Editorial: Recall is not a 'coup' and certainly no joke
A couple of hundred people attended a recall Gavin Newsom rally at the San Diego County Administration Building in June. (K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Can someone please get a copy of a dictionary — any dictionary — delivered to the California Democratic Party headquarters? Or at least email over a link to an online version?

We fear that party leaders might not have access to one, based on their imprudent decision to dub a recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom the “California coup,” thus likening a perfectly democratic process enshrined in the state’s Constitution to the act of forcefully or even violently seizing government power.

On Tuesday, the state's Democratic Party establishment offered its first official response to the gubernatorial recall effort and it was … disappointing. This was an opportunity to offer a strong defense for a governor leading an enormously complex state through a very difficult time, with political unrest exacerbating an unprecedented health catastrophe, and to appeal to Californians to stop Newsom's opponents from getting the 1.5 million signatures they need to trigger a special recall election later this year.

Instead they chose to kick off their counter-campaign with a ridiculous branding strategy that undermined the state's legitimate direct democracy system, while engaging in the same type of inflammatory and irresponsible rhetoric that we've seen all too often from President Trump and his allies. Shame.

"This recall effort, which really ought to be called the ‘California coup,’ is being led by right-wing conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, anti-vaxxers and groups that encourage violence on our democratic institutions,” party Chairman Rusty Hicks said at the top of a midday virtual news conference called by a group of leading state Democrats, including Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. Other speakers echoed this message by condemning the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week and hinting that the same forces rioting in Washington are behind the recall.

Those are alarming allegations, but they were not followed up with a single shred of evidence to back them up. It's no secret that conservative Californians and national Republicans support a recall. They don't like Newsom and surely view a recall as a rare opportunity for their party to take over state leadership, as it did in 2003 when Gov. Gray Davis was ousted by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, though that's unlikely given the overwhelming number of registered Democrats in the state. Nor would we be surprised to see right-wing extremists voicing support for recalling Newsom — or any other Democratic elected official, for that matter. But frankly, the idea of the Proud Boys getting excited about passing around petitions is a bit hard to swallow.

Then there's the fact that this particular recall has been in the works for nearly a year, long before both the presidential election and last week's sacking of the Capitol. Indeed, this recall effort is still alive only because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only have the state's public health restrictions and business closures energized those already predisposed to dislike Newsom and given them a focus, but a court also extended the signature-gathering deadline by many months because of the difficulty of circulating signatures at a time of enforced social distancing.

And this ham-handed response by the Democratic Party may help the recall effort too. It surely did Newsom no favors to attack his opponents with such reckless abandon and dismiss the 1 million or so people who have reportedly signed the recall petition so far as racists, conspiracy nuts or seditionists.

Here's what the party could have said instead: Recalls, though allowed by the state Constitution, ought not to be used lightly and certainly not to settle political scores. These powerful tools of democracy are expensive and distracting, and they ought to be used only in situations in which a sitting official has committed malfeasance or is no longer capable of governing, not simply because you don’t like that person's policies. Regular elections are the times to weigh in on a governor's performance. And though Newsom has had uneven success managing the state through the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no evidence that he has done anything other than try to protect Californians from sickness and death.

Democrats could have fairly pointed out that the recall effort has been propelled by people unhappy with the governor’s handling of the pandemic and funded in part by advocates who want to reopen schools, businesses and churches before it is safe to do so. That alone should make most Californians wary of signing a recall petition.

Like it or not, California’s system of direct democracy provides a process for recalling sitting governors and other elected officials, and that is what is underway. That's no "coup," but it's no joke either.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.