More than a year ago a Republican talk radio host launched a recall campaign against state Sen. Josh Newman, casting the Fullerton Democrat as the deciding vote to pass a $52 billion gas tax and transportation fee increase.
It wasn't true, but that didn't stop the California GOP from repeating the narrative again and again to cement Newman's name to the unpopular transportation funding plan. Voters in the 29th Senate District will decide if it worked on Tuesday.
If the recall succeeds, Democrats will have a more difficult time regaining a two-thirds supermajority that allows them to pass tax increases and constitutional amendments without Republican help.
"This recall symbolizes the triumph of partisan politics over integrity, honestly, over electoral integrity," said Newman, who represents parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino Counties. "The voters in my district, I'm hopeful that they are smart enough to see through it, where it came from and what it's all about."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
California Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and her caucus of Democrats are gathering "hundreds" of volunteers to canvas his district this weekend as part of a voter turnout campaign. Perhaps sensing vulnerability, Newman is the top Election Day priority for Senate Democrats.
It's a vastly different scenario than two years ago, when Newman wasn't even the party's chosen candidate in the primary.
Newman surprised Democrats and edged Sukhee Kang out of the top two in 2016 by fewer than 4,000 votes. Democrats joined the Newman bandwagon before the general election, and he bested former GOP Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang by less than 2,500 votes that November.
The significance of the win transcended the candidate.
Democrats took the seat from Republicans for the first time in over two decades and earned a supermajority in the Senate. The narrow victory also made Newman, who had never held office, an easy election target for Republicans. Or, as Carl DeMaio, who crafted the recall, once put it: Newman is the "weak gazelle."
DeMaio described his desire to recall Newman to end Democrats' overwhelming control in Sacramento early on in the campaign. Assembly Democrats secured a two-thirds edge in 2016 as well. The supermajority has been since wiped out in both houses by the 'Me Too' movement that forced three Democratic lawmakers to resign.
Polls have consistently shown the gas tax increase for which Newman is blamed to be unpopular, and voters likely will have a chance to repeal it on the Nov. 6 ballot.
"Voters strongly dislike the gas tax, and Josh Newman symbolizes the gas tax," said Matt Fleming, a spokesman for the California Republican Party. "I think he’s out of touch with his voters and voters will see it that way."
Fleming expressed confidence in the GOP's ability to oust Newman next week. If that happens, the Republican Party is supporting Chang to replace him.
Democrats successfully altered the recall process to consolidate the vote with the June primary, but Newman still faces worse odds than in 2016 when Democratic voter turnout was higher, said Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based Republican consultant.
"This was always going to be very difficult for him to survive," Stutzman said. "He’ll be a victim of voting for an unpopular tax and being in a district where he’ll be vulnerable without a presidential turnout."
"When you represent an Orange County seat and you vote for a tax, the knives will be out," Stutzman added.
Newman calls the recall an "abuse of the process."
He was one of 80 Democratic lawmakers and one Republican who supported the gas tax increase in the Legislature. Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders were one shy of the 27 'ayes' needed in the Senate on the eve of the vote. So, they invited GOP Sen. Anthony Cannella to the Governor's Mansion and wooed him to cross party lines in exchange for millions of dollars for road projects in his district.
"We don’t do things perfectly in the Legislature, but I as a member certainly wasn’t the person who raised everyone’s taxes," Newman said. "The gas tax was simply a convenient pretext for attacking me as a Democrat and attacking the majority as a whole and an opportunity to instigate a special election to get a redo on an election which I won fair and square."
Newman, who long cast himself as a centrist Democrat, said the recall hasn't changed his work in Sacramento.
At times, he abstains on controversial votes, and some of his legislative proposals appear directly aimed at pleasing voters.
His bill to allow up to three attempts at an acceptable DMV license photo cleared the Senate almost unanimously this week. At $5 per shot after the first, the extra money would fund drivers' education programs. He's also a veteran and often carries bills targeting his comrades, such as legislation to extend “disabled veteran sick leave” to all eligible veterans working for the state regardless of their hiring date.
Newman won his first election running an unconventional campaign that included a bear suit and a blimp. He's back to the same unusual tactics this time around, costumes and all.
A pair of campaign staff members dressed as bulls hit the streets with "The Recall is Bulls--t" signs. He deployed a 15-person bright yellow bike outfitted to look like a bulldozer – an apparent reference to the gas tax to fund road repairs – that calls the recall "a $1 million boondoggle" throughout his district. He gets a kick out of "Josh Newman is a really good guy" signs that the California Nurses Association stuck next to GOP posters condemning him for raising taxes.
"You couldn’t say it if it wasn’t true, right?" Newman said, offering a tongue-in-cheek jab at the recall proponents.