Tulare County is key in recall campaign

Reggie Ellis

Retired teacher Ellen Woitalla of Visalia helped gather nearly 200,000 signatures in recall effort of Gov. Gavin Newsom

TULARE COUNTY – Valley residents hoping for the day Sacramento will have to start paying attention to the rural expanse between the Bay Area and Southern California may not have to wait much longer. And when the day comes, they’ll have a retired Visalia school teacher to thank for it.

Ellen Woitalla retired from teaching in 2019 and two months later joined the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, which ultimately failed. Now, two years later, she is just a few days shy of finding out if her latest efforts to round up recall signatures will finally pay off.

“I learned a lot about what not to do during the recall effort in 2019,” Woitalla said. “Those lessons were invaluable the second time around.”

Legally petitioners needed 12% of voters, just under 1.5 million signatures statewide, to qualify the recall for the ballot, but had a goal of collecting more than 2 million signatures to have a cushion in case some are disqualified. In previous recall efforts, there had been as many as 25% of signatures disqualified. Signatures can be disqualified if: the address the signer used is different from the one they use to register to vote; signatures on a petition for a county other than their county of residence; and if a person signs more than one petition.

Woitalla is a regional manager for the Recall Gavin 2020 campaign that began last June. She’s in charge of Zone 4 which includes her home in Tulare County as well as Fresno, Madera, Kings, Kern and Inyo counties. Her counties got at least double the 12% needed, and in Tulare County’s case, three times what was needed.

“I wanted my retirement to be used in a way to take our state back,” she said.

Woitalla said fighting for people’s attention during the pandemic was difficult, but once she got people talking, it wasn’t hard to find some common ground on their disappointment with Gov. Gavin Newsom. She said the top reasons Valley residents gave for signing the petition were parents upset with the closures of schools, early release programs for county jail inmates, AB 5, the state’s law limiting independent contractors or gig work, and the infamous French Laundry scandal, where Newsom was photographed dining indoors at an upscale Napa Valley restaurant with a dozen people, including lobbyists, who were not socially distanced and not wearing masks.

She said the illegal dinner meeting not only re-energized volunteers to keep pushing for signatures but also brought undecided voters on board with the recall effort.

“It fired up the base,” Woitalla said. “Every time he came to the Central Valley, we made sure we had people out there with signs to let him know he wasn’t welcome.”

Tulare County was in the top 10 for counties with the most signatures (38,174), most verified signatures (34,605) and the highest percentage of signatures compared to voter registration (18.8%), as of Feb. 10, the last time the Secretary of State updated its registration by county list. The bulk of signatures came from highly populated liberal leaning counties in Southern California, including Los Angeles (327,164), Orange (263,049), San Diego (226,985) and Riverside (203,516). The county with the highest percentage of signatures among registered voters was Siskiyou, a rural conservative county on the Oregon border where petitioners gathered enough signatures to represent more than two-thirds of voters (68%). According to the Secretary of State’s Office, this is the fifth of six attempts to recall Newsom and the second attempt by lead proponent Orrin Heatlie, a retired cop living in Folsom, Calif. Heatlie issued the following statement after submitting 1,964,203 signatures which had been pre-verified from an independent third-party vendor who specializes in getting ballot initiatives to qualify for election here in California.

“The People have spoken. Politics as usual in California are over as we know it to be. Governor Newsom has ignored the People’s Recall for months; he can no longer put his head in the sand,” Heatlie said.

Randy Economy, chief media spokesman for the campaign, said he had worked on previous recall campaigns that failed. He said Heatlie’s campaign was different because Heatlie built an organizational structure first and then hired dedicated volunteers to fill in the flow chart. Economy said Heatlie drove 9.5 hours from Yolo County to Los Angeles to personally meet with him about joining the recall campaign.

“The biggest difference, and why this recall will succeed, is the people, from top to bottom,” Economy said. “This petition is supported by people of all sexes, every race and every political party, all focused on making California better.”

Woitalla had a similar experience. She had worked on one of the 2019 recall campaigns led by Erin Cruz, a former Senate and Congressional candidate in Southern California. Woitalla said she never met Cruz and felt disconnected from the central leadership of the campaigns. That wasn’t the case with Heatlie, who made a point to meet her before she joined the team and keeps in touch with county organizers to find out what they need and what they need to hear.

“At some point, you need a leader who can rally the troops when things start to slow down,” Woitalla said. “With Orrin, if you have a question, you get a response within minutes or a few hours. You feel like part of a team.”

Economy said timing was also crucial with this recall campaign. When the original deadline for signatures was approaching in November, a judge granted a 120-day extension, based on arguments related to COVID-19 restrictions and safety, moving the deadline from Nov. 17, 2020 to March 17, 2021. Shortly after the ruling, Newsom was photographed dining indoors with a dozen people, none of them wearing masks, at the French Laundry, an upscale restaurant in Napa Valley.

“The timing was perfect for us,” Economy said. “This will go down as the last line in Newsom’s political obituary.”

The last successful recall attempt of a California governor was in 2003 when 55.4% of Californians voted to recall Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, and replace him with Hollywood icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. The 2003 recall required about 800,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, but Newsome will need at least 1.2 million. With more than 2.1 million signatures, the recall effort is all but certain to qualify for an election but the outcome remains less clear. If the Newsom recall qualifies for the ballot, California will have held two of the five gubernatorial recall elections in the history of the nation.

A March 30 report by the Public Policy Institute of California says only 40% of state voters support recalling Newsom and its mostly along party lines. Democrats make up about 46% of voter registration in the state, a 20-point lead over both Republicans and those claiming No Party Preference.

“The mistake Gray Davis made is that he didn’t listen to the people,” said Economy, who has helped run more than 300 political campaigns. “Newsom thinks he is above the people.”

A handful of Republicans have announced their intention to run including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, businessman Jon Cox, who lost to Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial election, former Rep. Doug Ose, Major Williams, a Texas transplant who ran for the Mayor of Pasadena, and Richard Grennell, former acting director of national intelligence under President Donald Trump. More recently transgender reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner expressed an interest in running in the recall election.

When asked who most recall petitioners would vote for in the recall, Economy said the recall was not a campaign to elect someone to office but a campaign to remove someone from office.

“It’s not our job to pick the next governor,” he said. “Our job is to remove this one.”

As of March 11, the Secretary of State’s Office has verified 1.1 million signatures and will likely pass the 1.5 million needed to qualify for the ballot next Monday, April 19, the next update on the signature verification process. Signatures in every county must be verified by April 29. If enough signatures are verified, that will start a 30-day period, business days, where those who signed the petition will have the opportunity to change their mind. Next, there is a period for the Department of Finance and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to estimate and review the costs of a special recall election. Once the Secretary of State certifies the recall, the lieutenant governor will call an election 60 to 80 days from that date, estimated to be sometime between Oct. 6 and Dec. 5.

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