Opinion: The celebrity factor in recall elections

Many Californians laughed out loud back in 1998, when Minnesota voters by a wide margin elected longtime professional wrestler and sometime talk show host Jesse Ventura their governor.


But almost exactly five years later, those same Californians by a wide margin made longtime movie muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger their “governator,” and then kept him and his cigars in office for seven years.


Neither Ventura nor Schwarzenegger had an iota of administrative experience, but both had shown some interest in public affairs. Schwarzenegger, for one, campaigned hard five years before he became governor in the recall of ex-Gov. Gray Davis for an initiative that created today’s First Five pre-school education program and then helped promote it.


So it was no shock that in the first two polls taken on candidates to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in case he’s recalled, a celebrity with no government experience led the field.


That’s Larry Elder, who polled 16 percent in one survey and 18 percent in another that appeared days later. In both surveys, Elder was 10 points ahead of political veterans John Cox and Kevin Faulconer in a field that includes no well-funded Democrats, largely because Newsom pushed his party to keep established figures out.


There is one Democrat with political experience who’s running: Joel Ventresca, who took third in the 2019 San Francisco mayoral election and has run for office several times. Ventresca, a longtime administrative analyst for the San Francisco International Airport, has had several runs, never coming close to a win. In his mayoral attempt, he got about 10 percent as many votes as current Mayor London Breed.


Ventresca, clearly, has no wide following. But Elder, a conservative Black man whose talk show has run for decades on Los Angeles radio station KABC-AM plainly does. When he was omitted from a column naming a few recall candidates last month, dozens of readers wrote to complain of “Elder abuse.”


Should Newsom get around to trying to make the recall seem a contest between him and a bunch of Donald Trump acolytes, it would be easy to include Elder. He has long used his talk show to promote extreme conservatives, some of whom went on to become key aides to the former president. Trump adviser Steven Miller, said to be the author of most Trump immigration policy, began appearing with Elder while still in high school.


But if celebrity is such a big advantage in politics, and especially recall elections, what about Caitlin Jenner? The transgender reality show star and former Olympic decathlon champion pulled only about three percent support in the same polls that Elder led.


It might be her transgender identity, detested by many Republican politicians and much of the party’s rank and file. Or it might be her utter lack of civic involvement and her spotty voting record prior to declaring herself a replacement candidate. Or it might be that voters don’t care much for celebrities with unconventional lifestyles or conditions. The late actor Gary Coleman, who stopped growing at 4’8” and ran as a replacement candidate in 2003, drew very few votes, as Jenner seems likely to this time.


There may be a lesson for Democrats in all this — especially if Newsom doesn’t survive the recall. Should that happen, the party does not now have any obvious candidates to step up and oust Elder or any other recall replacement in next year’s regular election. A lieutenant governor might often be the logical successor candidate. So might an attorney general.


But Lt. Gov. Elena Kounalakis has not built a major following in three years as the state’s No. 2, while appointed Attorney General Rob Bonta struggles to make his ultra-left leaning views acceptable to voters.


Yes, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank created something of a following with his impeachment efforts against Trump. Orange County Rep. Katie Porter is widely admired among Democrats, too.


But neither enjoys robust statewide support.


So might Democrats take a leaf from the playbook of California Republicans, who have turned to celebrities like actors George Murphy, Ronald Reagan and Schwarzenegger when they didn’t have experienced officeholders to lead their tickets? If so, someone like George Clooney might be their man next year, since activist actor Warren Beatty’s political time likely has passed.


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Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is tdelias@aol.com.