Chris Aadland
Indian Country Today

With California voters set to decide whether to keep Gov. Gavin Newsom in office on Tuesday, Indian Country isn’t standing on the sidelines.

Voters will decide in a special recall election whether to remove the first-term Democratic governor from office and replace him with one of dozens of candidates.

California is one of 20 states that have provisions to recall a sitting governor, 19 through elections. The state law establishing the rules goes back to 1911 and was intended to give more power to voters by allowing them to remove elected officials and repeal or pass laws by placing them on the ballot.

Recall attempts are common in the state, but they rarely get on the ballot and even fewer succeed. The only time a governor was recalled was 2003, when Democrat Gray Davis was removed and voters replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Among this year’s voters will be Indigenous people in the state, which is home to 109 federally recognized tribes. Through public statements and campaign donations, some of those tribes have signaled support for Newsom.

One of those tribes is the Redding Rancheria in northern California. While she said sentiment among Indigenous people seems split, Redding Rancheria CEO Tracy Edwards said the tribe favors keeping Newsom in office because he already has a solid understanding of tribal affairs in the state.

“If you look at any of the list of candidates in the recall we're basically starting back at ground zero, teaching our elected officials about tribes. None of them have any history with tribes. I can't tell that any of them have spoken on any tribal issues,” she said.

There are 46 names on the ballot, but former Congressman Doug Ose withdrew because of health reasons after it had been printed. The 24 Republican candidates include Elder; former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer; businessman John Cox, who was defeated by Newsom in 2018; reality TV personality and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner; and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley.

(Related: Larry Elder looks for shock win in California recall)

There are nine Democrats, 10 independents, two Green Party members and one Libertarian. No Democrat with political stature ran — the best-known is real estate agent and YouTube personality Kevin Paffrath. Most of the candidates are largely unknown and have not mounted credible campaigns.

“So we’ll essentially be starting over again. We've been working with this administration on a lot of issues. We've been working with him on repatriations, cultural lands, gaming issues,” Edwards said. “So I think it will set us back and we'll be back in education mode.”

Edwards isn’t alone in wanting to see Newsom stay in office.

Last week on Facebook, the Yurok Tribe publicly opposed the recall effort and encouraged voters to vote no to keep Newsom in power, drawing a mixed response from those who commented on the post. A tribal spokesman didn’t return messages seeking additional comment.

Pictured: Yurok Chairman Joseph L. James, California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and Governor Gavin Newsom travel in a traditional redwood canoe down the Klamath River on the Yurok Reservation.

Other California tribes have used campaign donations to signal their preference for Newsom. At least 11 California tribal governments have donated about $3.5 million to the recall committee supporting Newsom, with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians being the biggest donor at $750,000, according to state campaign donation disclosures.

It’s unclear from the disclosures if any California tribal governments have contributed to any other campaigns. A search of the documents didn’t show tribal donations to any other candidate committees.

It’s not just tribal governments that have taken an interest in the election. Joey Williams, Paiute (Kawaiisu), director of Organizing for the California Native Vote Project, said there’s been an unexpected level of interest in the election from Indigenous people they’ve contacted about voting.

“We're getting way more responses back from our text messages than we normally do of people saying, ‘yes, I voted,’ ‘I'm going to vote,’ or stating how they're going to vote,” he said. “It feels like there is a buzz about the election.”

In the closing hours of the election, Williams said the California Native Vote Project will be busy making phone calls and reaching out to people to make sure they know where and how to vote, answer any questions and make sure they have a ride to the polls.

But for Williams, the election isn’t just about whether Newsom keeps his job, but also to continue “building Native power” by getting more and more Indigenous people to vote. The California Native Vote Project, among other roles, has been working to increase voter turnout in Indian Country to give Native people a louder voice in policy decisions that affect them.

“We are moving people who have been leery about voting, who didn't trust the system to become new voters,” he said. “The more and more we're able to create a block of Native voters in California, the more power we will build, as we’re advocating for legislation, ballot initiatives and local county measures that are going to advance our peoples’ sovereignty and self determination and liberation.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, bows his head as Assemblyman James Ramos, D-Highlands, of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, opens a meeting with tribal leaders from around the state at the future site of the California Indian Heritage Center in West Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, June 18, 2019. Newsom took the occasion to formally apologize to tribal leaders from around California for the violence, mistreatment and neglect inflicted on Native Americans throughout the state's history. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Why is there a recall drive against Newsom?

The answer is simple and complicated.

The simple part: Californians grew angry during the pandemic. Whipsaw stay-at-home orders by Newsom, crushing job losses from business closures, shuttered schools and the disruption of daily life soured just about everybody. Many of life’s routines were cut off at some point if not altogether, whether it was trips to the beach or lunches at a favorite taco joint.

The complicated part: In a state with nearly 40 million people, there are many grievances, including California’s wallet-sapping taxes, rising food and gas prices, the threat of water rationing to contend with a long-running drought, a homeless crisis and the continuing menace of wildfires. As governor, Newsom is a ready target for that resentment.

He also is being hit by fallout from a multibillion-dollar fraud scandal at the state unemployment agency while weathering public shaming for dining out maskless with friends and lobbyists at an exclusive restaurant last fall as he told residents to stay home.


How does the election work?

There are two questions: Voters are being asked if Newsom should be removed, yes or no, and then who should replace him. They will choose from 46 replacement candidates.

If a majority of voters approve Newsom’s removal, the candidate who gets the most votes on the second question becomes governor. With dozens of candidates dividing those ballots, it’s possible a winner could get 25 percent or less of the vote.

Statistics compiled by Political Data Inc., a firm that gathers voting information for Democrats, independents and academics, found that nearly 8 million voters have returned mail-in ballots, which would equal about a 35 percent turnout rate with voting continuing through Tuesday.

Senior citizens are voting in their usual high numbers, while younger voters have been less enthusiastic so far.

What is Newsom saying about the recall?

He steered around questions of a possible recall for months, saying he wanted to focus on the coronavirus, vaccinations and reopening schools. In March, he launched an aggressive campaign and began running ads attacking the recall and doing national TV and cable interviews.

The main committee opposing the recall had raised nearly $70 million through the end of August.

Newsom, who was elected in a 2018 landslide, has acknowledged that people were anxious and weary after a difficult year of restrictions. Recently, he has defended his record during the pandemic — arguing his decisions saved thousands of lives — while warning that a Republican victory would undermine the state's progressive values and possibly have a ripple effect nationwide.

Democrats say the effort to remove him is being driven by far-right extremists and supporters of former President Donald Trump. The recall is backed by state and national Republicans, but organizers argue they have a broad-based coalition, including many independents and Democrats.

Lately, Newsom has focused his attacks on Elder, calling him more extreme in many ways than Trump. Elder dismisses such criticism as a political ploy to divert attention from Newsom’s record on crime, homelessness and the pandemic.

The governor spent much of 2020 on the defensive. But he has benefitted from a record budget surplus that allowed him to tour the state to announce vast new spending programs, including $12 billion to fight homelessness; checks of up to $1,100 each for millions of low and middle-income earners who struggled during lockdowns; and $2.7 billion for free kindergarten for all of the state’s 4-year-olds.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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