Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that the state will fully reopen on June 15. Screenshot: Kate Selig/MISSION LOCAL
Gov. Gavin Newsom at an April press conference. Screenshot by Kate Selig

On Sept. 14, the people of the state of California will participate in an up-or-down vote on our governor, deciding whether to fish or cut bait on Gavin Christopher Newsom. 

We are also being asked to potentially replace him with a straight-to-video-caliber cast of zanies, sociopaths and zany sociopaths. The notion of retaining Newsom or handing the keys to a buffoon selected by a small sliver of the population is sickening. Once again, Newsom has positioned himself as the favorable alternative in a political Stalingrad. 

The stakes are high — for Newsom, for California and, considering the mortality of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for everyone. That’s new. But the scenario Newsom has created for himself (and dragged his constituents into) is markedly not new. Once again, he’s imperiled himself politically with a misstep that exposed his political Achilles heel of aloofness and unrelatability. Once again, the nation’s wealthiest people will lead the charge to fiscally bail him out. And, once again, he figures to massively outspend an opponent who terrifies his backers, but perhaps win only marginally. 

And that last one is the multi-million-dollar (and counting) question. Recent polling has, finally, started to break Newsom’s way. Ballot return patterns indicate his ouster is not particularly likely; there are simply too many Democrats in this state for that, and most of us are habituated to sending back our mail-in ballots. But considering the fund-raising chasm between the sitting governor and his motley band of challengers, for this election to even be in doubt is embarrassing. 

Newsom could win handily, and claim some manner of redemption. Or he could lose, despite making the politically sound but ethically dubious decision to urge voters to skip voting for a potential replacement. Or, perhaps most likely, he could win by a small margin and emerge as the politically depleted leader of a state that’s on fire and facing burning issues regarding homelesness, inequity and crime; he’ll have expended a massive effort to not lose, have gained nothing, and find himself vulnerable to a non-zany, non-sociopath challenger in 2022. 

But that’s the future. For now, let’s focus on Newsom’s present, which eerily resembles his past. 

Matt Gonzalez in 2019. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Matt Gonzalez and Larry Elder are Newsom’s election opponents in 2003, and in the present, respectively. They are also similar in that they both inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Beyond that, it gets dicey. 

Gonzalez, presently the chief attorney in the public defender’s office, gave Newsom damn near everything he — and his wealthy, wealthy backers — could handle in the 2003 San Francisco mayoral race. Elder is a strident, Libertarian radio-show host whose retrograde social views and out-and-out misogyny may well appeal to enough voters to win a recall in which a challenger can eke out a victory with a bare plurality. 

Their personal similarities begin and end with respiration and the like. But the situation of Gavin Newsom vs. The Abyss is a familiar one. 

Gonzalez was, and is, the living embodiment of the San Francisco bohemian ideal. As District 5 supervisor, he held well-lubricated art parties in his City Hall office; he cut-and-pasted elaborate collages; he’s cool and hip, everything Newsom was — and is — not. 

As a longtime member of the Green Party (though, presently, independent), Gonzalez is light years politically from the Trumpist Elder. But, for Newsom’s establishment backers, he inspired much the same reaction: abject horror. The city’s powers-that-be were facing the very real possibility that their boy from District 2 was going to lose the mayor’s race to a guy who had “Smash the State” spray-painted on the wall of his government office.

“Everyone was terrified Gonzalez was gonna win,” former Newsom apparatchik Frank Gallagher told me in 2014. This was an existential threat for Newsom’s backers, and they ponied up accordingly. 

Newsom’s campaign raised and spent some $6 million on a mayor’s race, a number that swells to roughly $10 million when you factor in the so-called “Independent Expenditure Committees.” Gonzalez spent around $1 million. Newsom outpolled him, 52.8 to 47.2; had Gonzalez mounted a stronger vote-by-mail effort, he’d likely have won.

And not only did the political establishment write out the big checks for Newsom, they put in the effort: Both Al Gore and Bill Clinton appeared in San Francisco; we’re told they flew here on the Getty jet (or at least a Getty jet). On the day after the December election, Newsom campaign manager Jim Ross was woken up from a celebratory haze at 4:30 a.m. by a congratulatory phone call from Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe. 

He had helped raise heaps of money for Newsom in the race vs. a Green Party outsider (at a time when many were still incensed at the Green Party for its role in costing Gore the 2000 election). The Democratic Party, in fact, was allowed to spend unlimited funds on the 2003 mayoral race under the aegis of “communications to Democrats.” 

And they certainly “communicated” a lot. 

Fast-forwarding to the present, all of this is happening again. Gonzales, again, is not Elder. But the sheer terror of what would come to pass if Newsom’s opponent prevails — more so than any great love of Newsom — has led to a massive cash influx for the governor. To date, he’s raised scores of millions of dollars, more than double the combined take of his small army of opponents. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren will be here to stump alongside Newsom; but for the recent Kabul terror bombing, Vice President Kamala Harris would have already done so. President Joe Biden may yet  make an appearance. 

So, we’ve seen this before: Newsom was behind in the polls vs. Gonzalez, too, until a terror-driven cavalcade of cash and a concerted national effort led to that 53-47 victory. Newsom’s backers would probably be thrilled to stave off the recall by an identical tally, despite massively outspending all foes — and blowing through enough money to buy a fighter jet. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom joins city workers in a homeless encampment street sweep on 19th Street near Mission and Capp streets. Photo by Annika Hom, Aug. 27, 2021.

Newsom’s opponents have, in many ways, been more of a factor in his political ascent than he has. And the same may go for his forthcoming political survival. 

Three years ago, Newsom actually engineered such a situation. During the Democratic primary, his campaign sent out texts noting that John Cox was Trump’s preferred candidate, thereby incentivizing Republicans to vote for Cox in California’s open primary, setting up a runoff vs. a vulnerable Republican rather than Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa. 

Boy, it sure does help to have access to wads of cash; it’s better to be rich and famous than poor and unknown. And, this was smart politically, but selfish and ethically questionable. The chances of Cox winning were always de minimis. You could argue this was an acceptable risk: But there was, now, a risk of a Republican winning the governorship where none need be. 

In 2021, the risk is far more substantial. And yet, to preserve his political future, Newsom and his backers staved off any viable Democrats from running as a backup and are urging voters to skip the second part of the election and choose no potential replacement. 

This is, again, politically smart. The recall is a farce; while Newsom’s colossal misstep in attending a fancy party during the height of the pandemic breathed life into it, its actual stated cause is the governor’s supposed preference of “foreign nationals” over red-blooded Amuricans and other such claptrap. But, with that said, there are plenty of liberal-to-moderate voters who’d probably jump at the chance to dump Newsom in favor of any half-bright Democrat to keep the lights on until the 2022 general election. 

But now, that can’t happen. Newsom’s strategy has been to remind voters what would be taken away if he were gone rather than what he’s given while he’s here. His campaign slogan might as well be, “après moi, le déluge.” 

How fitting for an aficionado of the French Laundry. 

You could do worse…

Newsom’s monumental faux pas at that restaurant — appearing, maskless, for a lavish birthday party when most Californians were locked down and struggling — has been used as the latest example of our handsome, ambitious governor’s kryptonite: He’s just not likable.   

That’s true. That’s always been true. But it goes deeper than that. Newsom has, once again, reminded voters that he’s Gavin Newsom and they’re not. He’s rolling around on the Getty’s carpet in their opulent abode: You’re not. He’s leaving the house and attending a fancy party: You’re not. 

It’s this — a rank elitism and a lack of empathy — that’s the problem, more so than simply not being “likable.” 

And that’s who Newsom is, and has been. He doesn’t pretend to be an everyman because he’s not an everyman. He’s an odd bird who seems more comfortable speaking to 50,000 people than one person; he’s the guy who nonsensically drops Tony Robbins pablum or apropos-of-nothing Grateful Dead quotes into rapid-fire, aphorism-laden speeches in which he begins to resemble a revivalist preacher; he’s the guy who, somehow, thought it was a good idea to hold a 7.5-hour State of the City address.     

Newsom’s winning combination of ready access to rivers of cash and being better than a toxic garbage fire have gotten him this far. But, it seems likely, we have reached his political terminus. 

Newsom has wagered his political future against the existential future of every Californian. Let us hope he wins. 

And, then: Cashes out.   

This article was originally published Sept. 2, 2021

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Let’s try someone different to help save California, I have prayed for all of us republicans, democrats and independents. What other choice do we have. All the lies from our Biden and Harris and the rest of the swamp people. Let’s take this chance for everyone of us.

  2. I could not agree with you more Michael, he is destroying CA. I hope he gets voted OUT of office. I am also an independent and almost every Democrat I know is voting him OUT as well. He is a joke and doing a very bad job. He needs to GO!!

  3. Newsom is an incompetent boob. He runs the state the same way the boobs that run our city. They listen to the most extreme left voices that in no way represent the middle class who pay the bills., and accomplish nothing. He plans on spending 15 billion dollars for homeless people while the state burns down around him. How about we spend 15 billion to send these junkies back to where they came from? He claims this is a Republican recall. Joke! I’m an independent and I know plenty of Democrats that couldn’t wait to receive their ballots and vote this rich dunce out of office . Can’t wait!

    1. Amen,
      I’m a registered democrat and want him out.
      During the covid crisis, I had a lot of issues with my business etc.
      I was willing to offer solutions along with our local heath commissioner. I never got a response, I called and called his office.
      Finally in my last e mail to his office, I said “You Will Never Be Elected To Another Public Office Ever Again”
      He does not hold democratic values. Do you know how much Fracking he has allowed in California since he had been in office? And the list goes on and on.
      Do you know who he took to lunch at the French Laundry? A lobbyist. And it wasn’t someone who does good things for the environment.
      Disappointed Democrat

  4. I’m new enough here to have not know of Matt Gonzales, is 2003, I was across the Bay in Berkeley.

    A simple google search informs me that in 2019 he was all in for Chesa, but in 2021 is silent on the man. I thought that telling, though of what I’m not certain.

    Thanks for this post, it’s good to know some of my opinions were right, some wrong, and to fill in the political backstories

  5. This is an interesting inside-baseball commentary. What I am still missing, and it seems this remains the problem with many political commentators, is the real question; is Gavin Newsom doing a good job as Governor? Are his policies doing any good for the state? Is the budget surplus being used wisely? Did he save lives when he shut down our schools and churches? Not only is that not part of this article, but it’s also not really even part of the debate.

    1. Sean — 

      As noted in the story, at this point we are being asked for an up-or-down vote on Newsom and then to replace him with these candidates and only these candidates.

      His performance to date is surely a factor in people’s minds, but as the story makes resplendently clear, the overriding factor is his future performance relative to the candidates we have to choose from.



      1. Man, Joe, I have always liked your work. But what kind of response is that? Hey, he’s done a hald-decent job as Gov, I could bore you with all kinds of numbers, but no one cares, and Republicans certainly don’t so let’s get back to me column hook. Dude. Cmon. Do better.

      2. Joe – I think I would have appreciated your article the day after the election because as you point out, the list of candidates on the ballot to replace Newsom is a joke. While I can agree with your story’s overall sentiment, I don’t think that taking any wind out of Newsom’s sails right now is going to get California a governer that will not – at best – be ineffectual (which given the list of things we are dealing with right now is actually destructive), and at worst imbecilic (ditto). Now is the time to protect our state from one of the most undemocratic political weapons in the arsenal of political weapons. Like playing Russian Roulette with a Kelechnekoff – either the gun jams or every bullet is as bad as the next.

  6. For all his flaws Newsom did break open the floodgates for Same-Sex marriage running against the very party bosses who thought he was committing political suicide and endangering the party. For that I will put up with his aristocratic style. I agree that he will face another Democrat in 2022 if he and we survive the needless recall.

  7. I’ve been calling my friends all over the bay areas to vote no on recall and they said we already did . Loving my group of accountants. There is no way that we will vote to hipocrites Republicans. We love this democratic state so much! GOD bless Californians!

  8. Ah, typical de rigeur San Francisco Newsom dismissal. Like it or not, until Citizens United is overturned (which is highly unlikely to ever happen), your value as a politician lies in your ability to raise cash. Do you seriously think Matt Gonzalez would be able to raise cash on a national level? That guy can’t even raise enough cash to get a haircut. And who cares if a politician is ‘likeable’ or not? Can you imagine what California would be like right now if we had a Republican governor?

  9. Mr. Eskenazi fully understands the behavior and personality of the governor but he utterly fails to comprehend the “threat” of the primary Republican opponent. Part of the problem is simply vocabulary. He confuses possible male chauvinism with a world view that includes hatred of and a desire to demean and harm members of the female sex. Surely,on his more rational days, he realizeshis claim ispreposterous.

  10. I was so pissed when this qualified for the ballot and then relieved when I realized all I had to do was vote NO and mail it back thus keeping my streak of never having voted for Gavin Newsome for anything. Do I want Larry Elder, Caitlyn Jenner, or esteemed orator (nice link, Joe – Go Giants!) Aubrey Huff running the world’s 5th largest economy? HELL NO. Would I have ever voted for Gavin to do the same, also HELL NO.
    So here we are. My HELL NO ballot has been received and counted and I too hope that the Democrats find a way to run someone else for the most important Governorship in the nation come 2022. It’s important, but it should also be a slam dunk. But I look and see how the Democrats handled one of the more important Senate seats in 2018, which was also a slam dunk, and – well…. Go Giants