Election depicts two Californias: Rising star or catastrophe

LOS ANGELES — Gov. Gavin Newsom and two leading Republican rivals in the California recall election painted disparate pictures of the nation’s most populous state, with the first-term Democrat describing it Tuesday as an economic powerhouse leading the country’s pandemic recovery and his opponents saying it’s a mismanaged state with an incompetent leader.

Newsom, who could be removed from office in the Sept. 14 election, headed to a heavily Latino neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles to tout his new state budget, which doles out billions of dollars for pandemic relief checks and payments to cover missed rent. In a campaign-style rally, his political allies took the stage to lavish him with praise and pledge their support.

“Los Angeles County will anchor the ‘no’ on the recall,” declared Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents 800,000 workers. He called Newsom a “warrior” and a “champion.”

Meanwhile, conservative radio host Larry Elder sketched a California on the brink of collapse in his first news conference as a candidate, held outside the Los Angeles County elections office. In Sacramento, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer rolled out a wildfire prevention plan, part of his effort to establish himself as a candidate armed with policy solutions. He said Newsom has failed to lead on ways to prevent wildfires, which charred more of California last year than any year since records have been kept.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Democrat, defended Newsom at the rally for his decisions during the pandemic, saying that when it came to protecting even one life, “that’s not a tough call.” But Elder blamed Newsom for restrictive school lockdowns that he said traumatized many students and young athletes and led others into trouble, labeling Newsom’s rules an “anti-science mandate.”

The events offered a glimpse of the messaging that will dominate the campaign ahead of the September vote. Friday is the deadline for candidates to enter the race. So far, Newsom has kept other prominent Democrats out of the contest, while the Republican field continues to grow. All together, 70 people have said they plan to run.

Recall organizers gathered more than 2 million signatures to force the election and emphasized what they said were Newsom’s overreaching policies during the pandemic. In the recall, voters will receive a ballot with two questions: Should Newsom be recalled and who should replace him? Answers to the second question will only be counted if more than half vote yes on the first.

For months, Newsom has used the power and visibility of his office as he works to convince voters he deserves to keep his seat, but Tuesday’s event had all the elements of a political rally — a reminder that the nine-week campaign is underway. Rows of supporters sat behind him under campaign signs that read “California Roars Back,” his office’s official slogan. His voice rising as he took the stage, Newsom declared the event “one hell of a budget signing.”

The state’s $262.7 billion budget includes billions of expanding access to broadband, free transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds and relief for small businesses. Also among the items he touted Tuesday: $1,100 relief payments for low- and middle-class families, including immigrants, and state coverage of 100% of rent and utility bills people missed during the pandemic.

Several of the proposals will directly affect families in the working-class neighborhood where Newsom staged his ceremony.

“You can’t come roaring back unless we have the backs of every Californian,” he said.

At another point he added, “We have each and every one of you in mind.”

Republicans share a different message of California’s emergence from the pandemic, saying Newsom unnecessarily harmed people and small businesses with pandemic closures and failures in the state’s unemployment agency. They’ve characterized him as unable to tackle some of the state’s most pressing problems, including homelessness and wildfires.

The conservative Elder, a nationally syndicated radio host, attracted an enthusiastic, flag-waving crowd that spread across a grassy slope off the building’s portico. After being greeted with chants of “Larry, Larry!” Elder lanced into Newsom repeatedly, calling him a failure on whose watch homelessness spread, violent crime spiked, taxes climbed and housing costs soared.

“The man has got to go,” Elder said.

Standing in the crowd with the U.S. flag perched on his shoulder, David Brewer of Victorville said he was drawn to Elder’s life story — a climb to success from modest beginnings — and his willingness to challenge Democrats, particularly on schools.

“He’s been standing up to the left for God knows how many years,” said Brewer, 39, a Republican who’s working on starting a charity. With Elder in the race “all other candidates don’t exist.”

That could create trouble for Faulconer, who’s sought to craft himself as the serious-minded Republican candidate with a track record of successful governing. He was elected twice to lead the nation’s eighth-largest city. After releasing a wildfire prevention plan in Sacramento, Faulconer declined to comment directly on Elder or state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, another new entrant with some support among activists who spearheaded the recall and don’t believe Faulconer is conservative enough.

“I think it’s incredibly important that when you’re going to replace a governor you have someone who’s going to tell you exactly what they did and what they’re going to do, and has that experience to do it,” he said.

He called himself a “proud Republican” but said it’s important to bring people together to solve the state’s problems.