Democrats fight California recall but say party must do better: 'Don't just sit there'

By Maria L. La Ganga

LOS ANGELES — So what if the most recent polls are correct, the stars align, and Gov. Gavin Newsom lives to govern another day.

The California Democratic Party and its current standard bearer would still be wise to listen up when voters weigh in on their performance during the fractious recall season. Voters here have plenty to say. And they're not all that happy.

"The Democrats have got to get out of their comfort zone and go work," said Ann Kays, a retired county employee from Montebello who said she is "so angry I don't even want to talk about it."

The latest polls may have lessened Democrats' alarm, but some voters view the recall as a warning: California's dominant political party must own many of the problems the state now faces, dilemmas such as widening economic inequity, homelessness, rising homicide rates in some cities and the pandemic's long-term economic toll.

Sure, California's been a leader in the fight against climate change, but the state is facing another year of record fires, a worsening drought and other related impacts from global warming. Although polls have shown support for some Newsom policies, voters say Democrats need to aggressively tackle those issues and also excite the party faithful.

Because, even though registered Democrats in California outnumber registered Republicans nearly 2 to 1, Newsom has spent much of the summer with competitors nipping at his heels. The result was headlines such as this one in July, "Newsom 'in jeopardy' of being recalled if Democrats remain apathetic" and "New Poll Shows Tightening Race in California Recall Election" in August.

Kays is 73 and spent Tuesday afternoon — a week before election day — relaxing with her 14-year-old Chihuahua mix in the shade of Montebello City Park. She figures the two of them have earned a bit of rest. But the Democrats in California in 2021? Not a chance.

"They always think California's always going to be Democratic," she said. "They're totally lax. ... They need to be more aggressive, more diligent. Don't just sit there and be comfy."

Because there are still registered Democrats like Vina Armstrong of Culver City whom the party has not persuaded to even cast a ballot. The 51-year-old describes herself as "definitely a Democrat," but she also says she's "definitely up in the air" about voting and wonders, "if I do vote, would it help?"

Armstrong was one of hundreds who flocked to SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Thursday morning for a massive job fair. The stadium and Los Angeles World Airports had advertised 5,000 open positions. And the line of employment seekers — women and men dressed for success, with masks on and resumes in hand — snaked around the dramatic structure in the bright morning sunshine. The occasional jet roared overhead.

The Democratic Party also has failed to persuade Brandi Turner, a 36-year-old from Inglewood, to vote against the recall — although she said Thursday morning there's a chance she might. The registered Democrat was laid off at the scooter company Bird Rides, Inc., because of the pandemic and its widespread lockdowns.

She wants work in logistics or dispatching or recruiting, she said, at a company that can offer her at least a modicum of job security. She also wants a candidate and a party with "a more confident game plan," a strategy of what they will do to solve California's ills. She has not heard any such thing during the recall, she said.

Newsom is "getting slandered a lot and ignoring it," Turner said as she waited for the job fair to begin. "He doesn't have to speak to it," but he does have to speak to something other than just his rivals' failings.

Since the recall race tightened in August, the main message from Newsom and the Democratic Party has not been what the governor has accomplished in three years at the state's helm. Instead, they've focused on how disastrous a potential Gov. Larry Elder would be, how the conservative talk show host would, according to a recent ad, "eliminate vaccine mandates for health and school workers on Day One, threatening school closures and our recovery."

"I don't want to hear bickering," Turner said, her voice muffled by her pink and silver sequined mask. "Let's come up with a solution."

Homelessness is one crisis in desperate need of a solution. It's also an area that worries Democrats and Republicans in nearly equal measure.

Sixty-eight percent of likely Democratic voters who responded to a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll said it's a "big problem" in their part of the state, compared with 70% of likely Republican voters. All likely voters surveyed pegged it as California's No. 2 problem; only the pandemic weighed more heavily on their minds.

Homelessness is a major concern for Chanelle Johnson and her friend Via Jackson, who were scoping out the Manhattan Beach farmers market Tuesday afternoon. Both women work at UCLA, Johnson as a nurse and Jackson as an administrative assistant. Both said they think Newsom has not done enough to address the crisis.

"Homelessness is up where I work," said Johnson, 35, a Democrat who lives in Lawndale and plans to vote against the recall. "It's like they put the homeless people on a bus and dump them everywhere."

"There are all these buildings sitting there with vacancies, and out of the price range of people who are middle class or minimum wage," added Jackson, a 27-year-old from Long Beach who is registered to vote but gave no party preference. "Move them in. Give them housing."

During times of crisis — and California these days has crises to spare — we respond one of two ways, said Kim Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at Sacramento State University. We rally, or we search for scapegoats.

"To rally round the flag, you need an enemy to work together against," Nalder said. "Who's the enemy with wildfires or climate change? ... Part of the recall fervor is the scapegoat. We want to blame someone, and Gavin Newsom is the guy."

And that, Nalder said, is part of the problem, "just him as a messenger. His persona screams wealthy guy. You don't see many regular people with that haircut. With the 'who do you want to have a beer with' question, he doesn't meet that standard."

That's one of Carlos Valtierra Jr.'s concerns about politics and the Democratic Party in general. Valtierra is 58, a retired custom furniture maker and artist, a registered Democrat who has yet to mail in a ballot and is a probable no-show in the voting booth on Sept. 14.

"You got to put stuff in layman's terms," he said while relaxing with friends Tuesday afternoon in the deep shade of Montebello City Park. "Half the people don't know simple terms when the election comes up. They have to break it down."

They also have to talk more about the things that matter to run-of-the-mill voters, he said. Valtierra is still angry that stores and gyms and restaurants began opening up before schools during the long terrible months of the pandemic.

Which infuriated him as he watched the news, he said. "I'd yell at the TV, 'schools, schools, schools, schools!' "

The sense that her political party has lost touch with everyday voters also nags at B.J. Holmes, 66, of Manhattan Beach, who works as a travel agent and volunteers at a suicide prevention hotline.

"I think the problem, at least in the L.A. area, is we have a lot of liberals who want services and inclusion for everyone, but it's very expensive," she said. "There's a greater part of the population trying to get through each day, each month, wondering if they can financially make it. ... What we need is to take care of the greater population, but with a conservative budget."

Holmes describes herself as a moderate-conservative Democrat, she said, as she shopped for sourdough bread at the Manhattan Beach farmers market on a temperate Tuesday. She plans to vote against the recall.

"I told my husband yesterday," she said. "He was very disappointed. Newsom can finish his term, and we can not vote him in again. I don't think he's bad enough to remove him. ... The disruption is not worth it."

Jamal Bryant, 42, would go a step further than Holmes' faint praise. The restaurant general manager is a registered Democrat, and he cuts his party at least some slack.

"I'm going to keep Gavin in there," said Bryant, who lives in Torrance. "Why change it now? He hasn't done a terrible job. You can't kept everyone happy."

In Bryant's view, the reason a California governor is facing a recall for the second time in nearly 20 years is the same reason he was wearing a black mask as he waited in line at the SoFi stadium job fair: COVID-19.

So he doesn't have much advice for his political party.

Because to Bryant, there's only one way Newsom might have avoided a recall election: "If the Democratic Party could have prevented COVID."


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