Newsom adviser spars with California recall leader in first campaign preview

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Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference in San Francisco, Calif. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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OAKLAND — Is the effort to oust Gov. Gavin Newsom about his pandemic record or Republican extremism?

It depends on which campaign you ask.

California combatants previewed the likely themes of a recall campaign during a feisty panel discussion on Wednesday, their first major faceoff since the election became a near-certainty last month.

Recall proponents argue that they represent voters disillusioned by Newsom’s inconsistent and arbitrary coronavirus orders; Newsom’s defenders equate protecting the Democratic governor with defending California liberalism against encroaching Trumpism.

Newsom and his allies have long sought to portray the recall as a partisan distraction driven by the conservative fringe, pointing to recall organizers’ comments criticizing vaccinations and a musing on Facebook about microchipping immigrants. The national Republican Party has backed the recall effort, which has also received money from Trump supporters and prominent conservative figures like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

“We got here because a faction led by Trump Republicans are trying to do a major power grab because they lost power in Washington, D.C.,” top Newsom consultant Ace Smith said during a Sacramento Press Club discussion, invoking Proud Boys and QAnon conspiracy theorists. “You can choose to be on the side of right-wing conspiracy theorists or people who actually have a vision to move the state forward,” he added.

Recall committee head Anne Dunsmore said voters across the political spectrum have signed on because they are repelled by the impression Newsom has not followed the restrictions burdening other Californians, arguing the campaign would appeal to frustrated suburban mothers and Latino voters. She told POLITICO in February that two-thirds of signatories were Republicans, compared to 22 percent unaffiliated with a party and 10 percent Democratic.

She pointed to Newsom’s now-notorious decision to dine at an opulent restaurant with lobbyists and friends while urging Californians to stay home and the fact that his children returned to in-person learning at their private school even as most public schools remained closed. And she argued far-right supporters do not represent the campaign’s core while saying that Newsom’s defenders include far-left activists.

“I could go grab a bunch of pictures of left-wing fringies too,” Dunsmore said in response to Smith. “We’re both tormented by people in our parties who don’t represent the mainstream at all.”

While pandemic angst propelled the recall to the brink of qualification, an official petition that preceded the coronavirus cited Newsom’s moves to protect undocumented immigrants, halt executions and raise commercial property taxes. Smith argued recall proponents wanted to revert to the era that preceded Democrats’ current California dominance, repeatedly invoking a 1994 ballot initiative that sought to cut off services to unauthorized immigrants.

“You are sorely mistaken if you believe this is a straight up referendum on Gavin Newsom,” Smith said. “This is a debate about the direction this state should go in.”

But Dunsmore rejected those arguments, saying the recall was a nonpartisan referendum on Newsom’s pandemic management. The campaign is likely to hammer that theme as it seeks to persuade moderate and no-party-preference voters in deep blue California. Democrats control every statewide office, wield supermajorities in the Legislature and outnumber registered Republicans by nearly five million voters.

“You can keep throwing the partisan rhetoric at this,” but “it really hasn’t stuck and it hasn’t stuck because it’s not true,” Dunsmore said. “You can keep throwing Trump at this — Trump has not expressed one opinion about this recall.”

County registrars have until late April to determine whether proponents have collected enough signatures to force an election. But Newsom has treated a campaign like a foregone conclusion, saying the recall will likely qualify while rolling out endorsements — and fundraising requests — from Democratic heavy hitters like Sen. Bernie Sanders and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams.

Assuming it does qualify, voters would likely weigh in this fall. The ballot would pose two questions: should Newsom be recalled, and who should replace him? Recent polling puts Newsom in strong position to survive, with just 40 percent of voters saying they would vote to recall him.

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