California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis spoke out Thursday against efforts to oust Gov. Gavin Newsom over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, warning that members of the Democratic Party should stay off the ballot if a recall vote occurs.
Newsom’s opponents have gathered more than 1.4 million petition signatures ahead of the mid-March deadline, just short of the roughly 1.5 million signatures required to force a recall election. As California’s second-highest executive officer, Kounalakis would be required to set a date for the election if the petition surpasses the threshold.
While a rocky vaccine rollout, strict pandemic-related lockdown orders, and a restrictive business environment have hurt Newsom’s base of support in California, Kounalakis said she “cannot understate how hard he has worked to do his best for the people of California under very difficult circumstances.” If Newsom is recalled, Kounalakis said she does not intend to enter the race.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – NOV. 3: Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis (left) and Governor Gavin Newsom sit in nearby booths outside of Manny’s cafe and communal space in San Francisco, Calif. Tuesday, November 3, 2020 to phone bank for democratic candidates. (Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
“Governor Newsom does not deserve to be recalled. And I think it would be shameful for any Democrat to put their name on the ballot to replace them, myself included,” Kounalakis said in a statement to Fox News. “The focus of the Governor, and everyone in elected office right now, should be on vaccinations, getting kids back to school, and people back to work.”
California’s first and only gubernatorial recall election took place in 2003, when voters ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis just months into his second term in office. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a fellow Democrat, broke party ranks and entered the race to replace Davis.
Ultimately, Bustamante finished second in the vote to future California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bustamante was accused of undermining support for Davis at a critical stage by entering the ballot.
California businessman John Cox and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, both Republicans, headline a field of candidates who have already announced their intent to run for governor should Newsom be recalled. So far, no establishment Democrat has launched a campaign.
The recall campaign gained enough momentum this week to prompt White House press secretary Jen Psaki to affirm President Biden’s support for the embattled governor.
“In addition to sharing a commitment to a range of issues with @GavinNewsom from addressing the climate crisis to getting the pandemic under control, @POTUS clearly opposes any effort to recall @GavinNewsom,” Psaki tweeted.
Despite sweeping lockdown measures, California experienced one of the worst surges of COVID-19 cases of any state in recent months. Newsom has faced mounting pressure to reopen schools and loosen restrictions on small businesses that have struggled to survive during the pandemic. More recently, critics targeted the plodding rollout of California’s vaccination campaign.
Newsom has also contended with fallout from public relations missteps, including a highly publicized incident last summer in which he was photographed dining at the luxury French Laundry restaurant in Napa with a large group, in violation of his own statewide guidelines. The governor later apologized.
Proponents of Newsom’s administration have cited the unprecedented challenge posed by the pandemic and accused Republicans of attempting to capitalize on the situation to further their political aims.
Kounalakis said she is “proud” of the state’s response to the pandemic under Newsom’s leadership, though she acknowledged that “nothing is ever perfect and we can always do better.”
“Governor Newsom was the first in the country to issue a state-wide stay at home order, which was the right thing to do, and saved thousands of lives,” Kounalakis said. “We are now engaged in an unprecedented process to vaccinate tens of millions of Californians. With each passing day, we are becoming more efficient and inclusive in this incredibly important task.”