Newsom Beat the Recall, Now Comes the Hard Part: Governing California

SACRAMENTO — For nearly a year — while a pandemic raged, while wildfires roared, while smoke smothered the once-pristine blue skies over Lake Tahoe — Gov. Gavin Newsom has had to simultaneously govern the nation’s most populous state and beat back an attempted recall.

On Wednesday, he emerged victorious — but still had multiple crises to confront. Ninety percent of the state was in extreme drought. The median home price had eclipsed $800,000. Some 100,000 people were sleeping outside or in their cars nightly. And more than 6 million public school children were struggling to make up the learning they had missed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of bills on his desk waited to be signed, including one to allow duplexes in single-family neighborhoods across California and another enshrining the vote-by-mail rules that helped keep him in office.

The election’s resounding rejection of the long-shot, Republican-led attempt to oust Mr. Newsom appeared not only to strengthen him for re-election next year, but also to bestow a mandate. As the vote count continued on Wednesday, the recall was being rejected by roughly 2-1. The margin echoes the state’s Democrat-Republican split and the scale of Mr. Newsom’s 2018 election, which was a landslide.

But what the governor can do with that mandate is unclear. The recall campaign was long and divisive, political experts say, and the state’s problems increasingly resist simple solutions. Many more straightforward challenges were met last year with a massive state surplus and a flood of pandemic aid from the Biden administration.

Now — although Mr. Newsom has the advantage of a unified base, a Democratic supermajority in the Legislature and the state’s attention — what remains are issues that require far more than money.

“These are problems that take time,” said Jerry Brown, who governed the state for two eight-year stints in the 1970s and again from 2010 to 2018. “Reducing carbon emissions. Reversing the gross inequalities. Being able to keep the crime rate down. Dealing with so many people who have so little that their lives and families are disintegrating.”

The recall, Mr. Brown said, was “sound and fury signifying very little” — an “expensive blip” that in a couple of weeks “will be not much more than a footnote.” But, he said, “it’s down now to the bread and butter issues. And they’re the same old issues 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. The Republican candidates seeking to replace him framed the campaign as a referendum on him, from his handling of homelessness to the rise of urban crime rates and his decision to party at a luxe wine country restaurant after he had asked Californians to stay home during the pandemic.

But except for his coronavirus policies, which have been pointed to as a potential national model, the governor largely avoided making his agenda part of the recall discussion. Aiming to animate the state’s Democratic base in an off-year special election, he portrayed the recall as a battle to rescue the nation’s biggest blue state from hard right extremists, and as part of a larger, national war on the divisiveness of former President Donald J. Trump and the Republicans who admire him.

Outside a victory party afterward, he acknowledged the challenges that await him, but resisted much elaboration.

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“Let the dust settle,” he said.

At least part of the calculus will include next year’s regularly scheduled gubernatorial election. Although the governor is unlikely to face much meaningful opposition, 2022 is a regular election year — a time when controversial legislation tends to be set aside.

“It will be interesting to see what he wants to focus on,” said Toni Atkins, the president pro tempore of the California Senate, noting that much of the Legislature also will be campaigning. The dominance of Democrats in the State Senate and Assembly masks an often unwieldy range of views — Bay Area progressives, Central Valley moderates, coastal environmentalists, jobs-first pragmatists.

The challenge was apparent even within the county-by-county recall tallies, with huge majorities for the governor in Democratic strongholds such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area, thinner margins in San Diego and Orange County and much of the far rural north voting to replace him.

Legislation of remarkable sweep quietly passed this year, even as the recall consumed the public’s attention, Ms. Atkins said: preschool for all of the state’s 4-year-olds, stimulus checks for low- and middle-income people, health insurance for undocumented immigrants 50 and older.

But climate bills stalled, casualties in many cases of the split between parts of the state that prioritize jobs and parts that prioritize action on climate change.

She predicted the governor would resume work on priorities he had held from the start of his administration, including affordable housing and early childhood education. But, she added, his victory has whetted legislative ambitions, too.

The fifth-largest economy in the world and home to some 40 million people, California is known both for its bounty and for its epic flaws. It leads the nation in billionaires; when housing is factored in, it also has America’s highest poverty level.

Its coastline is renowned, but towering wildfires, burning over as much as a million acres, have become a terrifying annual occurrence. A mega-drought has sent the price of agricultural water soaring and tens of thousands of farms are on reduced water rations.

One hurdle in carrying out ambitious policy objectives, experts said, was a political lesson that emerged from the recall: Polarization pays.

Partisan rhetoric mobilized voters on both sides, handing Mr. Newsom his win and raising the profile of an otherwise withering Republican Party. Any group that, in the past, might have been daunted by the challenge of launching a statewide recall learned that even a lost cause can disrupt an opponent for months, Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, said.

But that isn’t necessarily conducive to governance, he added.

“This recall election has just really stirred the pot,” said Mr. Baldassare. “Will people find common ground? It’s going to be hard.”

Fernando Guerra, a professor and the director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said the governor has every tool at his disposal to take bold action if he wants to — a supportive White House, a legislative supermajority, a state surplus and billions of federal dollars in pandemic aid. Leveraging those advantages could leave a legacy to rival the state’s most iconic governors, he said, including Jerry Brown and his father, who governed in the 1960s, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown.

“California will be positioned to have the most extraordinary two or three years of government and state-led innovation since the Pat Brown era — or California could be mired in political paralysis and doomed to incremental decline. And it will all depend on Gavin Newsom,” he said.

“If crises are opportunities, then this is the greatest opportunity any sitting governor in America will ever have.”

Thomas Fuller contributed reporting from Sacramento.

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