SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When Gov. Gavin Newsom attended a French Laundry dinner party in November, he couldn’t have known months later he’d be picking up trash from homeless encampments and hitting city after city campaigning for his political life.
Newsom’s night out spurred outrage and sent GOP signature gathering into overdrive, tapping into frustration among Californians who were tired of pandemic restrictions. The resulting recall is not the blockbuster that occurred in 2003 — when movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor — but a cast of 46 characters this year kept things interesting.
Getting attention in the nation’s most populous state is no easy feat, and candidates performed outlandish stunts in a desperate bid for attention — including Newsom.
In the early going, reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner tried to become Newsom’s biggest rival by taking advantage of her access to national media. Instead, conservative talk show host Larry Elder seized that role this summer while Jenner was taping “Celebrity Big Brother” in Australia.
The all-mail election ends Tuesday, with polls closing at 8 p.m. PT. What follows are seven of the craziest moments in the California recall campaign this year.
Newsom parties with Minions, Trolls and Optimus Prime
California had endured a grueling year-plus of lockdowns and mask mandates by the time Newsom could celebrate California’s economic reopening in June. So he leaned into the levity with a Universal Studios event.
“Is that Optimus Prime?” the Democratic governor asked as gibberish-chattering yellow Minions, Shrek and a purple-haired Troll assembled before him.
“It is a privilege to stand by your side,” the towering Transformers leader replied.
After Newsom answered some reporter questions, he welcomed his newest allies back before blue confetti. “Let’s bring everyone up on stage for one final presentation, and let’s bring some Minions up, and my personal negotiator — where are you, Optimus Prime?” Newsom concluded.
“Am I on drugs?” asked San Francisco Chronicle reporter Alexei Koseff, posting a photo of the scene on Twitter.
Don’t trash these campaign stunts
This election was a circus. Literally.
Republican John Cox may only be polling at 3 percent, but he wins for the most campaign stunts, including parading around with a live Kodiak bear. Much to PETA’s sorrow, Cox used Tag the bear to illustrate his “unleash the beast” campaign. He rebranded himself “the beast” — and Newsom “the beauty.”
“We’re going to need big, beastly changes to be made in this state,” Cox said on the campaign trail in Sacramento in May, feeding his newest aide a treat.
Cox later toured the state with an 8-foot ball of litter, featuring a chewed dog toy, a single rubber boot missing its partner and an empty bottle of mustard. It was said to represent California’s homelessness problem, and Cox — standing in front of his trash sphere — said people living in encampments are “unable to care for themselves, living among trash and filth.”
It also represented the desperation some candidates felt to get media attention.
Forget the Colorado. What about the Mississippi?
Kevin Paffrath is a YouTuber who managed to find himself at the front of the Democratic recall pack because his party and governor cleared the field of any experienced Democratic candidates. He finally got his big chance last month at the only televised recall debate that let him on stage.
At the debate, Paffrath proposed building a pipeline to transfer water from the Mississippi to California to solve the state’s drought problems. In an instant, he went from being “that YouTube guy” to “that Mississippi River guy.”
He turned heads — but also was lambasted by insiders who ridiculed his campaign on the basis of such ideas. Veteran Los Angeles columnist George Skelton gave him “the award for dumbest idea of the recall election” and proceeded to include the words “nutty,” “silly” and “wacky” in the next three paragraphs.
Jay Lund from the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences argued that a project on this scale would likely cost in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Like former Gov. Jerry Brown’s prized twin tunnel project, construction of a Mississippi River pipeline would face near-impossible odds of ever being started. Brawls over water rights have been a fixture of California politics for more than a century. Good luck adding the governments of the four or five other states the pipeline would cross through to that equation.
Process server goes into beast mode
Cox was making his argument to serve as governor. Instead, he was the one who got served.
Before Cox could finish his opening remarks at a Sacramento debate, a process server strided up to the stage and tossed legal documents at the candidate. “John Cox, you’ve been served by San Diego County Superior Court, ordered by the judge,” the man shouted before he was hustled out of the room.
At issue is nearly $100,000 that a court ordered Cox to pay a campaign vendor from his 2018 gubernatorial run (the affluent Cox spent roughly $5 million of his own money on that campaign and more than $7 million on this year’s run). The subpoena orders Cox to appear in court a week after the election. “The courts have the final say and he owes us,” consultant Jim Innocenzi said in an email, adding he is asking the courts to compel Cox to turn over assets like data files that were transferred from the 2018 to the 2021 campaign.
Cox’s campaign did not respond to a question about whether he intends to attend the Sept. 21 hearing.
Newsom channels his inner Oprah
If politics is a game, Newsom certainly played his part.
There was a head-tilting moment in June when the governor stood on a glittering stage in Sacramento and channeled Pat Sajak, spinning a colorful wheel and selecting winning lottery balls to promote vaccinations.
The winning prize was only for those who had opted for the shot, and a rarely joyous Newsom gave away millions.
“You know what, there’s nothing more fun than feeling like you’re Oprah,” Newsom said at a later event at Six Flags. “A million dollars for you, a million dollars for you, a million for you, 50,000 for you.”
The optics were risky amid a devastating pandemic, but the giveaway was meant to spark optimism as part of Newsom’s “California Comeback” strategy.
Soon after the Six Flags press conference, Newsom rode in the front car of the Revolution roller coaster at the Southern California amusement park.
Caitlyn Jenner has hangar pains
It was billed as Jenner’s big first interview as a recall candidate, the one that could make her the one to beat. Instead, one of her remarks to Fox News host Sean Hannity in May had such a let-them-eat-cake ring that they overshadowed anything else.
The quote: “The guy right across, he was packing up his hangar,” Jenner said during the interview in her own Southern California plane hangar. “And he says, ‘I’m moving to Sedona, Arizona. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t walk down the streets and see the homeless.’”
The moment managed to do the impossible: deflect some of the heat off Newsom’s French Laundry fiasco, making the reality TV star appear even more out of touch with the general populace than the guy whose job she’s trying to take. Newsom may have flaunted his own mask rules while dining in one of the country’s most exclusive restaurants, but Jenner struggled to relate to her non-plane-owning constituency.
Of course, it also led to endless chiding on social media and she never seemed to find her footing in the campaign. A weeks-long summer detour to Australia to tape “Celebrity Big Brother” didn’t help. She was down to 1 percent in the final Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll released last week.
If Jenner is interested, Sedona holds City Council elections next year.
Elder’s campaign almost gets short-circuited
This was the matchup that almost wasn’t.
Elder, a longtime talk show host and the GOP frontrunner, was left off the initial list of recall candidates after building a campaign team and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for his gubernatorial run. The state’s elections chief, Democrat Shirley Weber, said Elder submitted income tax returns that failed to comply with a new law requiring gubernatorial candidates to provide five years of forms.
The omission would have been huge. Elder insisted to all who would listen that he sent the right forms and that he would, indeed, be on the ballot. He had to go to court to plead his case, and a judge not only sided with Elder but said Weber was misinterpreting the state’s tax form requirement because the law says it only applies to primary elections.
That decision changed the arc of the race.
At the time, polls suggested Newsom was in a dead heat against recall opponents, and he desperately searched for a way to wake up Democrats. Elder never toned down his talk show rhetoric, feeling free to say what was on his mind and embrace conservative positions and idols that became easy targets for Newsom.
Victoria Colliver and Alexander Nieves contributed to this report.