What a Republican Governor Could Do – and Undo – If Newsom Is Recalled

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Larry Elder in a dark suit and pink tie, with a projected image of a phoenix on the wall behind him
Larry Elder speaking at the 2016 FreedomFest at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. The radio talk show host is running for California governor as a Republican. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Last week's surprise decision by two California parole board members — recommending the release of Sirhan Sirhan, who shot and killed Sen. Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968 — underscores the power a California governor holds, as voters weigh in on whether to recall the state's current leader, Gov. Gavin Newsom.

While the Democrat-controlled state Legislature could undoubtedly rein in a Republican governor in some ways if Newsom is ousted from office in the Sept. 14 election, parole decisions are just one of the many unilateral powers held by the governor.

Also on the table: judicial appointments, agency leadership appointments, shaping the state budget and whether to restart executions in California — as well as everyday decisions over how to implement and carry out existing state laws, including controversial policies like the one that provides undocumented immigrants with health care coverage.

Perhaps most importantly, in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, a new governor could — and likely would — make drastic changes to how the state approaches COVID-19 restrictions.

All of the leading Republican candidates have vowed to do away with Newsom's mandates on masks and vaccines if elected.

"Our governor has a lot of leeway to do things that have little to nothing to do with legislation, like completely rolling back any science-based decision making," said Dana Williamson, who worked as a top aide to former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

"I think with COVID, you've seen folks like [conservative talk show host and candidate] Larry Elder say that he would get rid of the mask mandate and he would not mandate vaccines."

That position may be popular with Elder's base, but polls show Californians overall have largely been on board with the governor's strict COVID-19 restrictions.

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Republican Mike Genest, who worked as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finance director and supports the recall, agreed that "any emergency or executive action that this governor has taken could be undone on day one of the new governor."

"[A Republican] governor would face an uphill battle with the largely Democrat Legislature," Genest said. "But there are still lots of specific actions the governor can take with an executive order."

But executive orders — either new ones or the rescinding of old ones — are just the most high-profile way a new governor could put their imprint on the state, said Jennifer Kent, who served as director of the state Department of Health Care Services from 2015 to 2019.

She warned that "incompetent or ignorant people" appointed to the agency she once led "could make stupid mistakes that cost hundreds of millions or billions [of dollars] in damage." And she said that while many of the existing policies opposed by Republican candidates — such as abortion access and health care insurance being provided to undocumented immigrants — are enshrined in state law, they can be slowed down or halted through simple administrative maneuvers.

"The vast majority of government runs behind the scenes," Kent said. "All of the attention that people have paid to getting a statute changed and whether the Elder administration would veto or sign this or that, miss 95% of the action. Government is run by state employees, not the Legislature."

A monumental parole decision

The parole board's decision in the case of Sirhan Sirhan was immediately seized upon by Republicans candidates who have also sought to make crime rates and larger criminal justice policy a key issue in the recall.

In California, governors have the final say on major parole decisions, so it’ll be left to Newsom — or the person who replaces him — to decide Sirhan’s fate. Newsom says he’ll review the parole board’s final recommendation before deciding, but Republicans hoping to replace Newsom see a good wedge issue, and are calling on him to reverse the decision now.

"You may think Sirhan Sirhan should or should not be paroled. Reasonable people can disagree about that. But oh, boy, politics are incredibly tied up with this," said Robert Weisberg, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. He said recent governors, Republican and Democrat, have taken very different approaches to parole decisions.

"[Former Gov.] Gray Davis just didn't want anybody to be paroled. Schwarzenegger changed things a little. [Former Gov. Jerry] Brown changed things considerably," Weisberg said.

Newsom, Weisberg said, has taken a slightly more cautious approach to parole decisions than Jerry Brown did, and hasn't hesitated to reverse parole recommendations, as he did for two followers of cult leader Charles Manson.

Whatever happens with Sirhan, one big policy reversal that could come with a Republican governor is the resumption of capital punishment, which Newsom put on hold shortly after he took office. A new governor could instantly reverse that, but Weisberg said it's unlikely that executions would resume immediately: He noted that any new governor would only have about a year in office before the next gubernatorial election.

"I suspect if a new governor lifts the moratorium, it's going to be largely symbolic, certainly in the very short term in which the newly elected governor serves," because, Weisberg said, defense lawyers would ramp up legal appeals to slow down the process.

The bully pulpit

Genest, the former Republican finance director, agrees with Weisberg that the biggest change in criminal justice policy with a new governor might be mostly symbolic. He said a new governor couldn't change most of the criminal justice reforms passed by voters and lawmakers in recent years — but they could use the bully pulpit to change the conversation.

"Yeah, the governor can't do anything about the crime laws without getting the people engaged in demanding that we fight crime," he said. "But until you have a governor who's willing to take those stands, you can't start improving that."

But even a short-term governor could make an impact on the courts and other policy through appointments.

"There's thousands and thousands of appointments that the governor makes, including judges," said Williamson, the former Brown aide.

"So all of a sudden, you could have our courts stacked with super-conservative judges. As you see in the federal government, climate change policies could be impacted because the governor has appointees on the California Air Resources Board," Williamson said.

And, she notes, judges aren’t the only appointments a governor makes. A new governor could fire the heads of agencies overseeing health, the environment, schools — pretty much everything.

There’s also the potential for less quantifiable impacts, said Daniel Zingale, who worked as a policy adviser for both Schwarzenegger and Newsom. He said state agencies could see a brain drain if staff members are demoralized by a new governor’s approach to policies like health care or pandemic response.

"I think many of the current people are just hanging on out of dedication to fighting the pandemic. So, if they felt like a new leader came in and didn't have that as a priority, you'll probably have some exodus," Zingale said.

Jennifer Kent agreed, calling the potential for an exodus of career state workers "one of the most devastating effects, far greater than a temporary loss of this program or that payment," because, she said, it's much harder to replace experience and expertise than to reverse a policy decision.

The state budget

And then there’s the budget. A new governor would take office at the end of October, right as the administration is normally starting to prepare a spending proposal, which must be unveiled by law in early January.

That budget proposal would be a new governor’s biggest opportunity to put a stamp on state government, said Lanhee Chen, a Republican running for state controller and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

"It is a way of sending a strong message about what the priorities of an administration are and where the administration is going to fight with a Legislature," he said.

Former administration officials on both sides of the aisle agree that, if a Republican wins the recall, a stalemate over the budget with Democratic lawmakers is all but inevitable.

That could lead to budget negotiations dragging on beyond the July 1 start of the fiscal year, said Genest, the GOP former finance director.

He argued that while a late budget isn’t ideal and could harm private companies that do business with the state, it wouldn't affect most Californians.

"The state has a long history of late budgets and there's really nothing dramatic that happens with a late budget," he said.

Williamson disagreed, noting that schools must plan their spending months in advance and that if state agencies run out of appropriated money, they could be forced to lay off workers.

"You know, you could have a situation where a school district says, 'Well, we don't know what the state budget situation looks like, so we are going to cut sports and arts and after-school programs,'" she said.

Of course, a new governor and state lawmakers could put politics aside and try to find common ground. One former Republican Assembly leader said he would urge any new governor to search for areas of agreement.

"When you’re governor, if you cannot work with the Legislature, you cannot solve problems," said former San Luis Obispo Assemblymember Sam Blakeslee, who served during the tenure of the last, and only, governor to win a recall election — Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"We don't have a dictatorship, we don't have powers conveyed to a governor to unilaterally solve problems," he said. "An effective governor is someone who could work with the legislative branch."