Kevin Kiley Bets Parent Frustration Can Drive His Recall Campaign

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Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, campaigns for governor ahead of the California's Sept. 14 recall election.  (Courtesy Kiley for California)

The last time a Republican was swept into California's governor's office as a result of a recall election, Kevin Kiley had a front-row seat.

In early 2004, Kiley, having just wrapped up his freshman year of college, worked as an intern in the governor's office as Arnold Schwarzenegger assumed the reigns of state government following his victory in the 2003 recall.

"I kind of had a firsthand view of this effort to get a government up and running after a kind of unexpected change in personnel," Kiley remembers.

Now, Kiley is hoping another unexpected change will land him in the governor's office. Kiley, three-term state assemblymember representing Rocklin, is one of the leading candidates to potentially replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in the Sept. 14 recall election. The only member of the state Legislature on the ballot, Kiley says Newsom's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by executive overreach.

In an interview with KQED's Political Breakdown, Kiley laid out his case against Newsom, and argued his experience in state government will allow him to move quickly in pursuit of an agenda that includes a move away from mask and vaccine requirements, and education policies that favor charter schools and a school voucher program.

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"Having spent five years at the Capitol, I know exactly how broken our state government is," he said. "I know exactly what the problems are and how I go about fixing them on day one."

In the Legislature, Kiley has emerged as a leading critic of Newsom's pandemic response. He filed suit against Newsom to curtail some of the governor's executive actions (a court of appeal disagreed with his claims), and he even wrote a book laying out his case for the recall.

Kiley now says Newsom is overreaching with his push to require vaccinations for public employees and health care workers. State officials say the rules are needed because infections are on the rise among health care workers, despite their early access to the vaccine.

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"People can make the choice for themselves as to whether they and their families do want to get vaccinated," Kiley said.

Kiley said his path into politics was shaped by a stint at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, where he taught 10th grade English and started a debate team while in the Teach for America program.

"I had a really amazing experience, but I also saw how much our public education system is failing a lot of our kids," he said. "The 10th graders that I taught would on average be at a fifth grade reading level when they came into my class."

In the Assembly, Kiley serves as the top Republican on the Education Committee. He has been a vocal opponent of Newsom's education policies, including a 2019 law that overhauled the state's rules governing charter schools. The changes, which Kiley voted against, allowed school officials to consider a district's finances when weighing whether to approve a new charter school and placed a moratorium on non-classroom-based charter schools.

This past year, Kiley has aimed his ire at the governor's handling of school reopenings, pointing to California's slow return to in-person education as the "most egregious example" of Newsom's failings as governor.

"This governor inflicted untold harm on a generation of young people while his own kids were in private school," Kiley said.

While Republicans have traditionally preferred school decisions be left to local officials, Kiley said state leaders should have stepped in when some districts were slow to return kids to in-person learning.

In March, Newsom and legislative leaders struck a deal to incentivize a return to classroom instruction, sending billions of dollars to local districts. Most Republicans in the Legislature supported the move, but Kiley voted against the bill, arguing it didn't go far enough to mandate an end to distance learning.

"Responsible leadership on the part of our state government would have said 'you need to open,' " he said. "Local control does not extend to whether you have school at all."

While a statewide survey found positive marks for Newsom's handling of school reopenings, Kiley is convinced the underlying anger of some parents will open the door to sweeping changes to education policy in California.

To that end, Kiley is sponsoring a 2022 ballot initiative to create a school voucher system, allowing public school students to spend their allotment of state education funding on the school of their choice.

The measure, Kiley said, "will not only empower families to do what's right for their own kids and find the best fit for them, but also give incentives to the traditional public schools to, if they're not serving students well, to get their act together in order to retain students."

Previous school voucher initiatives have been trounced by California voters (though the last was on the ballot in 2000), and critics of the idea argue that a system in which taxpayer dollars are funneled into private schools will lack any oversight and accountability.

While polls on the recall question have tightened in recent weeks, Kiley has lagged behind a handful of other potential replacement candidates. A survey from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found him behind fellow Republicans Larry Elder, Kevin Faulconer and John Cox, with the backing of 5% of likely voters. An Emerson College poll also found him attracting support from 5% of the likely electorate.

Kiley has promised to move quickly if he is elected to replace Newsom in the recall election — even joking that his rapid-fire delivery at Wednesday's candidate debate reflected his desired pace of change.

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"By the time the recall is over, the Legislature will be adjourned for the year, but I'll summon a special session," Kiley said. "I'll throw down the gantlet and say we need to pass sweeping reform on these key challenges facing the state: our failing public schools, homelessness, crime, the soaring cost of living."