By next week, opponents of California Governor Gavin Newsom will almost certainly have gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot either in the late summer or autumn of this year.
It’s a bizarre state of affairs, to say the least: In a state that has defined itself as a liberal bastion in a country roiled by conservative upheavals, a quintessentially liberal governor with a surprisingly ambitious agenda is at serious risk of being recalled. What makes it more disconcerting is that the effort to recall him has become nationalized, with Trumpites not only in California but around the country seizing on Newsom’s decline in popularity at the tail end of a year of pandemic shutdowns, and looking to score a shock upset in the heart of blue America.
It’s not as if California’s GOP has had a kumbaya moment and is now tacking to the moderate middle—quite the reverse. The handful of GOP Congress members from California include such luminaries as Devon Nunes and Kevin McCarthy, who have continued to hew closely to Trump’s paranoid script. The leading GOP candidate to replace Newsom is former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, who, while he pitches himself as a get-things-done pragmatist, failed to break with Trump during the 2020 election, even as Trump veered further rightward and preached ever-more-destructive conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the state GOP has been roiled with infighting over infiltration efforts by the Proud Boys and other extremist, street-fighting groups and individuals.
There is, clearly, a lot at stake in this recall election, not just around whether the GOP can rehabilitate itself after its shameful embrace of Trump and his efforts to overturn the election results—or, on the other hand, around the sitting governor’s pandemic response. More generally, a host of big-picture social justice themes, from the notion of a wealth tax—gaining steam among progressive legislators in California—to the idea of universalizing health care by expanding MediCal to include the undocumented, will effectively be on the ballot during the recall election.
Also among the social justice themes on the line are a series of ongoing efforts to reform California’s policing and criminal justice systems.
Despite its liberal veneer, California is one of only four states not to have a decertification process locked into law for police officers found to have used excessive force. It also has, in raw numbers, the highest number of fatal police shootings in the country, at between 100 and 200 per year, with a higher number of such shootings per capita than the national average. In short, for far too many years, California’s police agencies have operated with a dangerous, and frequently lethal, sense of impunity.
Newsom has pledged to introduce greater accountability and more of an emphasis on racial justice into California policy discussions. And, in recent months, a broad coalition of reformers have pushed him to sign legislation that will tackle this crisis.
Last year, state legislators passed a bill, which Newsom did sign, mandating that the state, rather than local DAs, investigate all fatal police encounters with unarmed civilians.
Now, state Senator Steven Bradford, who represents a district in Los Angeles, is pushing forward SB 2, which would create a civilian oversight commission to investigate, and potentially decertify, rogue police officers who use excessive force against civilians. The bill would address a recurring problem, where officers frequently leave one department under a cloud only to get hired on by another police department within the state.
At a recent press conference, a coalition of SB 2 supporters explained the purpose of the legislation. Farzia Almarou, her head covered by a wide-rimmed black hat adorned with a red ribbon, talked of how her son was gunned down by police in mid-afternoon in a city park in Gardenia, in the spring of 2018. The officer who shot her son in the back, she said, had previously killed three other suspects. “This officer has never been held accountable.”
Rocio Zamora, of the California Stop Coalition, described, in painful detail, how in early 2017 her cousin was shot in the back 16 times by an officer in San Diego. “The police have not protected us,” she concluded. “Rather, they have been the perpetrators of violence.”
Leticia Barron, from the city of Riverside, talked of how her mentally ill son was shot in the head two weeks before his 27th birthday by a police officer with nine previous allegations against him of excessive use of force.
The police associations and unions oppose SB 2, and other law enforcement agencies are also likely to come out against it. If Newsom is replaced before SB 2 passes, it’s unlikely a GOP governor would sign it into law. More generally, a swing to the right in California gubernatorial politics would likely be a death knell for systemic criminal justice reform in the state. After years of bipartisan “tough on crime” legislation, the state is finally getting serious about introducing a politics of inclusion and of racial justice to the law-and-order conversation. It would be a tragedy if the recall campaign were to derail this.