What If Gavin Newsom Resigned Before the Recall Election?
Kathy Schwartz, a retired health care analyst living in Los Angeles, had been following the news about the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom with increasing concern.
Ms. Schwartz, 65, initially believed that the recall was a waste of time and money. But she got frightened late last month as Larry Elder, the conservative radio host, vaulted into the top spot to replace the governor, propelled by promises to immediately remove all pandemic health mandates.
Then a question occurred to her: Why couldn’t Mr. Newsom resign and allow Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a fellow Democrat, to take over, rendering the recall moot?
“Larry Elder is scary, the guy with the bear and the guy in San Diego are scary,” she said, referring to the Republican candidates John Cox and Kevin Faulconer. “So I wondered, ‘Why don’t you just resign to be safe?’”
Ms. Schwartz, who recently emailed The New York Times her query, unwittingly stumbled across a kind of thought experiment that has been percolating on social media, and among some Democrats who fear even a brief period of Republican rule in the nation’s most populous state. Earlier in the year, Christine Pelosi, the daughter of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, floated the idea to Politico as what the publication called a kind of “nuclear option.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Newsom declined to comment on whether he would step down, and Ms. Kounalakis said she was not considering the possibility.
“That is a highly unlikely scenario, so right now my main focus is on keeping Gavin Newsom in office, where he has been doing so much good for Californians,” she said.
There has been some ambiguity about what would happen if for Ms. Kounalakis were forced to take over in the next couple of days.
The California Secretary of State’s office, which runs elections, said in a statement that “we can’t at this point confirm that it would render the recall moot,” adding that “it would require more extensive research in the matter.”
The relevant section of the state’s elections code says, “If a vacancy occurs in an office after a recall petition is filed against the vacating officer, the recall election shall nevertheless proceed.”
But just because state law requires the recall election to go forward would not necessarily mean its results matter, said Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert in constitutional law.
In the scenario where the governor resigns just ahead of a recall election, “there’s no one to recall,” he said. In his reading, it would take another recall petition to trigger another recall election targeting the lieutenant governor once she took over.
Mr. Chemerinsky said there was even less indication in the State Constitution that the recall election’s results would hold if Mr. Newsom was no longer governor.
One thing Mr. Chemerinsky is certain about, though, is that if Mr. Newsom were to be replaced by Ms. Kounalakis in the coming days, there would be a lot of litigation.
“It would be a mess,” he said.
Ms. Schwartz said she did not take any chances, quickly mailing in her ballot with a “no” vote on the first question, about whether the governor should be removed. On the second question — who should replace Mr. Newsom if he is recalled? — she selected Angelyne, the pink-Corvette-driving Hollywood enigma.
If Mr. Elder wins, she said, she and her husband might move abroad.