SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom has spent the past two weeks doing a vaccination road show, traveling to inoculation sites to tout the state's rapidly improving coronavirus numbers and efforts to build an infrastructure to provide millions of shots every week.
It's a good showcase for the governor who is barely two years into his first term but has seen his popularity fall and a recall election become increasingly likely.
The six-stop tour serves the dual purpose of informing the public about his administration's vaccination efforts while presenting a campaign-friendly image of an in-charge executive.
At each stop, he's been flanked by fellow elected officials, mostly Democrats, who praise his leadership. And while Newsom has barely commented publicly about the recall effort, those at his appearances didn't need any prodding to reject the idea of turning him out of office.
“Gov. Newsom has done an outstanding job for the state of California,” Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez said Wednesday, as Newsom toured a vaccination clinic in the Coachella Valley. “Obviously there’s differences of opinion, but at the end of the day, the way I see it, this man has stood up for us, for the underserved, and we do our part as well to stand up for him.”
Congressman Raul Ruiz, a doctor who represents the area, said Newsom “saved millions of lives with his early, decisive decisions.”
That Democrats feel the need to praise the governor so effusively may underscore the seriousness of the recall effort and the desire for the party to show a united front, said Eric Schickler, co-director of the Institute for Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
The tour gives Newsom a chance to “remind voters that there is this team of Democratic lawmakers, officials, who are working together rather than quibbling with one another,” Schickler said.
Republican recall organizers say they've gathered more than the 1.5 million signatures they need to force a vote on whether the governor deserves to keep his job. Most of those signatures still need to be verified and inevitably some will be thrown out, but organizers have another month to keep gathering.
The recall effort started before the pandemic as a partisan effort, with organizers criticizing Newsom's approach to crime, homelessness and the economy. They have since seized on Newsom's response to the pandemic, pointing to business and school closures as they try to get more signatures.
It didn't gain much ground until it was revealed Newsom had dined with friends — some of them lobbyists — at a posh restaurant near Napa at the time he was telling Californians to wear masks and stay home to avoid spreading the virus. Photos from the event showed Newsom without a mask and he and the others sitting closely together at a table.
Newsom became less visible after the restaurant story broke but with virus cases now plummeting and vaccine available, he's again front and center, as he was during the first months of the pandemic. His tour took him to most major media markets, giving him fresh visibility with millions of voters.
In Los Angeles, Newsom showcased a new, more positive relationship with the federal government under President Joe Biden as California opened the nation's first two federally supported mass vaccination sites.
In San Diego — home turf for Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Faulconer, the city's former Republican mayor — he praised the city's new Democratic leadership.
In the Central Valley and Inland Empire, two areas hit hard by the virus and home to large populations of farm and food processing workers who are now eligible for vaccinations, officials praised him for caring about areas of the state that often get overlooked.
While Newsom brushes off questions about the recall, he has acknowledged that he wants Californians to understand that things are getting better. His ability to survive a recall will depend greatly on factors like whether schools and businesses are open and most Californians are vaccinated by the fall.
“I want people to know of this progress," he said, after detailing rapidly declining positivity rates, hospitalizations and deaths. “I hope, over the course of the next number of weeks, people absorb this different reality with more optimism."
Others have acknowledged the politics swirling around the governor.
“He’s made tough decision that aren’t popular right now,” Congressman Jim Costa of Fresno said last week. “But he is tenacious and he is steadfast.”
Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, who is a registered Republican though the office is nonpartisan, thanked Newsom for visiting and said “unfortunately we’ve seen far too much” finger-pointing and not enough unity. Dyer, who has not been involved with the recall, said elected officials will always face scrutiny over whether their actions are political.
“Is this being motivated by politics in an attempt to gain votes or support, or in this case to head up a recall? Those questions are legitimate,” he said in an interview. “But I was not asked in any way, shape or form to say anything positive about the governor.”
Nick Shapiro, a Newsom adviser who helped put together the tour, said Newsom would be visiting vaccination sites regardless of his political standing.
“He should be going out there, building support for the vaccine, building confidence in California’s ability to deliver it and doing everything he can to safely reopen the state," Shapiro said. “That would happen whether there is a recall or not. There is no way the governor wouldn't be doing this stuff."