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Essential Politics: Democrats close ranks behind Newsom

Gov. Gavin Newsom in a mask
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

This is the May 3, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

The past year has shaken the California Democratic Party, the state’s dominant political organization that has run the table on statewide races for more than 15 years.

It lost three congressional seats in last November’s election that Democrats had seized from Republicans just two years earlier. Voters rejected a half-dozen statewide 2020 ballot measures the party had endorsed, including sweeping changes to property taxes and criminal justice.

And most troubling: Its standard-bearer, Gov. Gavin Newsom, will almost surely face a historic recall election where voters could remove him from office.

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Which is probably why so many of them gushed on social media about Saturday’s call to arms by John Burton, the iconic San Franciscan known for his love of bare-knuckled political brawls and expletive-laden exhortations.

“When you leave here, have one thing in common,” the 88-year-old former party chairman said in his Saturday speech at the virtual convention. “Beat the recall, keep Gavin Newsom in office and give the Republicans the message that they can’t f— with us.”

Democrats close ranks as recall moves forward

The effort financed and championed by Republican activists to oust Newsom in a special election this fall permeated much of the four-day convention. While none of the Democrats who spoke brought the gusto of Burton, they closed ranks to make it clear that Newsom has their unqualified support.

“I’ve seen firsthand what a leader he is and how he really does put his heart into his work on behalf of the people of California,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. “And President Joe Biden and I support him 100%.”

Newsom’s own presentation, a six-minute video focusing largely on the state’s pandemic response, sought to reinforce the party’s position that the recall is an us-versus-them battle with Republicans.

“We can’t let them win,” Newsom said.

Recall backers short on cash

Winning, however, may take something the pro-recall groups don’t seem to have much of right now: campaign cash.

A review of the documents filed last week by the major recall political campaigns reveals combined cash on hand of only about $240,000 as of the end of March with very little new money reported since that time. By comparison, Newsom’s recall-focused committee reported 10 times that amount of cash in the bank and the governor’s 2022 reelection committee boasts more than $20 million in campaign funds.

Nor is the California Republican Party in a position at this point to finance a high-profile campaign to oust Newsom. The state party reported just shy of $553,000 in its coffers while the California Democratic Party has more than $15.5 million.

High-profile candidates who plan to run in the recall, like former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former Rep. Doug Ose and businessman John Cox, have their own resources. But for now, recall advocates who raised the money to qualify the special election still have a long way to go toward running a statewide campaign.

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Recall radio, the recall calendar

Times staff writers James Rainey and Faith Pinho caught up with three of the Newsom recall effort’s most important architects — Orrin Heatlie, Mike Netter and Randy Economy — and their ongoing effort to use the power of talk radio to effect political change.

“We’ve been told from the start we are a ragtag bunch of hicks,” said Netter. “We marvel at what’s happened. But at the same time, we don’t. We always thought that we had a really good chance of making a change in the state, because we weren’t following the usual patterns.”

Meanwhile, we’re now getting a bit more clarity on the calendar for the Newsom recall effort. Although the final report won’t be issued this week on the total number of voter signatures on the recall petition, enough signatures have been validated to trigger the election — unless a sizable number of those voters withdraw their signatures over the coming month.

The signature withdrawal process will run until June 8, state elections officials reported last week. The tally of signatures struck will be due no later than June 22. State law then requires up to 60 days to analyze the cost of an election — which local officials now think could total $400 million.

A safe guess is that Secretary of State Shirley Weber will formally certify the recall election in late August. The election must be held no sooner than 60 days and no later than 80 days from that point. Most observers still think that means an election in November, though late October now looks like a possibility too.

National lightning round

— Despite promises from the Biden administration, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is still expelling most migrants under a policy indefinitely closing the border during the pandemic to “nonessential” travel.

— The either-or debate over GOP fealty to former President Donald Trump “is going to fade,” former House Speaker Paul Ryan said in an interview with the Associated Press.

— The question of whether to serve a search warrant for Rudolph W. Giuliani’s records simmered inside the Justice Department in the waning months of the Trump administration.

— A Bahamas trip is a central element of the federal investigation surrounding Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz that has suddenly endangered his political career.

Today’s essential California politics

— A number of California Republican House members have benefited from a political committee bankrolled, in part, by Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas casino mogul accused of sexual misconduct.

— ICYMI: Facebook, Google and Blue Shield of California are among the companies that contributed $226 million to government causes on Newsom’s behalf last year, an unprecedented level of spending that raises alarms about the influence of large corporations. Here’s where some of those big charitable contributions went.

— The little-known practice of routing behested payments to Newsom and others through donor-advised funds allows those who make charitable contributions on behalf of elected officials to obscure their identities.

— Newsom and California lawmakers have signed off on legislation providing up to $6.8 billion in state tax breaks for California businesses hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic.

— The U.S. attorney’s corruption case targeting Los Angeles City Hall alleges that a deputy mayor-turned-real estate consultant worked to arrange “indirect bribes” for city officials by routing the money through those officials’ family members.

— A California task force formed to investigate fraudulent unemployment claims involving incarcerated people reported 68 arrests so far and the launching of 1,641 other inquiries.

— The fate of a series of major policing reforms proposed in Sacramento remains unclear as the legislative year unfolds.

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