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How Larry Elder upended the California recall

The longtime radio host, first-time candidate and right-wing provocateur is leading among the Republican challengers to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Image: Larry Elder
Larry Elder in San Francisco on July 14.Nina Riggio / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — He calls himself the “Sage from South Central.” Critics call him “the Black face of white supremacy.” And Californians may soon call him “Governor.”

Larry Elder — longtime radio host, first-time candidate — is a right-wing provocateur who hasn’t run for office since the fifth grade. But he’s beating a crowded field of politicians at their own game, emerging as an unlikely Republican front-runner in California’s coming recall election.

Polls show a dead heat among likely voters over whether to remove Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom from office on Sept. 14. And Elder, who probably could never win in liberal California under normal circumstances, is far ahead of the 45 other replacement candidates, even though only about a quarter of the electorate supports him.

“I used to go on Fox News a lot,” said businessman John Cox, who was the last GOP nominee against Newsom but is now struggling for attention, even though he campaigns with a giant bear. “They haven’t had me on very much lately, because they’re supporting Larry.”

Elder, much like Donald Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, has become the black hole at the center of the recall campaign, sucking in more established politicians and mainstream Republicans, whether they like it or not.

“Elder is blocking out the sun in the way Trump did,” said Tim Miller, a former GOP strategist who worked on Jeb Bush’s ill-fated presidential campaign and now lives in California.

‘The most Trump’

Two other candidates, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, have called on Elder to drop out of the race over comments he has made about women and allegations of domestic abuse, which he has denied.

“Larry Elder does not have the character, the judgment, the skill set or the experience to be governor,” Faulconer said Wednesday at a debate that Elder skipped.

Some Republican activists have complained that Elder has skipped debates and hasn’t shown up at local events, campaigning instead mainly on the TV and radio shows of fellow conservative talkers.

The man who started the effort to remove Newsom from office isn’t a fan. “He’s hoping to skate into office based on his celebrity status alone,” said the recall’s lead proponent, Orrin Heatlie.

Newsom’s campaign, which since Day One has tried to portray the recall as a Trumpian takeover of California, has piled on, trying to jolt awake complacent Democratic voters and force independents who might be inclined to support a moderate like Faulconer to pick a side.

“Some say he’s the most Trump of the candidates,” Newsom told supporters at a campaign event this month. “I say he’s even more extreme than Trump.”

But the attacks only seem to boost Elder further, at least among the conservative base, and offer him plenty of free airtime, too.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks in Hollywood on June 15, 2021.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks in Hollywood on June 15.Patrick T. Fallon / AFP - Getty Images file

A Change Research survey released Thursday showed Newsom favored to survive the recall and Elder far ahead of the replacement field at 27 percent. He was followed by “will leave the question blank” at 22 percent and “not sure” at 15 percent. Cox, Faulconer and Jenner each had less than 5 percent support.

He has gotten several endorsements.

Chuck Norris said Elder “has the proven grit” to be governor. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said he’s the only one who can “save California from floating all the way to the People’s Republic of Communist China.” Candace Owens, the young Black provocateur, calls Elder one of her “idols.” And former Trump speechwriter Stephen Miller, whose career Elder helped start, called him “the one true guide I’ve always had.”

Cox said: “Faulconer is getting attention by crapping on another candidate, who then responds, which just generates more attention. That's what you media guys love to write about, no offense.”

Behind enemy lines

As a Black conservative, Elder would say he spent his life behind enemy lines, from his childhood home ruled by an abusive father to his time at uber-liberal Brown University, in the courtroom as a lawyer and then, for almost 30 years, on talk radio.

In his early years on the radio in 1990s Los Angeles, with the Rodney King riots and police brutality scandals swirling, he faced a Black-led boycott. African American callers regularly dial in to call him an "Uncle Tom,” tell him he’s “not a brother” or wonder whether he had blood transfusion from a white man.

To Elder, it’s all evidence that “blacks are more racist than whites” and that “white condescension is more damaging than white racism,” as he wrote in his 2001 book, “The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America.”

Image: John Cox
California gubernatorial candidate John Cox speaks in front of his Kodiak bear at a campaign event on Shelter Island in San Diego on May 11.Denis Poroy / AP file

Ruben Navarrette, a California-based columnist, met Elder in those early days, when they hosted late-night radio programs from studios across the hall from each other.

Over coffee during commercial breaks or at late-night breakfasts after their shows wrapped with Elder and Navarrette’s co-host at the time, Tavis Smiley, Elder would talk about how he was driven by a desire to share the message of self-reliance he learned from his father with Black audiences.

But, Navarrette said, as Elder’s star grew, he increasingly spoke to white conservatives, who are thrilled to hear a Black man tell them things like absentee fathers are to blame for crime, systematic racism is a “lie” and the minimum wage should be $0.

“There’s the Larry Elder who talks to Black people. That’s one message,” Navarrette said. “Then there’s the Larry Elder who talks to white people. That’s a different message.”

Unlike Trump, Elder, who graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and practiced with a major firm before striking out into politics, spills out reams of facts and figures as he debates and seems to thrill in the intellectual challenge of pushing buttons.

“The good news is he is a great communicator,” Navarrette said. “The bad news is in the process of communicating, he sometimes forgets he’s no longer hosting a radio show.”

The hard life

Elder’s up-by-the-bootstraps life story is the foundation of his iconoclastic worldview.

In Elder’s telling, his violent-when-not-absent father is a hero, not a villain. His tough-love lessons of hard work informed Elder’s views about race and the welfare state.

“I hated my father — really, really hated him,” Elder wrote in his 2012 book, "Dear Father, Dear Son: Two Lives," and they didn’t speak for almost 10 years.

But after law school, when Elder went to confront his father late one night at the cafe he ran, they talked for eight hours, and Elder’s anger melted away.

He learned about his father’s “hard-a-- life” growing up in the Jim Crow South, where Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was the defender of Black rights against the white supremacist Democrats, and he left grateful for all the hard work his father had put in to give him a better life.

Elder enjoyed that better life thoroughly, relishing in the lifestyle his fame afforded while frequently using his radio program to disparage women and people of color who he said blamed others for their struggles.

He met his ex-fiancée, Alexandra Datig, at the Playboy Mansion. Datig had worked for Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss before she turned state’s evidence against her.

Datig, a conservative activist in Los Angeles who is supporting Faulconer, recently filed a police report alleging that Elder in 2015 brandished a gun while he was high on marijuana during an argument while they were dating. Elder hasn’t been charged with any crimes.

“I have never brandished a gun at anyone,” Elder said in a statement. “I grew up in South Central; I know exactly how destructive this type of behavior is. It’s not me, and everyone who knows me knows it’s not me. These are salacious allegations.”

As with Trump, Elder’s supporters are willing to take a gamble and look past accusations.

“Youre looking for that one shining star who can carry the message. Although we had some honorable people [already running], they just weren’t resonating with the voter for whatever reason,” said Teresa Hernandez, the president of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, an influential conservative donor group that was an early backer of Elder.

Many in her circle had been hoping former Trump adviser and Twitter troll Rick Grinnell would run; when he opted out, she polled her followers on Facebook for other names, and Elder’s was the overwhelming favorite.

“I saw my Facebook people just went crazy over him,” she said. “Everybody has heard his message. A very consistent message. That’s the problem with so many politicians. They stick their fingers in their air and see what’s popular.”

Comparing California to a terminally ill patient wanting to try an experimental drug, she acknowledged that Elder, who has never held public office, is a gamble.

“Larry Elder may hit it out of the park or colossally fail. We don't know, but we’ve got the right to try,” she said.