On a recent weekday morning, state Sen. Josh Newman was pitching in at Proterra, an electric bus manufacturer that opened a state-of-the-art factory in his district last month.
Newman spent the morning helping install bus doors at the factory. In general, he spent his legislative summer recess doing what lawmakers do: Meeting with constituents, spending time with family -- and, in this case, getting to know a local business.
But looming over his break from the Capitol was the reality that Newman -- who was elected to represent his Southern California district last November -- could be out of a job before the year is out.
In May, Republicans launched a recall against Newman, who won his seat in a surprise narrow victory. His district sits at the meeting point of three counties -- Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino -- and has, like much of this region, been reliably Republican territory for years. But the demographics of Orange County are changing: Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton carried the county last year, the first time since 1936 that a Democrat did so.
The implications of Newman's win stretched far beyond the borders of the 29th Senate District. It gave Democrats two-thirds of the members in the state Senate, leaving the ruling party with super-majorities in both houses of the Legislature. That's a key threshold for tough votes, including tax hikes.
So GOP leaders were still smarting from their loss in May when Newman cast a vote in favor of a transportation infrastructure package that included a gas tax hike.
Activists -- largely led by conservative talk show hosts on local radio stations -- saw an opportunity, and started gathering signatures to boot the freshman lawmaker out of office. And they've cleared an important hurdle: Last week, county registrars in his district reported they have several thousand more signatures than needed to force a recall vote.
But when the election will take place is up in the air, in part because Democrats are trying to change the rules for recall elections. In general, said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, both parties have engaged in cynical behavior to promote their side since the recall effort began. That behavior includes questionable tactics during signature gathering, multiple lawsuits and attempts to change both recall laws and campaign finance rules.
"I think there’s just so much to dislike about the recall effort against state Sen. Newman," Levinson said. "So, so much about this is about politics, not necessarily about good public policy."
Payback for Gas Tax Vote or Partisan Grab?
Carl DeMaio, one of the conservative radio personalities who used his radio show to gin up support for the recall effort he is helping to lead, told KQED in June that there's one simple reason to recall Newman.
"He voted for the car and gas tax hike," DeMaio said. "And what better way to send a message to the politicians that we want it reversed than to start firing them, one by one, starting with the deciding vote, Sen. Newman."
But Newman maintains he wasn't the deciding vote -- a Republican senator was. And no other lawmaker has been targeted for recall.
Newman insisted that he's being singled out because of politics, not a policy vote, for what he sees as a dubious reason: Fulfilling his duty as a lawmaker to vote on bills. He called it a "cynical attempt to manipulate the system for partisan reasons."
"I don't think this is about the gas tax vote. This is about the supermajority in the Legislature, and they're using the gas tax as a pretext to institute a special recall election because it gives them the best chance, they think, to flip a seat," Newman said. "So I would argue I won fair and square in a presidential election with high turnout that was very representative of my district. But if you had enough signatures to instigate a special election, you might get a different composition of that electorate. And I think that's what recall proponents are banking on."
Bad Behavior on Both Sides
Newman believes thousands of voters were misled into signing the recall petition, thinking they were actually supporting a repeal of the car tax. He has filed suit, asking the court to halt the recall process.
"Those signatures were gathered using the argument that signing the petition was a step toward repealing the gas tax," he said. "That's not just my opinion. We have a significant amount of evidence to support that assertion, including thousands of people who came to us ... and asked that their names be taken off the petition."
The courts haven't ruled on Newman's lawsuit. But as all this was happening, Democratic leaders in the state Legislature made a play to push off the recall to 2018, when Newman would likely face a more friendly electorate. Past election data show that a special election would favor Republicans, said Paul Mitchell, who heads one of California's most respected voter data firms. Consolidating the recall with next June's primary would give Newman a much better chance of holding on to the seat, Mitchell said.
The legislation to change recall laws, which Newman did not support, was included in a budget trailer bill and ultimately signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. But earlier this month, it was put on hold by the courts after a judge determined it might violate a law that says legislation may not address more than one subject.
So this week, Democrats made another attempt to push off the recall to next year, introducing a new set of bills that would do the same thing as the budget trailer bill. The legislation passed both houses Thursday and Brown signed it today. It will, in part, allow people to remove their signatures from recall petitions.
Also this month, the state's campaign finance watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, voted 3-1 to increase contribution limits to recall committees, another change that stands to benefit Newman. The change came after lobbying by a lawyer for Democrats, prompting howls from Republicans already angry about the attempt to change recall law.
Levinson, the law professor who is also president of the city of Los Angeles' Ethics Commission, said the commission's rule change appears to be a partisan move to benefit Democrats. She thinks it's actually more complicated, noting two of the three commissioners who voted for the change are Republicans who "don't like campaign contribution limits."
Still, it all looks bad, she said.
"There’s just so much to not like about the recall effort," said Levinson. "It's the effort itself, which is disingenuous and potentially misleading, it's the law to change the recall, it's the suit about the law to change the recall, it's the state agency that changes the rules regarding contribution limits to recall committees. And, it's everybody’s rationale, which frankly feels like if this were a Republican being recalled, maybe everybody would be making the opposite argument to what they are making now."
Newman, a political neophyte who served as an officer in the Army after college and has spent recent years advocating for veterans, seems a bit bewildered by the whole thing.
"I have no regrets so far, though it has been an interesting education in full-contact politics," he said with a laugh during a wide-ranging interview after his morning at Proterra.
Mixed Opinions in Newman's District
In Newman's district, people's feelings on the recall seem mostly based on which political camp they come from -- or perhaps more accurately, what sort of talk radio they tune in to.
Buena Park resident Joseph Sabo was at a church barbecue in Fullerton on a recent Sunday. He drives for Uber and Lyft, so gas prices are important to him. But when asked about the recall, Sabo first mentioned his frustration with Brown over the gas tax. As for Newman, Sabo couldn't even recall his name.
Still, he said he's voting for the recall, noting he's been hearing about it on talk radio for months.
On the other side of town at a Fullerton coffee shop, musician Ezekiel St. James said most of what he’s heard about the recall has been on the radio, too -- albeit a left-leaning station.
St. James is definitely voting to keep Newman.
"I think he’s honest," he said. "I like someone who takes a stand, is authentic regardless of the consequences, and of course he’s suffering the consequences now, the media backlash and the pushback on that."
Republicans say Newman deserves that backlash. Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker, one of several Republicans lining up to replace him, said Newman ran for office promising to be a different type of Democrat.
"The one vote lit the fuse, but really his voting record at this point, I believe, is out of sync with the district," Whitaker said, adding that many people he's talked to were "incensed" by Newman's vote for the gas tax. "When he ran for office, he talked about being a different kind of Democrat and projected a notion of being more fiscally moderate."
Newman said he hasn't heard much about his vote for the gas tax, except from people who listen to conservative talk radio. He said what people do want is an assurance that their money is being spent wisely, which is why he's authored a constitutional amendment that would wall off the gas tax money from being used for anything other than transportation infrastructure.
"There is a consensus in my district that they want traffic congestion addressed and they want bridges and roads fixed," he said. "I understand nobody wants to pay taxes and I don't want to raise people's taxes, but I think what people are more concerned about is that when government spends your money, that it is a good steward of that money and that it is transparent and accountable for it."