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Gov. Gavin Newsom's opponents say his actions are driven by the recall. Are they right?
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Gov. Gavin Newsom's opponents say his actions are driven by the recall. Are they right?

From the June 10 recap: Napa Valley news you may have missed today series
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California worker board to again reconsider mask standards

California Gov. Gavin Newsom listens to questions during a news conference outside a restaurant in San Francisco, on Thursday, June 3.

SACRAMENTO — Standing in front of a sparkling gold curtain and a colorful game-show prize wheel, Gov. Gavin Newsom cracked jokes and grinned last week as he announced the winners of the state's vaccine lottery.

He held up the winning numbers theatrically, appearing to relish the opportunity to hand out the $50,000 prizes. In the room, he drew laughs from an easy crowd of administration staff.

Online, some were skeptical.

"Catch @GavinNewsom on 'Wheel of Newsom's Misfortune,' where he tries to distract Californians from his looming recall by creating a new game show," California Republican Chairwoman Jessica Patterson wrote on Twitter.

The idea that Newsom's actions are motivated by the upcoming recall election is a common refrain among the Democratic governor's critics. From Newsom's proposed rebate checks for taxpayers to his decision to reopen the state on June 15, at every turn they claim credit for his policies and press conferences, insisting he wouldn't take those steps without a recall election on the horizon.

Newsom argues that's not true. Last week, he said he would do all the same things even if he weren't facing a recall.

"Every single decision I made is consistent with the work I've done for decades and what I campaigned on," he said during a news conference following the lottery drawing.

The reality, political experts say, is somewhere in the middle.

"The decisions he makes at least in part have to be informed by the political realities he's in," said Mindy Romero, founder of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. "On the other side, the pro-recall folks need to create a frame that essentially dismisses any positive actions done by the governor."

Efforts by recall supporters to claim credit poured in when Newsom announced he would reopen the state on June 15 and roll back COVID-19 restrictions.

Republican Governors Association spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said the recall spurred the "politically motivated announcement."

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican running to replace Newsom, credited the millions of Californians who signed the recall petition for the change and said Newsom is "only motivated by his own political survival."

In an appearance on Fox News, reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner said she believed Newsom made the announcement because the day before a rumor began circulating that she might run for governor. Jenner, a Republican, has since officially declared her candidacy.

Newsom has dismissed such suggestions. He and his administration officials say they picked the June 15 reopening date because they believe enough Californians will be vaccinated to make resuming normal economic activity safe by then.

The administration has a plausible scientific reason for the announcement, said Bradley Pollock, chair of the Department of Public Health at the University of California, Davis. Politics don't appear to have affected his decision, Pollock said.

"I don't think Newsom has really done things in a political way," Pollock said. "I think he's tried to seek the best advice out and done things that were purely science-driven."

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Some recall supporters also accused Newsom of pandering to voters when he announced a proposal to send $600 checks to people making less than $75,000 a year. Newsom said the checks would help middle-class taxpayers bounce back from the pandemic, but recall supporters claimed ulterior motives.

"Gavin Newsom is making one-time payments to Californians to avoid being recalled," another Republican candidate, businessman John Cox, wrote in a statement. "But, Californians can't be bought."

Those who want to remove Newsom from office have seized on many of his budget proposals. Patterson blasted his week of budget news conferences as essentially campaign events, dubbing them his "Recall Response Tour," even though Newsom staged similar events in past years, too.

The recall seems to be swaying Newsom's decisions, but not to the extent supporters claim, said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman, who helped Arnold Schwarzenegger win the governorship in California's 2003 recall.

"It's pretty clear he's absolutely sensitive to the recall," Stutzman said. "On the other hand, his budget rollout is something governors normally do when there's not a recall, as well."

Some of his actions are similar to those taken by Republicans, Stutzman noted.

Several Republican governors, for example, have also created lotteries to convince people to get vaccinated.

The recall is more likely to sway Newsom's decisions that affect potential deep-pocketed campaign donors, Stutzman said. For a Democrat like Newsom, that's typically labor unions.

"There's greater incentive for a governor under recall to pander to special interests that he or she would be most reliant on to defend them," Stutzman said.

Newsom's campaign has reported more than $1.7 million in donations from unions. Last week, the Labor Federation and the state's biggest teachers union announced they would support him. But backing from all labor factions isn't guaranteed.

The president of California's state firefighter union said in May the organization was staying neutral on the recall because of pay cuts brokered by the Newsom administration. And the president-elect of California's biggest state worker union says he opposes Newsom, although the union's current management voted last week to spend $1 million to support the governor over the president-elect's objections.

Stutzman noted that the first union to donate money to Newsom's defense, the Professional Engineers in California Government, would see its membership grow under Newsom's May budget proposal to hire hundreds of more workers to build and repair roads. The union gave $250,000 to Newsom's campaign in April.

"Whether it's justified or not ... it raises questions as to what may be behind this growth in the budget," Stutzman said.

Mark Keppler, a professor of public affairs at California State University, Fresno, says he suspects the recall is pushing Newsom's policies left. He pointed to the governor's actions to phase out fracking and his proposal to expand state-funded health care for undocumented immigrants, both policies Keppler said appear designed to fire up liberal voters and encourage them to vote against the recall.

California's massive budget surplus is an extremely good stroke of luck for Newsom because it's allowing him to fund programs that will be popular with voters, Keppler said.

"Literally, he found the pot of gold," Keppler said. "So he can do a lot of things to shore up his support and make people feel good about him being governor."

Vaccinated people can still get COVID-19, but the CDC says that it shouldn't deter people from getting the vaccine. Source by: Stringr

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