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Effort to recall California governor gains traction in Sonoma County

Before stopping to pick up ammunition at Sportsman’s Warehouse in Rohnert Park, Mike Charles strode across the store’s parking lot to a small canopy tent with a bright yellow sign reading: “Recall Gavin Newsom.”

“Where do I sign to get rid of this guy?” said Charles, 30, of Petaluma.

Asked why he added his name to the petition to unseat the governor, Charles replied: “He won’t let people go to work and children go to school. We need to open the state back up — people are going to lose everything.”

As the coronavirus continues to disrupt life and commerce across California, mounting frustration over Newsom’s pandemic response has invigorated what only months ago had been considered a long-shot bid to remove him from office.

In Sonoma County, that’s united a disparate group of small business owners, mainstream Republican officials and a ground-level squad of volunteers with fringe political leanings behind a push to bring a recall election before voters.

Recall organizers appear well on their way to gathering the nearly 1.5 million signatures needed by March 17 to trigger an election. As of Feb. 5, close to 1.1 million signatures had been submitted, roughly 670,000 of which had so far been deemed valid by California secretary of state’s office.

Newsom, who was elected by a landslide margin in 2018, has seen his approval rating plummet from 64% in September to just 46% in late January, according to a recent poll by UC Berkeley. That drop came during widespread delays in vaccine rollouts, a new stay-home order for most of the state and the revelation that Newsom attended a friend’s 50th birthday dinner at the French Laundry restaurant in Yountville in November without a face covering, ignoring his own state guidelines for residents to avoid gatherings and to wear masks.

“There’s a lot of frustration with school reopenings, the lack of vaccines and small business owners being forced to close during the holidays,” said Dan Mullen, an independent political consultant in Petaluma. “People feel like the governor forced regulations upon them which they never signed up for and have not been legislated.”

Fed up with virus measures

Gloria Collins, 48, of Santa Rosa, signed the recall petition because she said public health restrictions on businesses have been too severe and badly hurt people’s livelihoods.

“The only thing Newsom seems to focus on are the COVID issues,” Collins said. “There needs to be a balance.”

If recall activists do succeed in gathering enough signatures to force a vote to oust the governor and simultaneous election for his replacement, it would be held later this year, likely in the fall. On the ballot, voters first would first decide whether or not Newsom should be removed. Next, they would be asked: If more than 50% of voters choose “yes” to recall, who should replace Newsom?

Two well-known California Republicans, Kevin Faulconer, the former San Diego mayor, and John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, already have said they would run in a recall.

In addition to Newsom’s poor pandemic management, recall supporters cite the state’s high taxes, escalating homelessness, pro-immigration policies, stringent environmental regulations and what they describe as an infringement on their Second Amendment rights to bear arms.

“Have you noticed how many people are leaving California?” said Georgia Lujan, the Sonoma County coordinator for one of the largest statewide recall groups, who said she submitted about 8,000 petition signatures last week.

Lujan helps set up signature-gathering booths in front of local grocery stores and shopping centers, as well as drop-off sites at local businesses. Those businesses include a restaurant, nail salon and six gun shops, according to the Sonoma County Recall Gavin 2020 website.

On her personal Facebook page, Lujan also has shared debunked information about COVID-19, the 2020 presidential election and the QAnon prophecy, a false conspiracy theory alleging a cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles is running a worldwide child sex-trafficking operation and sought to take down former President Donald Trump.

Lujan insisted the posts are not connected to her role with the recall campaign. “That’s just my political views about the world in general,” she said.

Dubious information

The Sonoma County Recall Gavin 2020 and Reopen Sonoma Facebook group pages, where thousands of members can find and share updates about the recall effort, also are home to spurious claims about the coronavirus and recent presidential election results, some of which have been flagged by the social media company as false information.

Matt Heath, chair of the Sonoma County GOP, works with Lujan and other volunteers to gather signatures and organize pro-recall rallies, including one planned for Sunday in downtown Santa Rosa.

Heath said the local Republican party in no way supports conspiracy theories or thinks the presidential election was stolen. He also said he would not reject Lujan or any other recall supporter for holding similar beliefs.

“What makes America beautiful is the First Amendment,” Heath said. “We don’t have a litmus test that you have to believe this or can’t associate (with the Sonoma GOP.)”

David McCuan, chair of the political science department at Sonoma State University, said the “free-for-all” of a gubernatorial recall campaign tends to attract those on the margins of politics. He pointed to the 2003 recall election of former Gov. Gray Davis that drew over 135 challengers, including a host of B-list actors and other unorthodox candidates.

Actor and moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor with about 48% of the vote after 55% of voters opted to remove Davis from office.

McCuan said today’s divisive political climate, however, is far more volatile, empowering anyone with “a grievance against the status quo.”

“This recall effort, and the anti-establishment politics of the Trump-era, has given a voice for people to coalesce around, a politics of rejection,” McCuan said.

In January, the Los Angeles Times reported the statewide recall effort had connections to an array of far-right and conspiracy groups, including anti-vaccination activists and some extremist organizations that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The chairman of the state Democratic Party, Rusty Hicks, appeared to try and seize on those ties last month, describing the recall campaign as a “coup” led by primarily white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Hicks drew heavy criticism for the largely unfounded allegations, before walking back his comments a few days later.

Newsom has yet to speak publicly about the recall effort. His office did not respond to multiple requests by a Press Democrat reporter for comment.

Dems gearing up

Pat Sabo, chair of the Sonoma County Democratic Party, said her group has begun conducting voter surveys and enlisting volunteers ahead of a likely recall election.

“Our top priority is gearing up for what I’m calling the anti-recall campaign,” Sabo said.

She said those efforts will be critical for Democratic officials across the state to compete with the significant funding and national support the Newsom recall campaign already has attracted. As of Feb. 26, the two primary recall committees had raised over $2.5 million, according to CalMatters.

Jaime Ramirez started gathering signatures for the recall effort in November, after he lost both his jobs because of the pandemic.

“I didn’t know anything about politics until the lockdown started happening,” said Ramirez, who lives in Sonoma County but wouldn’t say where. “At the beginning, I was really scared, but then I started getting frustrated.”

For most of his life, Ramirez had found the most common ground with Democrats. But upon learning about the recall campaign, he realized what he “was feeling and thinking” aligned more with conservative politics.

McCuan, the political science professor, said that even in deep blue Sonoma County, voters like Ramirez, with loose or shifting political allegiances, are far from uncommon. He predicted a “wild ride” in the run up to a potential recall vote.

“California has long had these kind of anti-establishment movements and knee-jerk politics, and they don’t always go in the direction you might think,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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