Dan Walters: Prop 13, and a conflict 42 years in the making

Walters, Dan

Politicians and pundits — including this one — have given much attention to how the recall of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and his replacement by a Republican would affect state government.

Republicans hope that changing occupants of the Capitol’s corner office would be a rebirth of relevance for their beleaguered party. The leading GOP candidate, talk show host Larry Elder, feeds that hope with all sorts of promises about what he would do as governor to change the state’s political course.

Democrats point to Elder and his promises as a doomsday scenario that threatens all that they hold dear, from abortion rights and greenhouse gas controls to medical care for undocumented immigrants.

The hopes and fears expressed by both sides, of course, are playing to their voter bases, seeking to motivate them to cast ballots. The reality is that were Elder or any other Republican to replace Newsom, he could have very little impact in the remaining 15 or so months of the governor’s term.

As pointed out previously in this space, Democrats hold three-quarters of the Legislature’s seats and could easily thwart any major moves by a GOP governor while continuing to pass legislation, including a state budget, over his vetoes.

He (all of the major Republican contenders are male) could issue proclamations, pardon state prison inmates, appoint judges to vacancies and fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, but that’s about it without approval from a hostile, Democrat-dominated Legislature.

In some respects, the most intriguing impact of a recall would be on Newsom’s political career, which at one time seemed destined to include a bid for the White House.

His recall, if it happens, would result from a low turnout of Democratic voters and a high turnout of anti-Newsom Republicans. However, in the public at large and among all registered voters, he still enjoys fairly strong support, recent polling has found.

That anomaly suggests that Newsom could, if he wishes, simply turn around and run for a second term in 2022 with a strong probability of success. Thus, Newsom could still be governor until 2027, but even so, his pathway to the White House remains uncertain.

President Joe Biden probably will run for re-election in 2024, and if he doesn’t, Vice President Kamala Harris would be the presumptive favorite, at least among Democrats. If Newsom is serious about seeking the presidency, therefore, he would need a parking place to await an opening in 2028 or beyond.

Newsom has climbed California’s political ladder rung-by-rung and the next logical step, given the current Democratic hold on the White House, would be the Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein for the last three decades.

Feinstein’s seat will be up in 2024 and it’s reasonable to assume that at 91, she would not seek another six-year term. It’s even possible that she would retire early, particularly if Republicans recapture control of the Senate in 2022.

Logically, therefore, if Newsom is recalled this year, he should hope that Feinstein sticks around at least for another year, preventing a GOP governor from naming her successor. As either a re-elected governor or a popular ex-governor, he could then run for her seat in 2024.

It’s the same scenario that confronted Newsom’s quasi-uncle, Jerry Brown, in 1982. As governor, he had already run for the White House twice, and needed a Senate seat to keep his presidential hopes alive, but lost to Republican Pete Wilson.

Newsom needs to succeed where Brown failed, or probably kiss his presidential ambitions goodbye.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's state Capitol works and why it matters. Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers.

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