Gavin Newsom wants you to know his kids are not political weapons. Your kids, however, are another story.
California’s governor, a man constitutionally incapable of speaking in anything other than clichés, appeared Wednesday evening on CBS News to complain his political opponents noticed (once again) he’s a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of guy when it comes to the state’s COVID-19 rules.
Newsom, you might remember, made national news in November when he was photographed at Thomas Keller’s famous (and famously expensive) French Laundry restaurant in Napa, hobnobbing indoors with medical industry lobbyists, neither wearing a mask nor social distancing—all of which were big no-noes at the time.
Last week, one of his sons was spotted maskless at a summer basketball camp, which doesn’t sound like much, except it happens to coincide with a renewed state effort (just shy of a mandate) to push masks and distancing in response to a surge in Delta variant cases.
“You want to come after me, come after me,” Newsom told Norah O’Donnell. “They’re attacking me and weaponizing my son . . . we did nothing wrong.”
Clearly, Newsom isn’t above using his children as political shields on national television as he prepares to fend off a recall on September 14—an election he is by no means guaranteed to win, even with some $43 million in combined campaign cash in cerulean blue California.
Nor does Newsom have any particular qualms about using other people’s children as political pawns. Just this week, his anti-recall campaign committee received $1.8 million from the California Teachers Association, which has been opposed to reopening public schools without extensive (read: expensive) “safety precautions” that may or may not be justified.
Newsom’s four children, who attend a private school in Sacramento, have been back in their classrooms since October. The same cannot be said for millions of Golden State public school students, who continued to receive one-size-fits-all “instruction” online.
With Delta mania surging even more quickly than the caseload, it’s unclear whether or not California’s public schools will reopen fully this coming academic year. At the very least, strictures will be tight. Los Angeles Unified School District says it will require weekly COVID testing of all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status.
Newsom likely wouldn’t be in this fix if he had been as conscientious about publicly following his own COVID restrictions as he is about coiffing his hair. From the start, the state’s messaging has been mixed: 15 days to slow the spread of COVID-19 turned to months. Some merchants, including liquor stores and pot shops, were allowed to remain open as “essential businesses” while others, including clothing stores and restaurants, had to shut down entirely or could operate as take-out only. (Meantime, big box stores like Target and Costco boomed.)
Despite California’s reputation for direct democracy and government-by-plebiscite, it isn’t easy to recall a sitting governor. Two different campaigns made up chiefly of volunteers managed to collect just over 1.8 million signatures, in spite of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions last year. The law allows 30 days for voters with second thoughts to withdraw their names. Only 43 of them did.
For his part, Newsom lamely tried to derail the recall effort in the fall by tying it to Donald Trump. Of course, Trump didn’t force Newsom to visit the French Laundry. Trump didn’t force Newsom to impose draconian restrictions on dining that put nearly one-third of the state’s restaurants out of business. (Lots of those restaurants were owned by Democrats who now cannot afford to contribute to Newsom’s campaign.) And Trump didn’t force Newsom to send his kids to private school—though what sensible parent wouldn’t, if he had the resources, under these circumstances?
And now Trump is gone. He’s cooling his heels at Mar-a-Lago. So Newsom has “pivoted his messaging,” as the consultants say, to tar his looming day-of-judgment as a “Republican recall.”
Which might be more compelling if this were 1990 or even 2003, when Republicans mounted a credible effort to oust then-Governor Gray Davis only to replace him with . . . Arnold Schwarzenegger. The California Republican Party today is a shadow of its former self, with just 24 percent of registered voters identifying with the GOP.
That isn’t to say California lacks Republican candidates. Several Republicans are vying to replace Newsom if voters decide to let him go, including radio host Larry Elder, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, and former gubernatorial candidate John Cox (who got Trump’s endorsement in the 2018 primary but lost to Newsom badly in the general election).
So, what are the chances that Californians actually give Newsom the boot in September? A poll published Tuesday by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that 36 percent of registered voters in the state would oust Newsom while 51 percent would vote to retain him.
But nobody gives a damn about registered voters. The question is, what do likely voters say? That’s where things get interesting: 47 percent of likely voters currently support the recall, while 50 percent oppose. That’s within the poll’s margin of error.
The Berkeley IGS poll also found that Republican voters are more enthusiastic about firing Newsom, while many Democrats and voters who express no party preference seem to take it for granted that the governor will fend off the challenge. But it’s early yet. Most voters remain undecided.
The current recall has come this far in spite of, not because of, the state Republican Party. And it almost certainly made it this far because Republicans, independents, and more than a few Democrats are frustrated with Newsom’s handling of COVID-19. It’s worth noting that the recall effort had virtually no traction prior to March 2020. None of the reasons the campaigns offered—the governor’s dismal record on homelessness, on affordable housing, on forest management and wildfires, on water policy, on transportation and the bullet train to nowhere—seemed to capture voters’ imaginations.
The pandemic and Newsom’s response changed all of that.
Newsom last week told the editorial boards of California’s McClatchy newspapers that his recall fight could have nationwide consequences for Democrats in 2022 that would be felt “all across the country” for “many, many years.” “If they kick me out,” he said, “I’m gonna feel good about what we just did, and not ever regret a damn thing.”
Hubris, meet Nemesis.
This much is certain. Nobody is coming after Gavin Newsom’s kids. Newsom’s kids aren’t on the ballot. Voters care about the policies they must follow that California’s governor and his family, evidently, are free to disregard whenever and however they see fit. That’s what they will be judging in September—policies Newsom and his fellow Democrats may live to regret.