Dan Walters

Recall of California senator about GOP regaining relevance, not gas tax vote

Democrat Josh Newman, who had never held public office, scored two upsets last year to win a state Senate seat that Republicans had held for decades.

His victory restored the Democrats’ Senate supermajority – 27 seats in a 40-member house – and made the GOP even less relevant.

Not surprisingly, Republicans want to recapture the 29th Senate District, centered in Orange County but including slices of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, and they don’t want to wait four years. That means Newman faces a serious recall drive.

Ostensibly, the recall campaign fronted by San Diego politician and radio talk show host Carl DeMaio is about Newman’s vote for an increase in gas taxes and automotive fees – more than $5 billion a year – that the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown enacted last month.

However, his was just one of the 27 Senate votes for the taxes, and the decisive one was cast by a Republican senator, Anthony Cannella, after one Democrat balked.

It’s quite evident that the recall is really about eroding the Democratic supermajority and reclaiming a seat that Republicans believe they should own, but lost in the political maelstrom over Donald Trump last year.

“This is not about any one vote on any one bill,” Newman says. “This is an effort to change the dynamics of the Legislature.”

DeMaio’s “Reform California” seems to agree: “After we succeed in recalling Josh Newman, Democrats will lose their supermajority and will not be able to arbitrarily raise our taxes.”

Whether it happens is very uncertain.

Newman, who got his political baptism in San Francisco two decades ago, served in the Army and worked as an advocate for veterans in Southern California, was not the Democratic Party’s choice to run for the seat that Republican Bob Huff was vacating.

Party leaders had tapped Sukhee Kang, former mayor of Irvine, to challenge Republican Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang for the seat. But Newman edged Kang in the primary and then defeated Chang by a paper-thin, 2,498-vote margin in November.

DeMaio, et al., now must collect 63,593 registered voter signatures on petitions in the district, which has a slight Democratic registration margin, to force a recall election. And with paid signature-gatherers on the job, that’s likely.

However, how fast those signatures are gathered could be a decisive factor.

If recall proponents gather enough signatures and get them verified by election officials quickly, they could force a special election, which would likely have a very low voter turnout and thus bolster the recall’s chances.

However, if they take months to qualify (their signature deadline is Oct. 16), state law could allow officials to combine the recall with the June 2018 primary, whose higher turnout would help Newman.

Whenever it happens, if it does, we’ll see both sides pour tons of money into the clash, which will also include a vote on Newman’s successor.

But even if he loses the seat, the Legislature won’t repeal the gas tax.