Arnold Schwarzenegger was right. In March, no one thought that Governor Gavin Newsom had to worry about the Republican-led recall campaign against him. Back then, Newsom called the recall a “distraction,” waving it off as a pandemic hobby for anti-vaxxers and Trump goons. But Schwarzenegger, who was elected governor after the recall of Democrat Gray Davis in 2003, told Politico’s Carla Marinucci that, actually, Newsom had reason for concern. It doesn’t matter that Democrats outnumbered Republicans in California by a 2:1 margin, Schwarzenegger said, or that the state’s once-healthy Republican Party had shriveled into a reactionary collection of racist surfer dads in Orange County and MAGA Facebook moms in Modesto. What mattered, he argued, was the perception that Californians are working hard, with many falling behind because of the coronavirus pandemic, while the government in Sacramento fiddled. “That’s what I see as the similarities from 2003,” Schwarzenegger concluded. “It’s the same vibe.”
The vibes: People in California like to talk about them, especially where I live, in Venice, on the westside of Los Angeles. Usually the vibes are good. Heading into the final few weeks of the Sept. 14 recall election, however, the vibes are decidedly bad. Crime, wildfires, and the scourge of the Delta variant are top of mind. Homelessness is out of control, making homeowners and renters alike think twice about supporting Newsom, even if they cast ballots to elect Joe Biden in 2020. Some of these afflictions are unique to California, but their clumsy handling by Democrats here should be an ominous warning sign for a party whose messaging on crime has been muddled between law-and-order candidates like former cop Eric Adams in New York City, and outspoken defund-the-police progressives, like Cori Bush in Missouri. Whether or not the Newsom recall succeeds, Republicans have exposed a clear vulnerability for Democrats heading into next year’s midterms: claiming that California’s supposed societal breakdown is the inevitable byproduct of lefty decadence, the failure of elite liberal governance—and the future of Biden’s America.
These days, the messiah of All Politics Is Local here is Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County sheriff. “Nothing will change your political viewpoint more than a transient taking a shit in your front yard,” he told me. Villanueva is a Democrat, elected in 2018, but he’s since gone full-blown Law and Order, appearing on Fox News to belittle “woke privileged Democrats” who want a more “compassionate” approach to criminals and homeless people. “The Democratic Party of 2021 has smoked some powerful stuff that’s made them blind to what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “Democrats think party loyalty alone is going to help them survive? They’re fooling themselves. This has nothing to do with politics. It’s not a Trump thing, it’s not a Republican thing. Normal people just want normal stuff they should expect from a functioning government and civil society.”
That frustration is on full display in Venice. After an outcry from westside residents fed up with the homelessness, crime, fires, and rampant drug use all around them, Mike Bonin, the progressive city councilman representing parts of Venice and the westside, finally put into motion a plan to clean up the tent encampments along the Venice boardwalk this summer. But it might be too late to save his political career. Bonin is facing a recall effort of his own over his slow response to the homelessness crisis, supported by plenty of local Democrats who listen to NPR, practice yoga, and drink green smoothies.
While I was on the phone with him, Villanueva texted me a photo from an I-10 underpass near Banc of California stadium showing a quarter mile-long pile of trash. “There’s garbage everywhere, and no one wants to clean it up,” he said. “The city isn’t doing shit.” Crime is also up throughout the state. Even former California Senator Barbara Boxer was attacked and mugged in broad daylight in a “nice” part of Oakland last month. “How could you do this to a grandmother!” she cried.
Covid, of course, has only compounded the apocalyptic mood. California’s unemployment system functions about as well as a late-Soviet grocery store, leaving too many working people without the pandemic benefits they were promised. Wealthy white people pulled their kids out of school during the pandemic and created learning “pods,” while brown and Black students with working parents stayed at home, logging in for a few hours of haphazard online learning, without the meals and programs they had at their schools. Business owners—merchants, restaurant owners, contractors, salon owners—they’re furious at Newsom for what they considered nonsensical and random shutdown measures, a fury that peaked during the winter shutdown when the state was grappling with a second wave of coronavirus.
These are all reasons why Schwarznegger was right in another sense. He told Politico that the election wouldn’t just be about two political parties, Republicans versus Democrats, each side marshaling their voters to the polls. “It had nothing to do then—and it has nothing to do today—with either party,” Schwarzenegger said. “People are dissatisfied. [The recall is] the people’s way of kind of letting off some steam, and then they decide: Do we want to follow through, or not follow through?” Indeed, for many voters on the wrong side of government’s failures, real or perceived, the recall simply represents the first big opportunity of 2021 to say “fuck you” to a Person In Charge. That person happens to be Gavin Newsom, and he’s in real trouble.
The Newsom campaign and dial-a-quote political strategists want voters to think that the recall is just another G.O.P. coup attempt. “This is going to be totally tribal,” David Townsend, a Democratic consultant, told the New York Times last week. “This is not going to be about Newsom. It’s going to be about whether Democrats want Trump to have a governor in California.”
In fact, the complete opposite is true. If the election were about partisanship and tribalism, Newsom would be on pace for something like a 63-34 victory, the margin here in last year’s extremely tribal presidential election. But the race is much closer than that. The FiveThirtyEight polling average of the recall currently has KEEP at 48.8 percent and REMOVE at 47.6 percent. That question on the recall ballot—Question One—has been the centerpiece of Newsom’s campaign all year. But Newsom’s real predicament coalesces around the fact that plenty of the people considering REMOVE are lifelong Democrats who voted for Joe Biden in 2020, like Alex Chavez, the owner of Service & Supply, a barbershop with locations in Venice and downtown Los Angeles.
“My biggest gripe with Newsom has been the handling of Covid,” Chavez told me. “The decision to open bars and restaurants before schools and other businesses? As a parent and a business owner, you’re telling us masks work, and the first thing you open are places where you can take your mask off and be social? It all seemed counterintuitive, and also in his personal interest, since he owns a restaurant and he’s a wine guy.”
Chavez, 34, said he closed his shops in Spring 2020 even before the first shutdown order, to be a good citizen. But after a year of mixed messages, he and his colleagues felt confused and forgotten, watching other businesses open up again while they couldn’t. “It just felt like they deemed us not big enough to worry about. Like, we’re just barbers and hairdressers and nail techs. They didn’t understand that we are not normal everyday people, with a household and other employees relying on us.”
Never mind that plenty of pandemic restrictions have been local orders, handed down by mayors and health directors in counties and cities across California, not the governor directly. But in the fog of memory, it doesn’t matter: All of that political frustration falls back on Newsom, and he makes for a convenient target. Almost too handsome, he looks like a crooked politician straight out of Hollywood central casting. A friend of mine in Santa Monica—a white guy in his 30s who works in tech and voted for Biden—texted me that he’s voting for the recall. Why? “He’s a standard politician bureaucrat. Crime and homelessness out of control. People fleeing CA for other states. Why not go for change?”
It’s a bad rap, actually. Yes, Newsom is rich and looks fantastic in a suit. But he grew up dyslexic and shy, and fought more than plenty of his own personal demons. Beneath the shiny hair and Chiclet white teeth, he’s a sophisticated policy thinker and the author of two books. Early in his career, as the mayor of San Francisco, he made the heroic, renegade decision to grant marriage licenses for gay couples at a time when most Democrats, including Barack Obama, were afraid of culture war backlash. Since then, Newsom climbed the political ladder and waited for Jerry Brown to finally ride off to his ranch in Colusa County. He was elected governor in 2018 by a landslide, easily dispatching businessman John Cox, now one of his many Republican challengers in the recall. (Cox is the one running the “Beauty and the Beast” ads on TV, with the live Grizzly Bear. Cox is the beast, ready to clean up California. Newsom, well, you get it.)
But despite receiving high marks from voters during the early days of the pandemic for his handling of the shutdown and untold other disruptions, support for Newsom has waned. Voters still don’t know much about his personality or agenda, and his campaign has struggled to articulate a message. Newsom frequently engages with the press and gives plenty of speeches—he rolls his sleeves up for photo ops, cleaning up trash piles from under freeways, meeting with homeless people, and inspecting wildfire damage—but it’s also clear that Newsom’s campaign knows he doesn’t test well with voters. Newsom doesn’t even front his own ads. For that, recall opponents enlisted Elizabeth Warren, who registered almost no support among people of color during her presidential campaign, but will probably play well with the aforementioned NPR listeners. Their latest spot calls the recall a matter of “life and death,” warning that any of Newsom’s Republican challengers would roll back mask and vaccine protocols and send California reeling backward. Newsom doesn’t appear in that one either.