LOS ANGELES — Less than two years into office, California Gov. Gavin Newsom is being forced to defend his job.
Battered by several crises, including the coronavirus pandemic, crippling unemployment, devastating wildfires and one very poorly timed fancy dinner, Newsom faces a recall effort that shows no signs of slowing.
A petition to oust Newsom has more than half the signatures needed to trigger a special election, said Orrin Heatlie, who is leading the Recall Gavin 2020 campaign. Volunteers had collected 844,000 signatures by Tuesday, he said.
The recall campaign must gather 1.5 million signatures by mid-March to force an election, and it will need a surplus of signatures because some are likely to be disqualified during the certification process.
"He has done this to himself," Heatlie said. "We wouldn't have been as successful as we've been if it weren't for Gavin Newsom."
Dan Newman, a spokesman for the governor, said Californians will have to decide whether they want a "distraction and circus" to pull attention away from the state's problems. He said a special election could cost taxpayers upward of $100 million as the state works to distribute Covid-19 vaccinations, reopen schools and kick-start the economy.
"This is a ragtag crew of pro-Trump, anti-vaccine extremists, along with some ambitious Republican politicians who would like to be governor," Newman said. "I don't think it's something anyone wants. I'd be surprised if Californians wanted to spend the extra money and have another election the following year."
The current recall effort is one of six such attempts since Newsom took office, Newman said. It started in February, even before the coronavirus upended life around the world. At the time, Newsom opponents were frustrated that he had endorsed a bill to compel companies to classify independent contractors as employees with legal protections and benefits. A November ballot initiative overturned the law, but the political damage was done.
Then came announcements that thousands of inmates would be granted early parole under the state's Covid-19 containment plan and that immigrants without legal standing would receive coronavirus relief funds through the state.
The final straw for recall proponents was photos that surfaced showing Newsom dining at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant in California's wine country, where the per-person tasting menu starts at $350. The story quickly went viral, rankling business owners and residents who accused Newsom of being arrogant and a hypocrite for asking Californians not to gather and to stay 6 feet apart while he did the opposite at a luxurious private dinner for a lobbyist friend.
"In the last three or four weeks" since the French Laundry incident, "we have seen the number of signatures explode," said Randy Economy, a member of the Recall Gavin 2020 campaign. "It's about the arrogance of power."
Newsom's missteps have attracted attention from Republicans outside California and others fed up with pandemic control measures that are pummeling the economy. Last week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee waded into the controversy, throwing their weight behind recall efforts.
"California's liberal elite send their kids to private school & dine out while lecturing YOU about danger of leaving your home. Governor Newsom's shutdown holds families hostage. It's time to go @GavinNewsom," Huckabee said in a tweet.
But political analysts warn that President Donald Trump's repeated attempts to contest the presidential election make it hard not to view the recall effort as another example of Republicans' skirting democratic processes.
"Republicans see it as a way to destabilize the political system and to make government ineffective," said the director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University. "They want to create paralysis. This is the same as overturning the 2018 [gubernatorial] election."
Local Republican leaders are also jumping into the fray, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
Newsom "can celebrate birthday parties. But you can't. He can dine on a $350 meal at one California's fanciest restaurants during the worst recession in generations. But you definitely can't. Can you believe this? I can't," Faulconer tweeted Nov. 13.
About a week after Faulconer fired off the tweet, a spokesperson told NBC San Diego that Faulconer is considering a run against Newsom.
In a special election, Newsom would be forced to defend his record just two years into office. If the recall efforts fail and he runs for re-election in 2022, Newsom will have campaigned every two years since 2018.
"This is not about rational public policy," Guerra said. "It's not about policy at all. It's about punishing the governor and distracting him."
Californians have attempted 165 recalls since voters approved a 1911 provision giving them the power to remove elected officials and state Supreme Court justices, according to the secretary of state's office. At least 54 of the efforts have been directed at the governor.
Only one recall campaign removed a governor from office: Gray Davis, a Democrat, in 2003.
Davis was recalled during an electricity crisis in 2000 tied to the Enron scandal, which ultimately brought down an energy company that had caused rolling blackouts for thousands of Californians while energy trading was being manipulated on the stock market.
Davis was elected "by a landslide" in 1998, and his approval ratings were at 60 percent and above before the energy crisis, former senior adviser Garry South said. But by 2001, his approval ratings had slid below 40 percent, and he went into 2002 "as damaged goods," South said.
"It was a disaster, but it wasn't his fault," South said. "All of that stuck to Davis' shoe. The general public view was that he didn't tackle the issue soon enough and aggressively enough."
Davis won re-election in 2002, but only by 5 percentage points, whereas Newsom has enjoyed approval ratings in the 60s for his handling of the pandemic in several recent polls conducted before the French Laundry fiasco.
Two final blows hit Davis when Arnold Schwarzenegger transformed from action hero to gubernatorial candidate and when Republican U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa poured nearly $2 million of his fortune into the recall campaign. Schwarzenegger's announcement prompted a wave of novelty contenders that better resembled a "clown car" or "the bar scene from 'Star Wars,'" South said, while Issa's financial backing gave teeth to the recall campaign.
"It was a cast of oddities and freaks," South said, pointing to a list of 135 candidates, which included Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, porn star Mary Cook and former child actor Gary Coleman.
But the California of 2003 is much different from the California of 2020, analysts say. When Davis was recalled, 43 percent of California voters were registered as Democrats and 35 percent as Republicans, according to the secretary of state's office. This year, going into the general election, 46 percent of voters were registered as Democrats and just 24 percent as Republicans.
"R is the scarlet letter in California," South said, adding that a successful Covid-19 vaccine rollout could be enough to turn the tide in Newsom's favor.
Still, he warned, Newsom can't afford to ignore the recall efforts: "He can't just wish it away."