NAPA (AP) — On a single day last November, two events helped set the course for just the second recall election against a governor in California history: Gov. Gavin Newsom dined with 11 friends and lobbyists at one of the country's most expensive restaurants as he pleaded with Californians to stay home, while those looking to kick him out of office won four more months to qualify for the ballot.
Photos of the maskless dinner showed the Democratic governor going against what he had been urging for months to combat the coronavirus: don't gather in groups, keep your distance, wear a mask. That it was happening at the French Laundry — where the cheapest meal is $350 — fueled the idea Newsom was out of touch. The dinner turned up the heat on the fledgling recall, and the extra time allowed it to reach full boil.
By March, organizers had more than the 1.5 million signatures they needed to force a vote on whether to remove the first-term Democratic governor in the nation's biggest blue state.
"We had a perfect storm with the judge's ruling, with the French Laundry incident, with the greater environment of COVID and the economic disaster," said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California.
Voters will have the final say next Tuesday. A majority of voters would need to mark "yes" to oust Newsom more than a year before his term ends.
If they do, they would chose from a list of 46 replacement candidates — many of them unknown, but others with some recognition, including conservative talk show host Larry Elder and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner also is running but has failed to gain traction.
Because so many people are running, the winner would likely become the next governor of the nation's most populous state with 25% or less of the votes. That's a far cry from the landslide that swept Newsom into office in 2018.
In California, a state where ballot initiatives thrive, many governors have faced recall drives under a century-old reform that created a mechanism for voters to remove them mid-term. But only one other effort tapped into enough frustration to make the ballot: Voters recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 over an energy crisis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last California Republican to win statewide.
A loss for Newsom, 53, would be a shocking twist in his relatively charmed political career and would almost certainly install a Republican governor in the nation's chief laboratory for progressive policies. A slight majority approve of his job handling, according to a recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California that also shows the recall failing.
The results will be picked apart for clues on how voters are feeling heading into the 2022 midterm elections, when control of Congress and more than half of governorships are up for grabs.
"The outcome of this election is going to be fuel for 2022, period," Romero said.
Amateur political organizer Orrin Heatlie launched the recall in February 2020, before coronavirus became a full-fledged public health crisis in the United States. He was upset about Newsom's support for immigrants in the country illegally and other liberal policies.
By the time he began collecting signatures, the coronavirus dominated.
Newsom was the first governor to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, and when he dined at the French Laundry eight months later, the state had gone through whipsaw reopenings and closings that left small-business owners, parents of schoolchildren and others overwhelmed and confused.
California was facing an uptick in infections and hospitalizations, and Newsom's administration was urging people not to gather with more than three households. While Napa County, where the French Laundry is located, allowed outdoor dining and limited indoor seating, the dinner party brought together a dozen people from more than three households.
News of the Nov. 6 dinner broke a week later, on a Friday when Newsom had no public appearances. In a statement, he said he and his wife "followed the restaurant's health protocols and took safety precautions" but "should have modeled better behavior and not joined the dinner." When he appeared in public that Monday, Newsom said it was an "outdoor restaurant" but acknowledged he made a "bad mistake."
The next day, a Los Angeles TV station obtained cellphone photos calling into question that the dinner was outdoors. The photos showed the table set back in a space with three walls and one side open with a sliding glass door. Newsom and the other guests were sitting close together and not wearing masks.
Anne Dunsmore, campaign manager for the pro-recall group Rescue California, said it reinforced the narrative that Newsom says one thing and does another. It also aligned with the image that Newsom's detractors have pushed — that he's an out-of-touch politician.
"The French Laundry was an incredible boost to the effort," Dunsmore said.
The recall campaign similarly tagged Newsom as elitist when his children returned to class in person at a private school while most public school students were stuck with virtual learning.
Ace Smith, Newsom's longtime political consultant, disputes the dinner's importance in the recall's march to the ballot. He views the presidential election, also that November, as an important marker, saying Donald Trump's loss created fresh anger for the recall campaign to seize on. Six million people in California voted for Trump.
"They realized that they had bottled up this intense anger among the Trump base, and the trick is they only needed a fraction of the Trump base to get this thing qualified" for the ballot, Smith said.
Neither explanation would have mattered had recall organizers not won four more months to pitch voters. A judge granted the extra time because the coronavirus stalled traditional in-person signature gathering outside stores or at farmers markets.
Newsom's team never appealed the judge's decision, a move widely seen as a tactical mistake. Then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla had said recall organizers were not showing signs of a serious campaign.
The judge sided with recall organizers in a tentative ruling, and neither side showed up to argue it in court on Nov. 6, making it final.
The two main recall committees raised roughly $2 million in November and December, five times what the effort had raised before, and ultimately collected 1.7 million valid signatures.
Newsom launched his "Stop the Republican Recall" campaign in March, weeks before the signature gathering ended, painting the effort as one driven by Trump-supporting extremists. He's made the state's response to the pandemic and the economic fallout a central theme of his campaign.
The highly contagious delta variant blunted his early message of California "roaring back," and in the final weeks before the election, he's warning that the choice before voters is "a matter of life and death."
Elder is the target of much of Democrats' attention. They warn the conservative talk radio host would roll back mask and vaccine mandates and reverse progress on a host of liberal issues.
It's part of a calculation by Newsom's team to turn the recall from a referendum on the governor and his actions into a choice between Democratic and Republican values.
"If you sit around and let it become a referendum on the person in office, it doesn't matter how good or how positive they are, you're always at a disadvantage because you're playing defense," Smith said. "We need to be in a place, very simply, where we're playing offense."
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