OAKLAND, Calif. — This was supposed to be the year California progressives got back on track.
Democratic proposals on single-payer health care, Medicaid for all undocumented immigrants and wealth taxes went nowhere as Gov. Gavin Newsom urged restraint during his first two years in office, especially during the pandemic.
As a recall election now looms, the left flank may get sidelined again as Newsom tries to survive a gauntlet of opposition from Republicans while keeping business interests at bay.
The Democratic governor has an unexpected balancing act in his third year in office. Doubling down on progressive priorities could energize his party’s base, but he has to avoid alienating centrists and giving fodder to opponents eager to portray him as an overreaching liberal.
Newsom has already moved to quell progressive unrest by securing endorsements from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Still, some liberal Democrats see this as a ripe opportunity to push Newsom further, especially with California’s budget coffers reaching record heights.
“I always tell progressives our support isn’t free. We should hold accountable our elected officials who say they support health care for all,” said freshman Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-Milpitas), who’s sponsoring both a universal health care bill and the wealth tax proposal. “I think [Newsom] has a duty to energize his progressive base.”
The threat of a recall is likely to overshadow Sacramento policymaking all year, and a fall recall election would come shortly after Newsom signs or vetoes a flurry of bills. His choices could reverberate at the ballot box.
Progressives are renewing their pushes to create a single-payer health care system, extend Medicaid coverage to undocumented immigrants and rein in oil and gas drilling. They also argue the pandemic has strengthened the case for more worker protections and a wealth tax. And some aren’t pulling punches for fear of giving recall proponents more ammunition to use against Newsom.
“We can’t step back from this important agenda item just because it might be politically inconvenient,” said Joe Sanberg, an investor and activist campaigning for the wealth tax. “If the governor delivers for those people living on the knife edge, the chances he’ll be rehired go up.”
Newsom has called the recall a distraction and said he remains single-mindedly focused on defeating the coronavirus and reinvigorating California’s economy. But state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) said he expects the governor’s advisers to carefully weigh what policy achievements to tout as they make a case to voters.
“A lot of that has to be decided in the context of surviving another day as governor,” he said. “You’re going to look at polling and see if Republican votes really matter.”
But there is some disagreement among progressives who are weighing how to wield the recall. While some on the left dream of an opportunity to replace Newsom with a more liberal alternative, elected Democrats have warned such a gamble could backfire drastically.
“I would say to those that see this as some kind of opportunity to sneak in a progressive in the governor’s mansion, that’s part of the trap Republicans are hoping we’ll fall into, quite frankly,” said Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), co-author of the health care bill.
Environmentalists are already fuming this year after a priority bill that would have banned fracking in California died this week in the Legislature. Moderate Democrats joined with Republicans in blocking the measure in a Senate committee, and some environmentalists have already begun blaming Newsom.
The governor last fall asked state lawmakers to send him a fracking ban, but that was well before the recall became a real possibility. Newsom said this year he still supported the idea; environmentalists, however, say he did nothing to muscle it through the Capitol, and some suspect he preferred to avoid having to deal with a matter opposed by major business interests — and by his allies in labor.
“Governor Newsom got exactly what he wanted with the outcome of this vote,” Food & Water Watch California director Alexandra Nagy said in a statement. “He sent a fracking ban to the legislature knowing that the oil lobby would easily kill it. He was counting on it. If Newsom wants to be a real climate leader, he needs to take the mantle up himself and enact 2,500 foot setbacks and ban fracking immediately.”
Environmentalists and labor unions represent key bastions of support for Newsom, but they have increasingly been at odds over California’s climate agenda, forcing the governor to balance his commitment to phasing out fossil fuels with preserving unionized jobs in the energy industry.
“I expect that my labor clients will be all in to defeat the recall,” said Scott Wetch, a lobbyist representing pipefitters and plumbers that opposed the oil drilling bill. “We’re going to talk to our members, we’re going to knock on hundreds and thousands of doors, we’re going to be there reminding people what’s at stake.”
Green groups are still hoping to resurrect the fracking ban and keeping pressure on the governor to put limits on how close drilling can occur to schools, homes and other sensitive sites.
“This is where his values and ethics are going to be shown,” said Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment community organizer Juan Flores. If Newsom distances himself from policies to limit fossil fuels, “then he is automatically recalling himself, because the remainder of his term, we already know what he’s going to do, which is trying to save his political career.”
During the state’s only gubernatorial recall election year in 2003, liberal Democrats succeeded in winning Gov. Gray Davis’ support for policies the centrist state executive previously rejected. That included driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, financial privacy requirements and additional rights for gay and lesbian partners.
Those moves, however, did not save Davis in the end. He was toppled by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action movie star who went on to serve two terms as governor — the last Republican to hold that office in California.
Democratic allies are hoping they can defend Newsom while still advancing their priorities. Last year, the governor vetoed a labor priority bill that would have compelled hospitality businesses to prioritize rehiring workers who lost work due to the coronavirus. A Southern California hospitality workers union excoriated Newsom at the time, saying “the most powerful elected Democrat in the state sided with the wealthy hotel owners” over “hardworking hotel workers.”
The Newsom administration has negotiated a narrower version of that measure that’s speeding through the legislative process.
“We’re not for [the] recall because it’s a terrible distraction,” said UNITE HERE Local 11 co-president Susan Minato said that “we’re going to do our part with making sure California stays with a Democratic governor.”
Single-payer health care will pose another test. Newsom entered office in 2019 on a pledge to pursue the health system overhaul, but settled for setting up a task force that year to examine the issue. During the 2020 pandemic, the Capitol went into a holding pattern and the budget looked gloomy, giving further reason to avoid discussing major changes.
This year, the first official committee opposing the recall was formed by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, a group that has focused on achieving single-payer. NUHW president Sal Rosselli said the effort served to both protect Newsom and to prod him on an unfulfilled campaign promise. “That’s the whole point, organizing progressive voters and donors in California in opposition to the recall and in support of our number one focus: Medicare for All,” Rosselli said.
While the left has been deliberate about telegraphing unity behind Newsom, lingering frustrations among some legislators have fueled questions about how vigorously allies will campaign for Newsom with efforts like union-driven voter turnout drives. Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), a stalwart union ally, argued labor would rally behind the governor while continuing to push for policies in Sacramento.
“Some people said the enthusiasm wasn’t going to be there for Biden. Some people said the enthusiasm wasn’t there for Jerry Brown,” Durazo said. “I’m not ignoring it, and when we get down into the campaign of course we have to think about enthusiasm, but I don’t think that’s the primary issue. The primary issue is what has the governor done in his two years with the pandemic.”
The recall’s effect might be felt long before bills get to Newsom’s desk, though, as lawmakers could save Newsom from having to make a tough choice.
Moderate Democrats have publicly opposed the wealth tax proposals, just as they did against the fracking ban. Skilled governors are able to stop bills from reaching their desk through legislative negotiations — and with support from Democratic legislative leaders playing the long game.
“I think it would be hard to be a Democratic politician in this state and not feel conscious of the recall in everything you’re doing,” said Kathryn Phillips, former director of Sierra Club California. “Not because you’re worried about yourself, but because you don’t want to put the governor in a position that will make him make somebody mad.”
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