How the recall election of California Governor Gavin Newsom came to be

ByLiz Kreutz KGO logo
Tuesday, September 14, 2021
How the recall election of Gov. Newsom came to be
A sitting California Governor has only ever been successfully recalled once. Will Gavin Newsom be the next? ABC7 anchor Liz Kreutz explains how the Golden State came to this rare politic point.

SAN FRANCISCO -- California's gubernatorial recall election is now just days away. Governor Gavin Newsom faces losing his job as more than 40 candidates look to replace him. All California voters had been mailed a ballot and so far millions have been returned. But how did we get here?

When did the recall begin

This recall effort began well over a year ago, in February of 2020, before the Coronavirus pandemic. But like everything else since March of 2020 the pandemic has reshaped the course of the recall effort.

LIVE: Latest recall election results

Who started this recall and why?

Orrin Heatley, a retired Sheriff Sergeant with the Yolo County Sheriff's Department began the recall petition. Heatley deeply disagrees with Governor Newsom's position on immigration and his decision to put a moratorium on the death penalty.

Heatley's once longshot campaign, gained steam during the COVID-19 pandemic fueled by frustrations over Governor Newsom's stay at home order and overall handling of the pandemic.

But what really made the recall effort explode was Governor Newsom's infamous mask-free appearance fundraising dinner at the Napa Valley restaurant, at the same time that he was telling the rest of the state to stay home.

RELATED: California recall election: Everything you need to know about the race against Gov. Gavin Newsom

"The French Laundry thing definitely gave notoriety to what we're doing," said Heately.

"There's one thing people don't tolerate. And it doesn't matter what side of the political spectrum you're on. Nobody likes to see hypocrisy in their government officials."

That French Laundry dinner combined with a judge's ruling that same month that gave the recall organizers extra time to gather signatures because of the pandemic gave the recall effort the boost it needed to seal the deal.

By the state's deadline in March, 1.7 million signatures had been gathered roughly 200,000 more than the amount needed to qualify.

RELATED: Bay Area early voting centers open with 'strong turnout' ahead of California's recall election

A sitting California Governor has only been successfully recalled once before back in 2003 when Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by republican challenger Arnold Schwarzenegger. That race was captured in the ABC7 Originals documentary 'Total Recall(ed): The story of America's largest, wildest recall election.'

Weaving together new, insider stories and archival video, several key players from the 2003 recall election of Governor Gray Davis look back at this one-of-a-kind political moment: Why it happened and what happened once it qualified.

Hear from former Governor Gray Davis, former Lt. Governor and gubernatorial candidate Cruz Bustamante, Recall Davis petition founder Ted Costa, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's communications director Rob Stutzman, former Davis press secretary Steve Maviglio, historian Barry Bradford and journalist Phil Matier. You'll also hear from two former citizen candidates: former adult film star Mary Carey and college student Daniel Watts, who ran using money he won on "Wheel of Fortune."

Stream this documentary on your TV

Download the ABC7 Bay Area app on Roku, AppleTV, Amazon FireTV or AndroidTV. Just search for "ABC7 Bay Area" and download our free app.

The race to election day

After the recall qualified, a date was set: Tuesday, September 14th.

As Newsom campaigned across the state -- visiting union halls and cleaning up homeless encampments -- he was backed by Democratic heavyweights.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar joined him for campaign events. President Joe Biden announced he would join Newsom on Monday, the day before the election.

Former President Barack Obama and Senators Warren and Bernie Sanders also appeared in television ads against the recall.

RELATED: VP Harris campaigns for Gov. Newsom in Bay Area

Meantime, more than 40 candidates had jumped in the race to be Newsom's replacement. Roughly half of them Republicans, including celebrity transgender athlete and businesswoman Caitlyn Jenner, former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer and San Diego businessman John Cox -- who ran against Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial race and became most known during this year's race for using a giant, live bear as a political prop.

The bear quickly took a back seat. Nearly overnight, conservative talk show host Larry Elder emerged as the GOP frontrunner.

Within weeks, Elder started gathering large crowds of support at rallies across the state, touting that he would revoke all mask and vaccine mandates if he were to become governor.

As Elder gained traction, promoting issues like school choice and promising to crack down on crime, he became Newsom's foil for all that's wrong with the recall effort.

"He is to the right of Donald Trump, to the right of Donald Trump," Newsom said at a campaign event in San Francisco.

RELATED: In final week, CA recall election comes down to race between Gov. Newsom and Larry Elder

GOP candidate Kevin Faulconer also took aim at Elder, at one point calling on him to drop out of the race over comments he's made about women and allegations of domestic violence from his ex-fiancé.

Elder, who denied those accusations on Twitter, could not respond directly to Faulconer because he never agreed to debate. He said he only would if Newsom did. Mostly, the debate consisted of the other top polling candidates, but just once Kevin Paffrath -- one of the nine Democrats on the ballot -- joined, too.

Paffrath -- a real estate investor from Ventura, Calif. who made millions on his "Meet Kevin" YouTube channel -- pitching himself as a candidate with out of the box ideas. He said as governor he would work to build a pipeline from the Mississippi river to California to help solve the water crisis.

Overall, the recall election has come amid a very challenging and uncertain time for Californians. There are the wildfires, the drought, crime, homelessness all taking their toll. But at the heart of it all is the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Many voters ultimately said they supported Newsom because of his support for mask and vaccine mandates.

In the end, the very issue that led to the recall election, became the same issue that Newsom hoped would help him defeat it.

"The Republicans want to walk off the same covid cliff as DeSantis and those folks in the other red states," Newsom said at a campaign rally in the final days of the race. "This race is about life and death, it's not exaggerating. This race is about life and death."

You can also watch a live special presentation of 'Total Recall(ed)' on Saturday September 11, 2021 on ABC7 News from 10-11pm.