’s resistance to Trump administration crackdowns on undocumented immigrants.

Why pick on Newsom?

Mr. Newsom, 53, the former mayor of San Francisco, has long been a favorite target of Republicans.

His liberal pedigree and deep Democratic connections push an array of G.O.P. buttons. His aunt, for instance, was married for a time to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s brother-in-law. Mr. Newsom, a wine merchant, got his start in politics and business with support from the wealthy Getty family. In 2004, he and his first wife, the cable news legal commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle, appeared in a spread for Harper’s Bazaar shot at the Getty Villa and titled “The New Kennedys.”

As mayor, Mr. Newsom made headlines for sanctioning same-sex marriage licenses before they were legal. As governor, he has remained a progressive standard-bearer. He championed ballot initiatives that legalized recreational marijuana and outlawed possession of the high-capacity magazines often used in mass shootings. One of his first acts as governor was to declare a moratorium on executions.

Mr. Newsom is now married to Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a filmmaker, and is the father of four small children. Ms. Guilfoyle is Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend.

Isn’t it hard to recall a Democrat in California?

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A man signed a petition at a booth run by conservative activists in Pasadena, Calif.Credit…David Mcnew/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

California is less liberal in the aggregate than its reputation. Some six million Californians voted for Donald J. Trump in the 2020 election. That’s roughly quadruple the number of signatures proponents needed to put a recall onto the ballot.

And although Mr. Heatlie and his group describe themselves as mainstream, a significant portion of the energy behind the recall is coming from the fringes. Early rallies to promote it were heavily populated by Proud Boys and anti-vaccination activists. Backers of Mr. Heatlie’s campaign have made social media posts bashing immigrants and depicting the governor as Hitler.

“Microchip all illegal immigrants. It works! Just ask Animal control,” Mr. Heatlie himself wrote in a 2019 Facebook post. He now says that the remark was “a conversation starter” that he did not intend to be taken literally.

Did the pandemic play into the recall?

Not at first.

Californians initially approved of Mr. Newsom’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Newsom was the first governor in the nation to issue a stay-at-home mandate, a decision that seemed prescient as the virus ravaged the Northeast. But Mr. Newsom’s on-again, off-again health rules began testing Californians’ patience.

Separately, Mr. Heatlie’s recall campaign had languished. It had to be filed twice because of technical errors. By last June, when the secretary of state gave the group permission to start circulating petitions, the governor’s emergency health orders had dispersed the usual signature-gathering crowds at supermarkets and malls.

Citing the pandemic restrictions, the group asked Judge James Arguelles of the Sacramento Superior Court for an extension. Judge Arguelles granted it. The governor’s supporters say the recall never would never have gotten off the ground had the judge not extended the signature-gathering deadline.

Public school parents expressed widespread dissatisfaction with the sustained shutdown of public school classrooms during the pandemic. (Mr. Newsom’s children attend private schools.) But the governor’s approval ratings were relatively healthy even in the winter when Covid-19 was still pummeling California. They have risen markedly as the virus has waned.

What happened at French Laundry?

On the evening of Nov. 6, hours after the court approval was made final for the signature gathering extension, the governor went to a birthday party for a Sacramento lobbyist and friend at French Laundry, a pricey Napa Valley restaurant. After photos leaked of Mr. Newsom mingling, maskless, at the restaurant, he apologized, but Californians were outraged.

And Republicans were ecstatic: Mr. Heatlie’s petitions, which had only 55,588 signatures on the day of the dinner, had nearly half a million a month after Nov. 6.

Who is backing the recall now?

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Orrin Heatlie leads the California Patriot Coalition, which took issue in particular with the Newsom administration’s resistance to Trump administration crackdowns on undocumented immigrants.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Mr. Heatlie said the 1,719,943 voters who signed his group’s petition are a grass-roots cross-section of Republicans, independents and Democrats who no longer trust the governor. Their names are not public information, and petitions have not yet been formally certified.

Newt Gingrich, the Republican former House speaker, has promoted the recall. Mike Huckabee, the Republican former governor of Arkansas, donated $100,000 through his political action committee.

John E. Kruger, an Orange County entrepreneur and charter school backer who opposed Mr. Newsom’s pandemic health restrictions on churches, remains by far the largest donor. Mr. Kruger, who has donated to candidates of both parties, gave $500,000 to the recall shortly after the French Laundry affair.

How has Newsom responded?

For many months, he did not utter the R-word. But since March, when it became clear that it had traction, Mr. Newsom and his campaign team have launched an all-out war on the recall.

They have actively discouraged Democrats — including Tom Steyer, a former presidential candidate, and Antonio Villaraigosa, a former mayor of Los Angeles who lost to Mr. Newsom in the 2018 primary — from launching rival campaigns.

And Californians, meanwhile, have in some ways had it better than a studio audience on “Oprah.” Mr. Newsom has tweaked health rules to hasten the reopening of businesses and classrooms. He rebated large portions of an enormous state surplus in the form of stimulus checks to poor and middle class taxpayers for up to $1,100 per household. And in late May, he announced the nation’s largest vaccine lottery.

Pollsters note that Mr. Newsom has less personal popularity to fall back on than his predecessors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown.

But the latest poll, conducted in early May by the Public Policy Institute of California, found that nearly six in 10 likely voters would vote to keep Mr. Newsom, and 90 percent of likely voters believe the worst of the pandemic is behind the state.

Which side raised the most money?

Supporters of the recall have raised approximately $4.7 million so far, and opponents have raised about $13.2 million, according to the nonprofit news site CalMatters.

Campaign finance rules have worked in Mr. Newsom’s favor. California law treats his defense against the recall as a ballot issue, but treats the candidacies of his challengers as regular elections. So the governor can raise unlimited sums to fend off the recall, while donors to his rivals must abide by a $32,400-per-election limit on contributions they can make to a single candidate. Mega-donations for and against the overall recall campaigns are not restricted by those single-candidate limits.

In late May, Mr. Newsom’s campaign announced a jaw-dropping $3 million donation from the founder of Netflix, Reed Hastings, who supported Mr. Villaraigosa in the 2018 primary. Labor groups, tribal organizations and the California Realtors Association have also pledged large sums.

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