Orrin Heatlie first decided Gov. Gavin Newsom should be recalled during the summer of 2019, when the governor expressed support for immigrants living in the state illegally and told them they didn’t need to open the door for federal immigration agents.
Heatlie, a retired Yolo County sheriff’s sergeant, has been among a small group of frustrated Californians trying to oust the Democratic governor for more than a year. Past attempts have failed, but the latest push, which Heatlie started in February, has gotten a significant boost from the pandemic.
Political experts say the current effort to recall Newsom is still a long shot, but recent COVID-19 missteps by the governor and a recent legal victory have given the effort a second wind.
Heatlie points to a range of things Newsom has done to spur recall supporters. They include putting a moratorium on California’s death penalty and signing a law to give judges discretion when handing down sex offender sentences to young LGBT people, which critics have inaccurately said legalized pedophilia.
Newsom inadvertently gave the recall effort a boost last month when he attended a 12-person birthday dinner at the swanky French Laundry restaurant in Napa County for a lobbyist friend, even as he told people to avoid seeing family and friends for Thanksgiving.
That incident in particular spurred an outpouring of frustration from Californians fed up with pandemic restrictions that have harmed businesses, kept people from seeing their loved ones and forced children to stay home from school. The dinner left many with the impression that the governor wasn’t following his own rules, even while the rest of the state had to.
“We have a French Laundry list of reasons why people want to recall him,” Heatlie said. “Every day he does something new to give people new reasons to want to come and sign.”
The dinner came in the same month a judge granted the recall effort a four-month extension to keep gathering signatures, siding with recall supporters who argued the pandemic shutdown had unjustly impeded their work.
As the French Laundry incident made national news, Ric Grenell, a Trump loyalist who briefly served as acting director of national intelligence, urged Fox News listeners who live in California to sign the petition.
“This is how we get rid of him,” he said. “We’ve got to recall this guy.”
The dinner prompted a “dramatic spike” in new interest in the recall effort, Heatlie said.
Dan Newman, who works for Newsom as a political consultant, said that with enough money a campaign can pretty much qualify anything for the ballot in California. But he said the effort’s connections to extreme views and association with far-right protests will make it politically unsavory in a deep blue state.
If they were to qualify a recall effort, they would have to campaign against the governor as he leads a massive statewide effort to vaccinate the population. That would give Newsom a political advantage, Newman said.
“They appear to be pro-Trump anti-vaccine extremists,” he said. “That would be interesting and counterproductive position to defend at the same time the governor is distributing the vaccine.”
Volunteers have gathered about 800,000 signatures, Heatlie said. They’ll need to collect at least 1,495,000 by the effort’s new March 17 deadline. Recall supporters have capitalized on the anger over Newsom’s stay at home orders, collecting signatures at protests over the restrictions, but are still short cash to launch a substantial paid signature gathering campaign.
So far, the recall effort has brought in just over $440,000, according to the campaign’s most recent campaign finance filings. In September, the campaign reported that it had slightly more than $14,000 in cash on hand.
The effort would need millions of dollars to gather enough signatures to actually trigger a recall, said Rob Stutzman, who worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful recall bid against Gray Davis. But recent issues plaguing Newsom, including an extensive unemployment fraud scheme, may give people new reasons to sign, he said.
“To be clear, the recall effort is only to be taken seriously if it receives an infusion of millions of dollars to pay for signature gathering,” he said. “We’re a long way from a recall being something that would be a reality, but I think now, over the last few weeks, there’s a rationale maybe to sign the petition.”
Jaime Regalado, a political science professor emeritus at California State University Los Angeles, said that he doesn’t think the recall effort is a real threat to Newsom. He noted that there have been unsuccessful recall attempts in the past, including of popular former Gov. Ronald Reagan, and that he thinks the effort to oust Newsom will peter out.
But he said no politician ever wants to deal with an effort to remove them from office.
“I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere,” he said. “But no politician likes to have a group after them.”
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