SACRAMENTO – For nearly a year – as a pandemic raged, forest fires roared, as smoke choked the once pristine blue sky of Lake Tahoe – Governor Gavin Newsom had to simultaneously rule the state on more populated country and repel an attempted recall.
On Wednesday he emerged victorious – but still had multiple crises to contend with. Ninety percent of the state was in extreme drought. The median home price had eclipsed the $ 800,000. Some 100,000 people slept outside or in their cars at night. And more than 6 million public school children were struggling to catch up on the learning they had missed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hundreds of bills on his desk were waiting to be signed, including one to authorize duplexes in single-family neighborhoods across California and another enshrining the postal voting rules that helped him stay in office.
The resounding election rejection of the Republicans’ long-running attempt to oust Mr Newsom appeared to not only bolster him for re-election next year, but also give him a mandate. As the vote count continued on Wednesday, the recall was dismissed by around 2-1. The margin echoes the state’s Democratic-Republican split and the scale of Mr Newsom’s 2018 election, which was a landslide.
But what the governor can do with this mandate is not clear. The recall campaign has been long and confrontational, political experts say, and the state’s problems increasingly resist simple solutions. Many more straightforward challenges were met over the past year with a massive state surplus and a flood of pandemic aid from the Biden administration.
Now, while Mr Newsom has the advantage of a unified base, a Democratic qualified majority in the legislature, and state attention, what remains are issues that require much more. only money.
“These are problems that take time,” said Jerry Brown, who ruled the state for two eight-year terms in the 1970s and again from 2010 to 2018. “Reduce carbon emissions. Reverse inequality. To be able to reduce the crime rate. To deal with so many people who have so little that their lives and families are falling apart. “
The recall, Mr Brown said, was “loud and angry meaning very little” – a “costly blow” that in a few weeks “won’t be much more than a footnote.” But, he said, “Now it’s the bread and butter problem. And these are the same old problems that have been around for a long time in modern California. “
Mr Newsom offered few details during his campaign on how he would tackle these challenges, in part because of the tenor of the recall. Republican candidates seeking to replace him have presented the campaign as a referendum on him, from his handling of the homeless to rising urban crime rates and his decision to party at a luxury wine restaurant after asking Californians to stay home during the pandemic.
But except for his coronavirus policies, which have been pointed out as a potential national model, the governor has largely avoided making his agenda part of the recall discussion. Aiming to animate the state’s Democratic base in off-year special elections, he described the recall as a battle to save the country’s largest blue state from right-wing extremists and as part of a larger national war. against the division of former President Donald. J. Trump and the Republicans who admire him.
Outside of a victory party afterwards, he recognized the challenges that lay ahead, but withstood much elaboration.
“Let the dust settle,” he said.
At least part of the calculation will include next year’s regular governor election. While the governor is unlikely to face significant opposition, 2022 is an ordinary election year – a time when controversial legislation tends to be pushed aside.
“It will be interesting to see what he wants to focus on,” said Toni Atkins, president pro tempore of the California Senate, noting that much of the legislature will also campaign. Democrats’ dominance in the Senate and State Assembly masks an often unwieldy array of viewpoints – Bay Area progressives, Central Valley moderates, coastal environmentalists, job-oriented pragmatists.
The challenge was apparent even in county-by-county recall counts, with huge majorities for the governor in Democratic strongholds such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area, thinner margins in San Diego and County. Orange and much of the rural far north voting to replace it.
A remarkable sweep of legislation was quietly passed this year, even as the recall grabbed public attention, Ms Atkins said: preschool for all 4-year-olds in the state, stimulus checks for low- and middle-income people, health insurance for undocumented immigrants aged 50 and over.
But climate bills stalled, victims in many cases of the split between parts of the state that prioritize jobs and those that prioritize action on climate change.
She predicted that the governor would resume work on the priorities he had since the start of his administration, including affordable housing and early childhood education. But, she added, her victory also sharpened legislative ambitions.
The world’s fifth-largest economy and home to some 40 million people, California is known both for its generosity and for its epic flaws. He leads the nation like billionaires; when housing is factored in, it also has the highest level of poverty in the United States.
Its coastline is famous, but huge wildfires, burning up to a million acres, have become a terrifying annual event. A mega-drought has pushed up the price of agricultural water and tens of thousands of farms have reduced water rations.
According to experts, one of the obstacles to achieving ambitious political goals was a political lesson that emerged from the reminder: polarization pays.
Partisan rhetoric mobilized voters on both sides, offering Mr Newsom his victory and raising the profile of an otherwise withered Republican party. Any group that in the past might have been intimidated by the challenge of launching a statewide recall has learned that even a lost cause can disrupt an opponent for months, said Mark Baldassare, chairman of the Public Non-partisan Policy Institute of California.
But that is not necessarily conducive to governance, he added.
“This recall election has really just stirred the pot,” Baldassare said. “Will people find common ground? It’s going to be hard. “
Fernando Guerra, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said the governor had all the tools at his disposal to take bold action if he wanted – a supportive White House, a qualified legislative majority, a state surplus and billions of federal dollars in pandemic assistance. Leveraging these advantages could leave a legacy rivaling the state’s most iconic governors, he said, including Jerry Brown and his father, who ruled in the 1960s, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown.
“California will be well positioned for the most extraordinary two or three years of government and state innovation since the Pat Brown era – or California could be mired in political paralysis and doomed to gradual decline.” . And it will all depend on Gavin Newsom, ”he said.
“If crises are opportunities, then this is the greatest opportunity a sitting governor in America will ever have.”
Thomas Fuller contributed reporting from Sacramento.