Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, flew to St. Lucia a week ago for vacation with his wife and baby during the Legislature’s spring recess.
After a long flight, he got cellphone service for the first time at his hotel. A news alert popped up in his email: The gas tax approved in the state Legislature had prompted a recall effort against a Southern California Democrat.
“I clicked on it, and it was my picture,” Newman said.
Just four months into office, the rookie lawmaker is already caught up in partisan politics.
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Last week conservative talk radio host Carl DeMaio said plans were moving forward to launch a recall against Newman. DeMaio, a former city councilman in San Diego, said Newman’s vote for the $52 billion transportation deal sparked the recall, but he and others are primarily targeting the new lawmaker to eliminate Democrats’ two-third majority in the Legislature.
In a subsequent interview on the John and Ken Show on KFI AM 640 last week, DeMaio called Newman a “weak gazelle, the slowest gazelle, the one with a limp,” meaning an easy target.
Newman was an underdog from the start.
He beat Republican Ling Ling Chang by fewer than 2,500 votes to win a battleground district, which includes parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange counties, in November, with a campaign that was heavy on Seinfeld “Newman” references.
That victory was pivotal for Democrats in the state Legislature, however. His victory helped them secure 27 seats in the state Senate and a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature. That meant they theoretically could pass a gas-tax increase – or any tax increase, for that matter – without a Republican vote. Tax increases require approval by two-thirds of the members in each house.
Proponents of the recall effort officially served Newman with notice of their intention to circulate a petition against him Monday morning as he exited Sacramento International Airport. They need 63,593 signatures to put the question on the ballot.
Newman said he stands by his support for the transportation bill, SB 1, which Gov. Jerry Brown argued was necessary to make a dent in a backlog of road repairs.
“It’s a pay-as-you-go bill, and it’s for transportation improvements that are critically needed, improvements that are 25 years in the making,” he said. “We’re not borrowing money. We’re not passing the buck to the next generation. Unfortunately, there is a massive backlog that must be addressed.”
Prior to the vote, Newman said his support hinged on the Legislature’s passage of a companion measure, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5. Supporters say the bill, introduced by Newman and Assemblyman Jim Frazier, gives Californians the opportunity to vote to prevent lawmakers from shifting the money to uses other than transportation.
“I personally did not want to raise people’s taxes,” Newman said. “To the extent it was necessary, I thought it was important to give the voters of California the assurance that we will spend their money exactly as we say we are and only for transportation.”
He said he realizes the attack by DeMaio isn’t personal. He called it an “opportunistic effort” to offset Republicans’ disadvantage in the Senate.
“I don’t think it will work, and it reeks of the worst kind of cynical politics,” Newman said.
DeMaio on Wednesday said he intends to launch recalls against other unnamed Democrats in the Legislature.
“We’ll do it with precision and in a methodical way,” DeMaio said. “After we deal with Newman we are going to give the Legislature a few days and do it again. And do it to many of them.”
The coalition of local governments, labor unions and business groups that pushed SB 1 through the Legislature pledged to support lawmakers.
“We are going to be launching a well-funded major effort to protect legislators who voted to bring revenue to their districts to fix California’s roads,” said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the Fix Our Roads Coalition. “Their constituents will understand that their legislator voted to improve the roads in their communities.”
DeMaio and Fairbanks both declined to state where they intend to carry out additional campaigns.
“Wherever they’ll go, we’ll go,” Fairbanks said about the coalition’s plan to oppose DeMaio’s recall efforts.
The notice delivered to Newman Monday lists the proponents’ grounds for the recall. It inaccurately calls Newman “the deciding vote in Sacramento to increase the gas tax. ...”
Newman rendered the 20th “yes” vote and was one of 26 Democrats in the Senate to support the bill. Only one Democrat, Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, voted against the bill in the Senate.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown struck a deal with Republican Sen. Anthony Cannella to cross party lines and support the bill in exchange for $500 million in additional transportation funds for his Modesto-area district. Without Cannella’s support, the bill would have been one vote short of passage in the Senate.
After clearing the Senate, the bill moved to the Assembly, where it got support from another 54 Democrats.
During the Senate session on Monday, Newman was the only Democrat to vote against SB 132, a sister bill that allocates the money to Cannella’s district and gives another $400 million to Riverside County.
As further grounds for the recall, proponents cite Newman’s support for de León’s “sanctuary state” bill. The statement says the bill “allows dangerous felons out of jail and back into the communities to prey on our families.”
Newman said he personally voiced concern about that measure, SB 54, and asked for recent amendments that allow law enforcement to inform the federal government before serious or violent felons are released from jail or prison.
He’ll have more than plenty of resources needed to protect him.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León defended Newman as “a strong independent voice” who is “well on his way to accomplish great things for his district.”
“If a handful of very partisan political operatives want to waste taxpayer dollars by organizing a recall only four months into his tenureship as a newly elected senator, I am sure that his constituents will circle the wagons and strongly support Josh Newman,” de León said.
So will Democrats, the Senate leader said.
“If we cross that bridge, he’ll have more than plenty of resources needed to protect him,” he said.