California’s Governor Was Examined by the Pandemic. Now a Recall Looms.

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SACRAMENTO – A lot has happened in California. Vaccines will soon be available to everyone over the age of 16. Los Angeles schools will bring hundreds of thousands of students back to the classroom. Disneyland, which has been dark for a year, will open its doors in a few weeks.

In the state capital, however, the coronavirus pandemic is still clouding Governor Gavin Newsom’s horizons. Soon the Foreign Minister will announce that a recall campaign has officially qualified for a special election.

Led by Trump Stalwarts, bolstered by Republican National Committee funds, and fueled by Mr. Newsom’s own political missteps during the pandemic, the recall initiative is widely seen as far-reaching. It takes roughly 1.5 million signatures from disgruntled voters to get it on the ballot, a decrease from the 40 million Democratic-dominated bucket.

But even if Mr Newsom prevails, the pandemic has both tested him and tarnished him politically.

The great, telegenic heir of “the world’s fifth largest economy,” as his predecessor Jerry Brown routinely boasted, has lost part of the benefit of California’s doubts to Mr. Newsom. His approval rating has dropped more than 10 points since May, when 65 percent of Californians trusted his handling of the pandemic. Critics even within his own party have questioned whether his recent decisions were motivated by public health or the attempted recall.

The campaign against Mr. Newsom highlighted the differences between the powerhouse California that chose him and the virus-ridden California he now rules. Longtime political analysts see hidden weaknesses in his polls: the state may not want to remember him, but his popularity has suffered, and his political fate is more closely linked than ever to the ups and downs of the virus in his state.

“When you’re evaluating an executive – be it a mayor, a governor, a president, whatever – there really are just a few basic questions,” said Mike Madrid, former Republican Party’s political director and co-manager. Founder of the anti-Trump group Lincoln Project.

“Are the lights on? Are the trains on time? In this case, how did you cope with the global pandemic? “

At the moment, Mr Newsom’s testimony is mixed.

California has record budget reserves, one of the lowest rates of new virus cases in the country, and a vaccine rollout that’s gaining traction after a rocky start. But the state has also lagged behind the nation when it comes to reopening schools and has the third highest unemployment rate.

Epidemiologists have warned the virus could return if the state reopens, but currently cases are at levels not seen since mid-October. More than 30 percent of the population have received at least one dose of vaccine, and an estimated 30 percent have survived infection and developed some level of natural immunity.

[See how experts graded California’s vaccine rollout.]

Barring a new spike or a runaway variant, the pandemic could soon hit California’s rearview mirror. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that three-quarters of Californians believe the worst of the crisis is behind them, and 56 percent of likely voters would oppose a recall if elections were held now.

“In the face of an unprecedented global health crisis, Governor Newsom has pursued science and campaigned aggressively for the safety of California,” said Nathan Click, a consultant to the governor. “His actions have saved countless lives and earned him the trust of the Californians.”

Callback attempts are common in California and usually fail. The governor’s defense lawyers say the governor would never have reached the signature threshold had a judge not granted an extension because of the state’s closure. This is one of many ways the recall and the pandemic are inextricably linked.

On Thursday, Mr. Newsom received the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson in Los Angeles in a livestream event after his government extended the eligibility to all Californians aged 50 and over. Mr. Newsom, 53, did not express a bit concerned about the recall, never mentioned the subject, and tensed his muscles in his dark T-shirt after removing his suit jacket to receive the shot.

“It’s been an extraordinarily challenging year – so much fear, so much fear,” Newsom told reporters. “But now optimism is growing, not just here in Southern California, but throughout our state.”

However, critics and political allies said the threat from the recall was indeed grave and appeared to have shaped the governor’s pandemic.

He cited the millions of vaccines the state had given and the billions of dollars in pandemic aid he was giving to small businesses. But his language channeled the California working groups and progressives that state Democrats rely on to mobilize voters.

Updated

April 1, 2021, 11:02 p.m. ET

“When this pandemic ends – and ends soon – we will not go back to normal. Normal was never good enough, ”said the governor. “Normal accepts inequality.”

Days later, after advocates of the recall publicly estimated they would have more than 2 million signatures from voters approving his overthrow, he announced that California would change its notoriously complex, color-coded system of health restrictions. When the system was developed, life without the threat of Covid-19 seemed so remote that the state’s least stringent label was the yellow warning tape. But now, the governor said, he was adding a hopeful new “green tier,” a sudden move his critics linked to the recall effort.

“Before threatening to recall, the governor told us there was no green because we could never be normal again,” tweeted Jon Fleischman, former executive director of the California Republican Party. “It’s funny how his science turned out to be political science.”

Similar allegations have been made by some potential allies.

Dr. Jeffrey V. Smith, the Santa Clara County’s executive, questioned the governor’s plan to dedicate 40 percent of first vaccine doses to vulnerable, poorer communities, as determined by a state index.

Mr Newsom presented the plan last month as evidence of his determination to make sure the wealthy Californians don’t keep the poor from accessing scarce vaccinations. The change in guidelines has also helped Mr Newsom politically.

A new optimization of the health restriction system allowed a county to move to a lower tier after a critical mass of vaccinations was administered in deprived zip codes. Many of these zip codes were in Los Angeles, where teachers’ unions refused to return to classrooms until the county was no longer in compliance with the strictest health regulations. Parent groups, meanwhile, demanded personal tuition.

Dr. Smith – whose Bay Area has many poor people but virtually none of the targeted zip codes – said the vaccine targets were part of a “fake equity plan” that was less about fairness than Mr. Newsom’s request to open Los, was based in Angeles.

“What’s really going on has nothing to do with distribution,” said Dr. Smith, who serves in an impartial position but identifies himself as a Democrat. “It has to do with the governor’s desire to buy himself out of the recall election by reopening Southern California as soon as possible.”

It is unclear how much voters will be interested in Mr Newsom’s motivational mix. The Californians, who were largely against former President Donald J. Trump in the last election, are unlikely to replace a Democratic governor if their main alternatives are limited to the current challengers who are Republican supporters of Mr. Trump.

If a recall is put on the ballot in a special election that will most likely take place in the fall, voters will be asked two questions: whether Mr Newsom should be recalled and if so, who should finish the remaining 14 months in his tenure. So far, no Democrats have come forward as an alternative, and party leaders from progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont to centrists like President Biden have tried to maintain this united front.

The policy ahead is expected to be expensive, national, and caustic. Proponents of the recall and their allies say they raised approximately $ 4.1 million, including large contributions from major Republican donors, the state Republican Party, and potential candidates like John Cox, a San Diego businessman who defeated Mr. . Newsom has lost.

The governor’s team has reported approximately $ 3 million in contributions, including about $ 400,000 from the state Democratic Party, $ 250,000 from a union representing state government engineers, $ 125,000 each from agricultural tycoons Stewart and Lynda Resnick; and more than $ 500,000 in online donations the 48 hours after the governor launched a website called Stop the Republican Recall.

Mr. Newsom supporters portray the initiative as the work of Republican extremists. The leader, the governor said, believes the government should “microchip migrants”.

Orrin Heatlie, the retired sergeant of the Northern California sheriff who is the lead agent for the recall, wrote a 2019 Facebook post that read, “All illegal immigrants microchipped. It works out! Just ask Animal Control. “

Mr. Heatlie admitted in an interview that he wrote the post but said that it should not be taken literally and that he intended it to be a “conversation starter”.

He said Mr. Newsom took the recall by imposing too many restrictions at the start of the pandemic and dining at an elite wine country restaurant, while urging Californians to quarantine last fall.

Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist, predicts Mr. Newsom will survive the recall. But he added that the governor’s numbers suggest his problems with voters are not over yet.

Last month, pollers at Emerson College and Nexstar Media Group asked Californians about the 2022 election. If they could, would they vote for Mr. Newsom again?

More than 58 percent of registered voters said they preferred someone new.

Shawn Hubler reported from Sacramento and Jill Cowan from Los Angeles.