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California’s Governor Was Tested by the COVID-19. Now a Recall Looms

In California, both Republicans and Democrats say the threat of a recall election has shaped Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Things have been looking up in California. Vaccines will soon be available to everyone over 16. Los Angeles schools are about to bring hundreds of thousands of students back to classrooms. Disneyland, dark for a year, will throw open its gates in just a few weeks.

At the state capital, however, the coronavirus pandemic still clouds Gov. Gavin Newsom’s horizon. Soon, the secretary of state is expected to announce that a campaign to recall him has officially qualified for a special election.

Led by Trump stalwarts, amplified by Republican National Committee money and fueled during the pandemic by Mr. Newsom’s own political missteps, the recall initiative is widely regarded as a long shot. Putting it on the ballot requires roughly 1.5 million signatures from disgruntled voters, a drop in the Democrat-dominated bucket of 40 million residents.

But even if Mr. Newsom prevails, the pandemic has both tested and tarnished him politically.

Mr. Newsom presented the plan last month as proof of his determination to ensure that rich Californians did not crowd the poor out of access to scarce vaccinations. But the policy change also helped Mr. Newsom politically.

A new tweak in the system for determining health restrictions let a county move into a lower tier once a critical mass of vaccinations had been administered in disadvantaged ZIP codes. Many of those targeted ZIP codes were in Los Angeles, where teachers’ unions were refusing to return to classrooms until the county was out of the strictest level of health rules. Parent groups, meanwhile, were demanding in-person instruction.

Dr. Smith — whose Bay Area county has plenty of poor people but virtually none of the targeted ZIP codes — said the vaccine targets were part of a “fake equity plan,” based less on fairness than on Mr. Newsom’s desire to open up Los Angeles.

“What’s really going on has nothing to do with distribution,” said Dr. Smith, who serves in a nonpartisan position but said he identifies as a Democrat. “It has to do with the governor’s desire to buy himself out of the recall election by reopening Southern California as fast as he can.”

It is unclear how much voters will care about Mr. Newsom’s mix of motivations. Californians, who overwhelmingly opposed former President Donald J. Trump in the last election, are unlikely to replace a Democratic governor if their main alternatives are limited to the current challengers, who are Republican supporters of Mr. Trump.

The tall, telegenic heir to the “fifth-largest economy in the world,” as his predecessor Jerry Brown routinely boasted, Mr. Newsom has lost some of the benefit of California’s doubt. His approval rating has dropped by more than 10 points since May, when 65 percent of Californians trusted his handling of the pandemic. Critics even within his own party have questioned whether his recent decisions have been motivated by public health or the recall attempt.

The campaign against Mr. Newsom has highlighted the differences between the powerhouse California that elected him and the virus-battered California he now governs. Longtime political analysts see hidden weaknesses in his polling: The state may not want to recall him, they say, but his popularity has suffered, and his political fortunes are linked more closely than ever to the ebb and flow of the virus in his state.

“When you’re evaluating an executive — be it a mayor, a governor, a president, whatever — there are really only a couple of basic questions,” said Mike Madrid, a former political director of the state Republican Party and a co-founder of the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project.

“Are the lights on? Are the trains running on time? And in this case, how have you managed the global pandemic?”

At the moment, Mr. Newsom’s report card is mixed.

California has record budget reserves, one of the nation’s lowest rates of new virus cases and a vaccine rollout that, after a rocky start, has started to gain steam. But the state also has lagged behind the nation in school reopenings and has the third-highest unemployment rate.

The politicking to come is expected to be expensive, national and corrosive. Recall proponents and their allies say they have raised about $4.1 million, including large contributions from major Republican donors, the state Republican Party and potential candidates such as John Cox, a San Diego businessman who lost to Mr. Newsom in 2018.

The governor’s team has reported about $3 million in contributions, including about $400,000 from the state Democratic Party, $250,000 from a union representing state government engineers, $125,000 each from the agricultural magnates Stewart and Lynda Resnick and more than $500,000 in small-dollar online donations in the 48 hours after the governor started a website called Stop the Republican Recall.

Supporters of Mr. Newsom portray the initiative as the work of Republican extremists. The leader, the governor has said, believes that the government should “microchip migrants.”

Orrin Heatlie, the retired Northern California sheriff’s sergeant who is the recall’s lead proponent, wrote a 2019 Facebook post that read: “Microchip all illegal immigrants. It works! Just ask Animal control.”

Mr. Heatlie acknowledged in an interview that he wrote the post, but he said that it was not meant to be taken literally and that he intended it as a “conversation starter.”

He said Mr. Newsom brought the recall on himself by imposing too many restrictions early in the pandemic and dining at an elite wine country restaurant while asking Californians to quarantine last fall.

Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist, predicts that Mr. Newsom will survive the recall. But he added that the governor’s numbers indicate that his troubles with voters are not over.


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