‘I barely know what the recall is’: central California voters puzzle over crucial vote

The outcome of the state’s upcoming election could be decided by voters who are exhausted over the prospect of choosing a candidate

With California’s gubernatorial recall election just a week away, the most populous US state is poised for a potential political upheaval.

But just a 45-minute drive south of the governor’s office in Sacramento, at a quiet coffee shop in downtown Stockton, Mike Sicari and Esther Taylor had gathered over a game of chess and tried to mostly put politics out of mind.

“I just don’t want to involve myself in it. I have enough on my plate as it is,” said Sicari, 26, who doesn’t plan on voting. Taylor, 24, is planning to cast a ballot. “Unfortunately,” she said with a laugh.

Like many other residents in California’s Central Valley, both believed governor Gavin Newsom, and pretty much every other politician in the state’s capitol, had forsaken cities like theirs – which, after years of underinvestment, had endured the brunt of the pandemic. But the prospect of choosing between Newsom and 46 replacement candidates they barely knew felt “exhausting”, Taylor said.

“It’s like, you go to a restaurant and get asked, ‘What piece of shit do you want today?’” Sicari added.

Communities up and down California’s sprawling, agricultural heartland have historically served as a conservative counterbalance to the state’s urban, liberal coast. And although an increasingly diverse electorate has in recent years trended Democratic, the region remains a political Pollock painting – a splatter board of ideologies.

The recall effort was sparked here, spearheaded by a retired sheriff’s sergeant from Yolo county, just north of Stockton. And its outcome could ultimately be decided here: by the fervent group that wants to remove the governor and by the resigned or apathetic scores of voters who may sit out the election altogether.

‘What are they doing to help us?’

Regardless of who they planned to vote for, many voters in Central Valley cities such as Stockton, Lodi, Clovis, and Fresno did appear to agree that California’s political machine had largely forgotten about them as they were battered by the pandemic, its economic fallout, and its erosion of their daily lives.

Sicari had worked as a funeral assistant last year, amid the worst of the coronavirus surge. Taylor worked as an essential employee at a grocery store. Both of them supported coronavirus restrictions and masking requirements that the governor has championed. But overall, they said, they felt Newsom had done little for their communities.

The official ballot for the California gubernatorial recall election.
The official ballot for the California gubernatorial recall election. Photograph: Rishi Deka/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

As he finished munching tacos at a Stockton shopping mall, Daron Maxie, 36, said he felt his vote “is not going to matter”. All he has seen from elected leaders including Newsom, who took office 2018, are “broken promises and no progress”, he said. The governor, Maxie said, is “just a person on TV”.

The recall process in itself had confounded many. Darlín Meza, 21, was still trying to work out how they’ll vote. At the county registrar’s office in Stockton, Meza was accompanying a friend who wanted to double check her voter registration. “There are definitely things that frustrate me about the governor,” Meza said. “But beyond that, I’m not yet sure how to vote.”

Meza, a college student, said there’s been a lack of outreach from politicians and elected officials to voters like them, their friends, and fellow students about the recall process and how it works. Despite working at a local community organization that runs outreach efforts, they said, “I barely know what the recall is.”

“We love our city,” they added. “But a lot of politicians just look at us as a place that’s basically ghetto and dangerous. But what are they doing to help us? What are they doing to improve education?”

Newsom’s fate is in the hands of voters such as Meza. Although recent polls give the governor a slight advantage, they also show that progressive and Democratic voters are less motivated to vote than the conservatives who want to oust the governor. A recent CBS News poll found that 72% of Republican voters were “very motivated” to participate in the recall, while just 61% of Democrats felt the same.

And the state’s peculiar recall process has baffled many voters who are encountering it for the first time. The ballot asks two questions: first, should the governor be recalled? And, if so, who should replace him? If more than 50% vote yes on the first question, the candidate with plurality in question two becomes governor. That means that even if 49.9% of voters oppose the recall, he could be replaced by a candidate earning far fewer votes.

Larry Elder is the Republican frontrunner in California’s recall election.
Larry Elder is the Republican frontrunner in California’s recall election. Photograph: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock

With no major Democrats on the ballot, some have had to weigh their disappointment in the governor against the prospect of having an unknown, or untested challenger succeed him. Among Newsom’s dozens of opponents on the ballot are rightwing media personalities and oddball liberals or independents whose candidate statements read “Can you dig it?” or “love u”.

“My big problem is with how the whole process works,” said Stockton resident John Fridrich, 65, who was undecided on the recall. “I’m not a fan of Gavin, but I’m not necessarily in favor of having a guy like Larry Elder as governor.”

Elder, a rabble-rousing, rightwing radio host, is the Republican frontrunner in the race, leading the polls among replacement candidates with just 18% support.

Tim Otto, 71, who owns Mr Otto’s Books, a children’s bookshop along Stockton’s Miracle Mile shopping district, had already voted by mail, against the recall largely for that reason. “Look, personally, Newsom is not my kind of guy. He’s a little smarmy for my taste,” he said. But he’s done a fine job as governor, Otto added or at the very least, he hasn’t done anything impeachable.

To try to recall Newsom just a year before he faces reelection, for no clear reason, “is just stupid and a waste of money”, he said.

‘Will it be another Texas?’

The fear of a rightwing turn in California politics has shaken Lizeth Calderon, 23, of Merced. Calderon, who is undocumented, cannot vote. But with many of Newsom’s opponents vowing to roll back immigrant rights, healthcare access and environmental protections, they are phone banking against the recall with the progressive advocacy organization PowerCA Action.

“I haven’t always felt listened to,” they said, and seeing political leaders hesitate to advocate for working-class Latino families like theirs has been discouraging. But Newsom has at least paid some heed to young activists, Calderon said, and supported measures to expand healthcare access for undocumented immigrants and provide funds to undocumented workers. Should any of his Republican challengers take office, it would amount to a disastrous and “direct attack on progress”.

Frustrations over school closures and the chaotic process of reopening classrooms is another major driver in the race, among voters of both parties.

Maxie, who has a senior in high school, said he’s been terrified about sending her back to class. Kids aren’t great about wearing masks, he said – an issue that has deeply divided parents and teachers in the region. But at the same time, he’s seen how much her grades have picked up since she went back. “It’s just scary,” he said. “It’s tough.”

California kept classrooms closed to its 6 million public school students for longer than other hard-hit states such as New York and Massachusetts, and the reopening process was prolonged by bitter bickering between parents and teachers’ unions.

Lorena Trejo, 50, who voted against the recall, said the prolonged school closures were tough for her high school daughter – but she’s glad the state erred on the side of safety. “Newsom did his best to keep California safe,” she said.

Over an after-school snack at Stockton’s Weberstown Mall with her 10th grader, Trejo said the pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for the governor and continues to be. “I’m worried that if he is recalled, whoever replaces him will turn the state into another Texas,” she said.

Signs in favor of the recall are displayed at a rally in Carlsbad in June.
Signs in favor of the recall are displayed at a rally in Carlsbad in June. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

Meanwhile, recall supporters said they were ready to move their families to Texas over school closures. Charles and Denise Johnson, parents to a fifth-grader, second-grader, and preschooler said the past year of juggling their jobs and childcare had been deeply frustrating. Their children had trouble focusing on online classes and had fallen behind. And while the public schools that their two older kids attend remained shuttered, they argued, the governor admitted to sending his four kids back to private school classrooms. “It’s insulting,” Denise Johnson said.

The Johnsons, who live in Clovis, support Elder – who has vowed to repeal vaccine and mask requirements across the state if elected, and has made false claims that children would not benefit from vaccines.

So does Alex Reyna, 39, of Fresno, who has been disheartened that even after schools reopened this year, kids are regularly being sent home to quarantine after being exposed to the virus, even if they are asymptomatic – leaving him and his wife scrambling for childcare. Parents should have more power to decide whether their kids get to go to class, whether they have to wear masks or get vaccines, he said. “I can’t put up with this much longer,” he said.


Maanvi Singh in Stockton, California

The GuardianTramp

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