Somebody needs to pay for California’s staggering inequality and injustice. A recall election for Governor Gavin Newsom will do.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom looks on during a news conference after touring Barron Park Elementary School on March 02, 2021 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The last time California had a gubernatorial recall election, they literally rewrote the alphabet to do it.
At issue were the ballots, which back in 2003 had two questions on them: first, did you want to recall Governor Gray Davis; and second, regardless of whether you did or not, which of the 135 candidates vying to take his job did you like best? In accordance with California law, the high volume of names couldn’t just be listed in alphabetical order. That would have made too much sense. So instead California devised a new alphabet by (I’m not making this up) having a state official blindly draw letters out of a can.
Sing along with me now: R, W, Q, O, J, M, V…
That episode was emblematic of the entire 2003 California recall, a gloriously madcap exercise in come-one-come-all carnival democracy. Even the relatively sober winner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was still a bodybuilder who had once played a homicidal robot in a movie. To qualify for the ballot, candidates needed only to pay a fee and submit the signatures of 65 registered voters. Among those who cleared that very low threshold were Davis’s own lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante, porn star Mary Carey, actor Gary Coleman, and web mogul Arianna Huffington. Carey campaigned on a platform of taxing breast implants and making lap dances tax deductible, a rare instance of Californian fiscal responsibility. Another candidate, Michael Wozniak, promised to legalize pet ferrets.
California had thrown open its doors to the demos, and the colorful leaves had come fluttering in. Now the Golden State is mulling another recall, this time of governor and part-time Men’s Wearhouse model Gavin Newsom. Campaigners say they’ve gathered the 1.5 million signatures required by the state constitution to trigger a recall, while even the governor himself admits that’s probably true. And why not? I’m no fan of political instability, but there are far worse things than democracy run amok. One of them is the governorship of Gavin Newsom.
Newsom’s biggest failure has been his inability to get the coronavirus under control. This in itself isn’t necessarily an indictment—plenty of states have struggled—but Newsom also imposed some of the most punitive lockdowns in the country. That Florida has about the same COVID case and death rates as California despite having opened their beaches last spring isn’t just a right-wing talking point. Even the New York Times has noticed, heading to Miami and grumbling that the place had a “boomtown feel.”
Meanwhile California has been stung not just by painful sacrifice but by the sense that the sacrifice isn’t being evenly shared. There’s a long list of California elected officials who have been caught flouting the same COVID restrictions they’ve inflicted on others. And at the top is Newsom, who last fall was infamously photographed at the tony French Laundry restaurant having an unmasked and socially undistanced dinner.
The theme here is not just hypocrisy but inequality, a reliable feature of California politics. According to a 2018 study by Zippia, the state’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, is the fourth highest in the nation. In fairness, Florida is number five, but people are also relocating there en masse, suggesting the problem is less pressing. By contrast, the highway out of Los Angeles County towards Texas is choked with U-Hauls, as California suffers its lowest rate of population growth in its recorded history. The complaints are ever the same: high taxes, exorbitant costs of living. Yet Newsom has raised taxes. And his signature initiative, a genius plan to ban the gas-powered car by 2035, will further strain the power grid, another reason for the California middle class to worry.
The biggest problem in California is the lack of housing, which has driven up the cost of living, and to his credit, Newsom has promised action. He wants to build 3.5 million new homes by 2025. Yet California is nowhere near on track to meet that benchmark, thanks in part to the failure of a zoning reform bill in the state senate. Which raises a necessary qualifier: Gavin Newsom is not the sole cause of California’s problems. The state has been declining for decades across multiple administrations and legislatures. Even the Terminator (paradoxically) could not fix the damage.
Yet California’s woes also belie a deeper defect of progressive government: It often widens inequality rather than its stated goal of hedging against it. The unleashing of the state to solve problems empowers first and foremost…the state, meaning those it employs and those with the means to curry its favor. And even the best intentions of this elite often diverge from its bottom line. The privileged and connected spout “black lives matter” out of one side of their mouths and “not in my backyard” out of the other. By all means, let’s help the poor, they say, and even pay a little more in taxes to do it. Just don’t go building any low-income housing near my home or condo or development or vineyard or other vineyard.
Throw in regulations and nanny-state rules and endless environmental red tape that makes it next to impossible to build anything larger than a balsa-wood plane, and the results are not just high taxes, but high rents, home prices, and other costs of living and doing business. Before you know it, the middle class decides it’s had enough. It’s off to a state you’ve long derided as one giant tailgating truck slammed into a piano saloon. That leaves you with the Silicon Valley boy kings who can afford the confiscatory costs (and in turn drive them up even higher) and the poor who receive the government’s largesse. And then even the techies start to pack up and leave, threatening you with a death spiral.
This is no way to run a treehouse club, let alone the most populous state in the country. And while Newsom isn’t the worst to have emerged out of California—he opposed the notorious San Francisco Happy Meal ban, for example, presumably out of fellow-feeling with plastic action figures—he is the one currently standing at the despatch box. So why not try to recall him? Even if the campaign isn’t likely to succeed, it would force Newsom to defend his record. It would mean accountability for California’s embrace of ideology over practical reality, its economic shambles and pandemic mismanagement.
The deposed former governor Gray Davis recently emerged to defend the current one by moaning that “nobody has been dealt a tougher hand than Gavin Newsom.” And there’s some truth to that. A coronavirus and raging wildfires can make for a long morning briefing. But then we might also add: No state has been dealt a tougher backhand by its own elites than the one currently being run by Gavin Newsom.
Because this is California we’re talking about, home of the Beach Boys and the Pump House Gang, the gold rush and the dream dappled in sun. It’s a national treasure, a circled star on our map. That the Californian jewel has been reduced to part Facebook fiefdom, part Greece on the Pacific ought to aggrieve every American down to his marrow. So bring on the adult entertainers with the campaign pamphlets knocking on doors and pointing out that in this case “Crystal Luvv” is at the alphabetical end. Democracy isn’t the fix for everything, but it is a test progressivism should now have to pass.