'Exiled Elected Official, Shadow Government': Josh Newman Talks About Life After Being Booted From The State Senate

Courtesy Josh Newman

In June, now-former state Sen. Josh Newman became just the sixth state elected official in California history to be successfully recalled and removed from office.

The last official to get booted from office before him was Gov. Gray Davis, in 2003 (Davis was replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger).

During a recent interview with Newman at his home in the Fullerton hills, I ask him, "How do you identify yourself these days?" He chuckles.

"That's a good question. Josh Newman, exiled elected official, shadow government. I don't know. Yeah."

Newman, a Democrat elected in 2016 to represent the 29th senate district, which includes Walnut, Chino Hills, Fullerton and parts of Anaheim, was recalled by 58 percent of voters in June.

What does Newman think he did to deserve being booted out of Sacramento? "I voted," said the 53-year-old relatively newbie politician.

Specifically, he voted for the 2017 bill that added 12 cents to a gallon of gas in California and raised vehicle license fees by $25 to $175, depending on the age of a car.

In doing so, he joined 79 of his Democratic legislative colleagues, plus one Republican, to pass the gas tax with the two-thirds "supermajority" required under state law. Although he wasn't alone, it didn't stop recall backers from describing Newman's "aye" as "the deciding vote."

His pro-gas tax vote ignited the recall. But his opponents also attacked him for casting votes favoring California's so-called "sanctuary state" bill and S.B. 2, the measure to raise money for affordable housing by tacking a $75 fee onto real estate transactions.

The way his opponents see it, Newman got recalled because he betrayed the voters in his centrist, fiscally conservative district, one where Democrats barely outnumber Republicans, and independents make up one-quarter of registered voters.

But Newman's opponents also admit he was the easiest prey. He won his 2016 election against Republican Ling Ling Chang by just 2,500 votes. Removing him from office was part of a larger power play by Republicans to end the Democrats' legislative supermajority.

Their recall success is energizing Republicans going into the midterm general election when a repeal of the gas tax will be on the ballot. The initiative calls for the repeal of the tax — and would require that any future increases to gas and car taxes are taken directly to the voters. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll taken in May found that 51 percent of voters want the tax repealed.

Newman sees his recall as an "abuse of the system," or more colorfully, on a poster held during his campaign by a guy in a bull suit: "The recall is (was) bulls**t."

Regardless, Newman lost, and badly. Voters ousted Newman despite Democratic-backed changes to the recall process designed to help him win. One allowed people to remove their signatures from a recall petition if they felt they were duped when they originally signed it.

The choice of Chang to take over Newman's seat amounted to a do-over of the 2016 election — but with many fewer voters.

As Newman put it, his fate reflects the current phase in California and U.S. politics in which strategy is everything; politicians are either embraced or roasted by those on the political fringes. "The center is lonely," Newman said.

The following are excerpts from the interview with Newman in which he explains what he learned from the recall and his short time in the legislature. And he gives his thoughts on the upcoming gas tax repeal ballot measure.

What follows has been edited for clarity and annotated for context.

Your 2016 win was your first experience campaigning for an elected office, right? Why did you run in the first place?

My wife and I moved to Orange County about six years ago. We got involved in local Democratic stuff, but I also got involved in the question of why vets were having so much trouble getting jobs after their service.

I was struck pretty early on that the big limiting factor was leadership. And it was really about all the people who get elected and say nice things about vets but don't do those things.

And sort of the crystallizing experience for me was when I was invited, I think, in 2013 or early 2014, up to Sacramento to testify in front of what was a hearing before the Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee about veteran employment.

When I finished testifying, I looked up and every single member of the committee was looking at their phones, texting away, and there was total silence, no questions.

And so when I came home, my wife said, 'How was it?' And I said it was kind of weird, it was kind of typical of my experience with elected people. And it was she, and she wound up regretting it about a million times since then, who said: 'You know, if you really want to change things, you should think about running.'

How was Sacramento? Was it as you expected?

For the first four months, I was this new, kind of idealistic guy who was so proud to be representing his district. And then for the last year and change it's been under the cloud of this recall effort.

The vote we took that served as kind of my indictment was taken on April 6 of last year. So I went from being new guy, getting settled, committee assignments, proud to be chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, got a bunch of decent bills into the process by mid-February, to voting for what seemed to be a sensible approach to fixing California's infrastructure.

That vote was on S.B.1, the gas tax bill. The effort to recall Newman began almost immediately after the vote.

When did you find out the Republicans planned to launch a recall effort against you?

My wife and I were on vacation, it was our first vacation in forever, and we wound up going to the Caribbean. We got there after a long flight with a little kid (Newman's two-year-old daughter), and we get to the hotel and the first thing I do is whip out my phone and ask for the Wi-Fi code. And my wife rolls her eyes and says, 'Come on, we're on vacation.'

It was a really slow, slow connection and I remember I got a headline from, I think, the Sacramento Bee, and I'll never forget it because it said, 'Republicans target Southern California Democrat for recall over tax vote.' And being the naive idealist I am, I thought, 'Wow, somebody is in trouble.' And as I click on the link and it renders really slowly, lo and behold it's actually my picture.

How did that feel?

It just seemed, you know, almost surreal, that out of 81 votes right across two houses (the California Assembly and Senate), they single one guy out.

I'm not sure I took it as seriously as it became because the logic just didn't square. I felt when people really understand the actual nature of the vote, like, it will not stick that I was somehow the deciding vote. And, in fact, it not only stuck, it got worse. I mean, you know, depending on your definition of worse, but it got more fixed.

And so I became on talk radio in this area Exhibit A of what's wrong with Democratic politics in California. And suddenly I wasn't just blamed for the gas tax. I was blamed for the sanctuary state, for open borders, for letting felons out of prison. I mean, you name it, I got blamed for that. And in fact, I never introduced a single piece of legislation that raised anybody's taxes.

Do you regret voting for the gas tax?

My point of view is, was, really straightforward, which was kind of the homeowners association analogy. If you were elected to the Board of an HOA and you found out that your predecessors for 20 years had neglected the property, what would you do? It would be your responsibility to fix the property, and how would you do that? You'd probably raise your homeowners' dues sufficiently to pay for those repairs.

What is the legislature if not, you know, the state's HOA? We could have done some things to make (the gas tax) less regressive. We certainly could have sold it better to persuade people that it was necessary prior to the vote.

But, you know, my thinking was you cannot fix California's infrastructure without making big investments. We have $100 billion worth of deferred maintenance in California, so you need a dedicated funding source to make sure you can do those things.

During the recall campaign, no one seemed to be talking about your overall record in the legislature. What are you most proud of?

Three things: I got in last year's budget $20 million in funding over four years for a regional pilot program aimed at finding better approaches to the root causes of homelessness and gang violence.

I got in last year's budget $5 million a year for veterans in community colleges to make sure that if any vet goes to any community college they'll get hopefully a baseline level of support for their educational activities.

And then the third thing, I got a bill passed that strengthens California's drowning prevention law, which will have a material impact on saving kids from drowning in residential pools.

But you got recalled over your votes for bills that were not your own, principally the gas tax.

This idea that I somehow betrayed my voters or voted different than they expected is not very compelling to me, because my record itself was fairly centrist. My profile is fairly centrist. I just happened to get associated with something that made people, apparently, very angry.

That disconnect, you know, between that one vote (for the gas tax) and my larger record was real. The average voter doesn't really know day-to-day what their legislator is doing for them. And if you make that person aware of only one thing, that your legislator is the guy who took the money out of your pocket when you went to get gas, then, you know, they are persuadable.

And (the recall campaigners) presented people with a petition that said, 'Hey, do you want to repeal the gas tax? They raised your taxes, sign here, repeal the gas tax,' when in fact, it was a petition for my recall.

Newman has a pending lawsuit against recall backers, claiming signature gatherers were falsely telling potential signers that the petition was to repeal the gas tax.

The proof that there was something odd about my recall is that not a single one of those other (legislators who voted for the gas tax) faced any effort at all toward recalling any of them, and we all did the exact same thing. So there's nothing so unique about northern Orange County that a vote like mine is somehow treasonous. It's the same gas as everywhere else. The same roads need fixing.

Newman's opponents say his voting record isn't centrist at all and that his positions are far to the left of the majority of his constituents.

At this point, how angry are you still about how this all went down?

As somebody for whom integrity is important, it really does rankle that so many people look askance at the abuse of the process right now.

We can be rivals, you can run against me, you know, and say anything you want about me, but to exploit a weakness in the system to get what you could not get through the normal political process is wrong.

Republicans and recall supporters say it was Democrats who abused the process. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued the state claiming that legislators improperly changed the rules on recalls to help Newman fend off the attempt to oust him.

And it always struck me as wrong that my Republican colleagues all came up to me at various times and said, 'Hey, you're a great guy, I don't support this.' And I'd say, 'Why don't you say something? Why don't you say it's wrong?' 'Ah, I can't do that.' And then they would always say, like, 'If the roles were reversed, you'd be the same way.' And I'd say, 'Well, I wouldn't. I would stand up and say I don't want to be part of this. It's an abuse of the system.'

During a June 2017 floor debate first reported on by the Sacramento Bee, Republican Senator Joel Anderson said of Newman, "I like our colleague an awful lot. I think he's a great guy. But it's between him and his district."

In support of Newman, the California Nurses Association paid for signs during the recall campaign that read "Josh Newman is a really good guy. Vote NO on the RECALL."

Opponents insist that recalling Newman for his vote on the gas tax was a legitimate use of the recall process. The 1911 constitutional amendment that established the process for recalling and removing elected officials from office does not specify reasons for which an official can be recalled. A recall guide posted on the Secretary of State's website says the recall process "has been used by voters to express their dissatisfaction with their elected representatives."

And in fact, at least four out of the six elected state officials successfully recalled from public office in California's history were removed not because of malfeasance but because of voter dissatisfaction. Notably, Gray Davis was recalled because, in part, he increased vehicle license fees.

KFI's conservative talk show hosts John and Ken called their show "ground zero" for the recall campaign. How did their adoption of the campaign affect the outcome?

John and Ken beat me. Their listeners beat me. The way I really came to terms with that was the day after I lost, so many of the trolling messages that I got, emails and on social media, they all went along the lines of, 'We did it, Ken and John and us did it. We kicked you out, you loser.'

Did you ever go on their show?

One of my regrets is that I was persuaded not to (go on the show) because people said, 'Oh, they won't give you a fair hearing, they'll talk over you.' I should have done it, because, at the end of the day, it really became our strategy against their listeners and they won.

If I were going to spend $5 million again, which is give or take what we spent to lose, it would have been better spent on advertising on KFI.

Does it make you wish you had a John and Ken on your side?

I mean, I know a bunch of people who were involved in Air America (a progressive talk radio network that went off the air in 2010.) That didn't work, right. So, you know, I don't know.

It's kind of a lonely place in the center. Far right people won't let the truth change their minds; the far left has a similar quality sometimes. The center is where people, I believe, should live. That's where politics has the best opportunity to work.

But the passion with which people follow politics has this kind of inverse curve, which is it's most passionate on the ends. And in the middle, people are going about their lives.

It turns out one of the challenges of fighting a recall was you have to let people know that you're their senator in the first place.

What else do you regret?

All my consultants, etceteras, the pollsters said we can't talk about the gas tax. So like, 'If I'm getting recalled about the gas tax, why can't I talk about the gas tax?' (They'd say), 'It's toxic.' And then you realize, well, if it's so toxic then you probably are in trouble.

It turns out there was no downside worse than what happened and so I should have talked about the gas tax. If it was worth voting for, it's worth defending.

The other truth was that even as we weren't talking specifically about the gas tax and its merits, the folks who wanted to kick me out were talking nonstop about it and that's, I think, the real insight.

In the end, would you agree that the Republicans' overall strategy — recall you, end the Democratic supermajority, repeal the gas tax — was a smart one?

If you have a bank and you leave the vault open and somebody is smart enough to come in and take all your money, they're brilliant. But if you let that happen, you're an idiot, right? Our system allowed that to happen and we should fix it. Irrespective of my outcome, it should get fixed because it is not conducive to good government.

Newman authored a bill, S.B. 1394, that would have made it illegal to pay signature gatherers on a per-signature basis. He says paying by signature leads to false portrayals of proposed initiatives in order to get signatures. Democratic Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley) is sponsoring a similar bill.

They got rid of me but Democrats still have a massive majority (in the legislature) and they may actually end up having a supermajority again post-November. But the truth is, (the recall) does have the intended effect, at least by implication, which is a lot of people in the legislature now are afraid to become meat. They will consider their votes with an eye on, 'Will this leave me vulnerable to that weak gazelle strategy?'

That's not good for discourse within the legislature, that's not good for good decision-making.

Republicans disagree. That's exactly what they want legislators to do: reconsider votes that could anger their conservative constituents.

As for the "weak gazelle strategy," recall backer Carl DeMaio spoke of it frequently during the campaign to oust Newman: In order to break the Democrats' supermajority and either scare their remaining colleagues into repealing the gas tax or preventing future attempts at tax hikes, they targeted the most vulnerable of the herd: Newman.

What's next for you? Spending more time hanging out with your two-year-old?

Yeah. The great thing about having a two-year-old, she didn't care why Dad got recalled, she's just glad to have him around.

I still believe very strongly in public service. California is a wonderful place and we continue to succeed almost despite ourselves. And I was very proud to be part of that process. So the question is, you know, what next? How can I continue to contribute? And I'm not really sure.

Newman hinted he might run for office again, recall be damned.


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