Gavin Newsom’s recall defense heats up in Berkeley

Democrats are ramping up their defense against the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom with a barrage of text messages and campus canvassing.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin speaking at the Working Families Against the Recall press conference urging voters to say no on the Governor Newsom recall election.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin speaking at the Working Families Against the Recall press conference urging voters to say no on the Governor Newsom recall election. Credit: Amir Aziz

With ballots mailed out and drop boxes awaiting their return around Berkeley, Democrats are ramping up their defense against the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom with a barrage of text messages and campus canvassing in this progressive stronghold.

The efforts have taken on added urgency this summer, ever since polls showed the recall race was far closer than the cakewalk many political observers expected for Newsom in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one.

The problem for Newsom, which his backers’ ground game in Berkeley and elsewhere aims to solve, is one of enthusiasm.

A July poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found Republicans, whose campaign to bring the recall election was fueled by anger among conservatives over Newsom’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, were more fired up about voting than Democrats, who expected the governor to easily survive the challenge. The poll showed just 36% of voters overall supported the recall effort and 51% opposed it — but Newsom’s margin shrunk dramatically among likely voters, with 47% in favor of booting him from office and 50% saying they would vote No.


Local Democrats described that polling as a wake-up call for their voter turnout operation ahead of Election Day on Sept. 14.

“Republicans have been running a year-long campaign to get people to sign the recall petitions,” said Alfred Twu, a Berkeley designer, activist and state Democratic party delegate. Efforts have “really started to kick into high gear with the vote No campaign” only recently, Twu said.

For Twu, that has meant posting flyers and distributing campaign literature in neighborhoods with large numbers of UC Berkeley students, whose ballots arrived just as many were moving into new housing and getting ready for the start of the academic year. While some Berkeley voters are highly engaged and have been closely following the campaign, Twu said canvassers are having to educate others on how to update their registration and fill out the unusual recall ballot.

The ballot is split into two questions: Should Newsom be recalled? And, if he is recalled, which of the 46 candidates vying for the governor’s office should replace him? Those who want Newsom removed from office should vote Yes, while those who want him to keep his job should vote No; you can pick a candidate for the second question regardless of how you voted on the first, or you can leave the question blank.

Working Families Against the Recall, an organization created by East Bay labor leaders to help in Newsom’s defense, has launched a text message and phone campaign to reach about 9,000 Berkeley voters who the group worries could sit the election out. Campaign spokesman Tom Clifford said its effort identified people who vote in presidential elections but often don’t cast ballots in other years, figuring they are highly likely to support Newsom but might need more encouragement to vote in the recall.

“They’ll vote No — it’s just that we’ve got to continue to pester them until they get that ballot in,” Clifford said. “It’s not a persuasion game, it’s a get-out-the-vote game.”

Voters can turn in their ballots by dropping them in the mail (no postage is required) or at one of six secure 24-hour ballot drop boxes at these locations around Berkeley before Sept. 14:

  • Berkeley Civic Center, 2180 Milvia St.
  • On the Cal campus, between Sather Gate and the Architects and Engineers Building
  • Frances Albrier Community Center, 2800 Park St.
  • Claremont Branch Library, 2940 Benvenue Ave.
  • North Branch Library, 1170 The Alameda
  • West Branch Library, 1125 University Ave.
Ballot box at Claremont Branch Library. Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

Even with substantial advantages in voter registration and fundraising, Newsom’s campaign has had to contend with unexpected challenges — chief among them the surge of COVID-19 cases caused by the emergence of the delta variant, which complicated the governor’s message that California was “roaring back” with the pandemic in its rear-view mirror. Although Newsom is not facing a meaningful challenge from within his own party, it’s also possible some more progressive East Bay voters could feel underwhelmed by his accomplishments.

Perhaps, as a result, the anti-recall campaigns have made the election’s field of Republican challengers — whose stances on pandemic precautions and other issues are anathema to many Bay Area voters — a core piece of their messaging.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who spoke at a Working Families Against the Recall rally in Oakland on Wednesday, called the race “a matter of life and death” as the pandemic drags on, noting that conservative talk show host Larry Elder, who polls show at the head of the crowded pack of challengers, opposes measures such as mask mandates.

“We just cannot take this for granted,” Arreguín said in an interview. “There is a lot at stake and we cannot go backwards as a state.”

You can find more election and voting information from the Alameda County Registrar of Voters.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.