California’s gubernatorial recall election is shaping up to be exactly the dysfunctional process that critics have longed feared it would become. Governor Newsom took office in 2018 with 61.9 percent of the vote—the highest percentage that any Democratic candidate for governor ever received in the state. And polling of California voters shows that solid majorities oppose his recall. But a poll this week from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies paints a very different picture. What that poll found was that Newsom’s opponents were far more engaged in the recall process than were his supporters, and that among the all-important likely voters, 50 percent opposed the recall and 47 percent supported it.
Since Newsom needs at least 50 percent to survive the recall effort, this poll, if accurate, puts the Democrats in an extraordinarily perilous situation in what is normally the most reliably blue state in the country. If Newsom’s supporters don’t turn out to vote in large numbers and he doesn’t cross the 50 percent threshold in the recall question, the Democrats have no credible fallback candidate for the second question: Who should replace the governor if he is recalled? In that nightmare scenario, Newsom could end up with 49 percent and be knocked off the ballot, and he could be replaced by a Republican who garners a tiny fraction of that number.
A month ago, the Democrats played politics to move the recall vote forward, on the assumption that the Covid crisis was receding and Californians were feeling more optimistic about conditions in their state. Now, however, the virus is surging again, and indoor mask mandates have been reinstated in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and elsewhere. How that will play out politically isn’t yet clear; but, at a minimum, it’s hard to see how it plays to Newsom’s advantage.
At the same time, California’s great crises of the age—fires and homelessness—are both escalating, which doesn’t bode well for incumbents.
Last year, which was California’s worst fire season on record, the devastating spate of fires began in August. This year, the fires began two months earlier, in June. By late July, hundreds of thousands of acres had already burned, and the Dixie fire, in the north of the state, was already amongst the 15 largest fires in California’s history.
Meanwhile, despite the billions of dollars the state is now putting toward tackling the homelessness crisis, vast numbers of unhoused Californians continue to live on the streets of cities large and small. Local governments are, in fits and starts, stumbling toward their own solutions, some of them determinedly NIMBYist in tone, others more focused on social justice themes.
In the high-income, high-property-value community of Palo Alto over the past few months, the City Council has moved to stymie efforts by state legislators to adapt new zoning policies that would allow for higher density—and thus more affordable—housing to be built in and around transit corridors. At the same time, the council has also begun putting forward some very modest proposals to increase shelter options and “safe parking” programs for homeless residents living on the streets or in cars. Housing activists say it doesn’t come near to addressing the affordable housing shortage.
In Sacramento, where Mayor Darrell Steinberg has long been focused on housing and mental health issues, the plans are more ambitious. Steinberg recently outlined a proposal—vague in specifics, but lofty in intent—to create the country’s first legal “right to housing.” On August 10, the City Council will be taking an up-or-down vote on a $100 million master siting plan that, in one fell swoop, would, using federal and state funds, create up to 5,000 beds and spaces for the city’s huge population of unhoused residents. In the short term, most of those spaces would likely be safe camp sites, under freeway overpasses, in public-transit parking lots and other City-owned spaces, with residents provided with high-quality tents, access to restrooms and to showers, and help from social service workers and volunteers.
In the longer term, Steinberg, who references FDR’s 1944 State of the Union address, in which the New Deal president talked of the human right to housing, is pushing for the creation of what he terms “clean, dignified, safe villages” based around thousands of so-called “tiny homes.” Steinberg doesn’t just want housing to be considered a human right; he wants it to be delineated as a legal right—much as, he explains, the developmentally disabled already have a legal right to certain baseline levels of care.
If Steinberg’s proposal, which will possibly involve some form of residency requirement for those accessing housing, picks up steam, it could significantly reshape public thinking on the homelessness crisis—for the flip side to his proposed right to housing is an obligation on the part of the homeless to accept the housing options provided them by the city or state. There will be, he says, “no criminalization. You don’t involve the police.” But, he continues, “you tell somebody, after repeated efforts, they can no longer camp where they’re camping. The best laws are the ones that don’t have to be enforced—because you send a signal. The vast majority of people want to come indoors; those who don’t are traumatized, dealing with substance abuse and mental illness,” and, says Steinberg, need ready access to counselors and medical services.
Steinberg’s proposal will likely impact homelessness in Sacramento, and maybe in points further afield, over the coming years. But it’s unlikely to significantly alter the dynamic around homelessness in the short term. And it’s in the short term, in the next seven weeks, that the future of Newsom’s governorship will be decided, as likely voters around California ponder Covid, fires, homelessness, and the myriad other issues affecting daily life in this vast state, and make their decisions on whether to vote to recall the governor.