I had only been in California for two hours when a man in a cowboy hat and a Village People mustache propositioned me.
“How about I punch you in the face?”
I deserved it. I was traversing California on I-5 in pursuit of the California recall and had just pulled into Red Bluff for some gas and a nap. (If you want to hate California, I suggest you make the 12-hour drive from the Oregon border to San Diego on I-5. Do not detour to the 101 and see the coast. I-5 is a dystopian highway not unlike the Ohio-Indiana Toll Road).
I found myself behind a pickup truck with something I’d never seen: a State of Jefferson decal. The State of Jefferson is a nutso movement to form a new state out of the intolerant parts of southern Oregon and far northern California. I followed him until he parked on a side street. I tried to take a picture of his truck on the down-low and failed. These separatist types are not big on having their vehicles photographed. The fact I was driving a car with Canadian plates did not help my cause. I also should not have told him I was a reporter. He glared at me, but I did not roll down the window. I mouthed ‘sorry’ and waited for him to move on.
It wasn’t until my lips stopped quivering that I realized I had come across the quintessential Recall Gavin Newsom voter. Over the next three months, I made a couple of trips to California on more important matters — getting vaccinated, sussing out why Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks couldn’t stop bickering, and buying my wife some concealer not available in Vancouver. I met the regular series of stock conservative characters that I’d run into in Ohio, South Dakota, and Michigan during the pandemic: the anti-mask dance instructor who said there was a woman in the crowd at an anti-everything Santa Monica rally who had three family members die immediately after being vaccinated (of course, the dance instructor never did find her), the obscure gubernatorial candidate wearing the exact same lounge pants I was wearing, and the other obscure gubernatorial candidate speaking to an audience of 26 people who was a former Olympic gold medalist and who accidentally killed someone with her car in 2015. (OK, the last one was just a California thing.)
They wanted to replace handsome mannequin Gavin Newsom as California governor for crimes against the state. To this rabble, his offenses were various: shutting down the state during Covid to save lives (guilty), having dinner at a posh Napa Valley restaurant with lobbyists while not wearing a mask (idiotically and profoundly guilty), and caving to California’s muscular teachers’ unions, allowing many schools to remain closed all last year. (More of a close call. Hung jury.) Newsom is up for election next year, so these right-wing patriots started their campaign early and got ready to go after him in 2022. Oh wait, sorry. What they did instead was get 1.5 million signatures and force a recall election that cost taxpayers $276 million.
Everyone panicked. Newsom raised a creepy amount of money. The East Coast media flooded the zone with reporters looking for ‘what it all means’ stories and my favorite subgenre: the Death of the California Dream Think Piece. (On my first visit in May, an editor friend begged me not to write another of these stories. A few weeks later, his publication unleashed an uber 8,000-word lament.) Locals fretted about Newsom’s problems with Latino voters and white suburban apathy. A beyond irritating Republican talk-show host with Cro-Magnon-era political views emerged as a threat to civilization. Everyone wet their pants.
And then the votes rolled in. As of this morning, Gavin Newsom is on his way to defeating the recall by more than 2.5 million votes, nearly the population of the entire state of Kansas. So, what happened? To paraphrase California political consultant Thomas Hardy: “Because we are not too many.”
In short, there are not enough idiots in California. There never were.
Every governor in California since 1960 has endured recall attempts. It is one of the most frightening things about the state other than the 405 at any time other than 4 a.m. A century ago, reformers put the recall option into the California constitution so politicians would be more accountable to voters than they were to big business. Through our best intentions, come some of our greatest crimes. In modern California, what we have now is the same cranks who say America is a republic, not a direct democracy, using the levers to try and replace a popular governor through, sigh, direct democracy.
Newsom has been the subject of five previous recall attempts over a variety of issues, including his handling of the border crisis, which, last time I checked, is largely a federal matter. Some of the attempts had the backing of such upstanding members of society as the Proud Boys. All previous efforts fell woefully short of the nearly 1.5 million signatures needed to force an election. And then two things happened on November 6th of last year. While the rest of the country was waiting to hear definitively about the 2020 presidential election, a Republican judge ruled that recall supporters would have four more months to gather signatures due to the pandemic. (No one knows why Newsom’s people did not appeal the ruling.) The same night, Newsom had dinner at the perfectly named for right-wing rage French Laundry restaurant without masks and with lobbyists. Photos emerged a few days later. This supremely pissed off parents already furious at Newsom for keeping public schools closed while his children attended their private school. In a 24-hour period, recall supporters were given both motive (French Laundry) and the means (petition extension) to politically end Gavin Newsom.
But they never had the votes. California voters identify themselves as 46 percent Democrats, 24 percent independents, and 24 percent Republicans — with the infamous ‘other’ making up the rest. Newsom had won in 2018 by a state-record 2.9 million votes. The idea that he was going to lose every Republican, every independent, and a slice of loyal Democratic voters for eating maskless was, and is, ridiculous.
It’s not 2003. That year, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a mild Republican, succeeded the appropriately named Gray Davis in a recall. He did it by running as a consensus candidate who appealed to independents and conservative Democrats. (Also, there was the movie star thing.) That kind of Republican Lite no longer exists outside of Massachusetts and has been replaced by fringe men like talk-show host Larry Elder, whose offenses against women and the disadvantaged are both voluminous and depressing.
Elder’s emergence as the lead GOP candidate further freaked out Californians because, in a recall, cruelty and unfairness are the point. All Republicans needed to do was recall Newsom by one vote and then someone like Elder could slide in with a plurality of votes, probably in the 25-to-30 percent range.
But, factually, that was never going to happen. Newsom never trailed in any credible poll. Except for an early August SurveyUSA poll that had Newsom behind 51-40. This is the poll that got editors booking flights for reporters. (Yes, this is when I made plans for a second trip.) Both President Biden and Vice President Harris vowed to come and bail out the perfectly fanged Newsom. Alas, the poll was an anomaly for which the pollster semi-apologized.
Various polls self-corrected over the rest of August, but the narrative was already baked in. Long after Newsom moved comfortably ahead, reporters and columnists still wrung their hands over why California Latinos were indifferent to Newsom, what the recall meant for the national Democratic Party, and how Elder’s election would impact California’s abortion laws.
On it went, even as Newsom’s lead moved to 15 points around Labor Day. I eventually folded my hands, telling my boss this was a nothingburger.
This isn’t to say California does not have grievous problems. No one in the middle class can afford a house. Even worse, the state’s treatment of the homeless is an abomination. I visited a tent city along the L.A. River that seemed to stretch on endlessly. (This being L.A., it was not far from the golf course featured in Swingers.) It rivaled the squalor of any refugee camp you’d see in the news from Taliban Afghanistan or after a flood in the impoverished parts of India. I talked to one of the more coherent residents, a Navy veteran. I mentioned that Newsom claimed he was spending hundreds of million on fighting the homeless problem. He just smiled sadly and pointed at the encampments. “Where is it all going? Not here.”
He was right. But the idea that Elder was going to make it all better or that Newsom, in office for less than three years, was the villain fails the logic test.
Is the California Dream dead? Who knows? To me, a constant visitor, it is still the place in America where you are most free to be you and I’m free to me. I can say the only people I saw kvetching about dream deaths were chin-scratching journalists and multimillionaires like the candidate I ran into in a Pasadena Hilton ballroom.
She talked of driving to California in 1973 in her ’63 VW Bug and seeing a sign that read, “Welcome to the Golden State.” “We’re not the Golden State anymore,” said the candidate with a mournful tone. “This was the place where dreams come true. The state has gone downhill.”
She offered no solutions but smiled for the cameras and then headed back to her Malibu home, which is not far from her airplane hangar, where she conducted her first campaign interview shortly before putting it on pause to go film Celebrity Big Brother in Australia.
As of this morning, Caitlyn Jenner has received 1 percent of the vote.