Schwarzenegger says atmosphere of this year’s California recall looks ‘exactly the same’ as when he won in 2003

But he certainly has some strong opinions.

“There’s millions of people out there that are dissatisfied, dissatisfied with the way the corona was handled, dissatisfied with the fires,” Schwarzenegger observed.

Then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Sir Richard Branson and then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speak at a ribbon cutting in 2010 in San Francisco.

“It’s very dangerous for him because you got to take this stuff seriously. For too long, they didn’t take it seriously. But now I think they do take it seriously,” he said of the Newsom camp.

I sat down with the bodybuilder-turned-movie-star-turned-politician at his Los Angeles home for the new CNN podcast “Total Recall: California’s Political Circus,” which is a detailed look back at the 2003 recall that made Schwarzenegger governor.

And though a lot is different about this year’s recall — no international celebrity using one liners from his blockbuster action movies is on the ballot — there are plenty of similarities.

In 2003, Californians felt the problems in the Golden State in very direct and personal ways. An energy crisis led to rolling blackouts and people losing electricity. A recession meant job loss and widespread financial pain. A state budget crisis addressed by upping the car tax made people furious.

Now, in 2021, Californians are once again angry. This time it’s about the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses struggling or flat out closing as a result, sky high housing costs and an explosion of homelessness bringing tent cities to urban and suburban areas alike.

“It is exactly the same. The atmosphere is exactly the same (as) when I ran,” Schwarzenegger said.

Former CA Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: “It’s very dangerous” for Newsom

“There’s a reason why people are angry and they’re not just disappointed. … I drive by homeless people every day when I go to Gold’s Gym and I talk to some of them. They’re angry the way they’ve been pushed around and they’ve been promised things and no delivery,” he said. But he also sympathizes with business owners, whose boardwalk store fronts he says have been fouled by human waste. “This is your environment in front of a store that you’re paying taxes for and you’re paying a lot of rent for, this is inexcusable. Where’s the protection for our business community that it pays its taxes?”

Schwarzenegger is careful to say that he is not suggesting these are reasons for Newsom to be recalled. He says he is merely pointing out the realities of the Democrat’s situation.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder at a news conference earlier this month in Los Angeles.
Newsom advisers agree that the anger may be as or even more palpable now as it was back in 2003, but they argue the consequences of the 2021 recall are more dire because the leading Republican right now is no Schwarzenegger moderate. He is conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, who calls himself a small-l Libertarian, but whom Democrats and some GOP candidates warn would usher in a Trumpian takeover of California.

Davis then versus Newsom now

Former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis knows firsthand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of voter anger, and how they tend to direct it at the man in charge, warranted or not. In 2003, Davis was that guy, and he ended up the only governor in California history to be recalled.

Former Gov. Gray Davis: “No one goes through life without losing an election”

When talk of recalling him started back then, he says he “didn’t really take it seriously” for lots of reasons, including the fact that it hadn’t happened before.

“Almost every public official (in California) is subject to a recall. At the end of the day, they generally can’t gather enough signatures to make it viable. So, I knew it was possible, but I didn’t worry about it,” Davis said in a Zoom interview for the podcast.

But things continued to go south in California and Davis’ poll numbers plummeted. As former President Harry Truman famously said, the buck stopped with him.

“Yes, I take responsibility. I mean, I had to leave office,” Davis said.

With union representives standing behind him, then-California Gov. Gray Davis signs the state budget in 2003.
Newsom hasn’t seen his approval ratings tank the way Davis’ did nearly two decades ago, but the way Newsom is serving as a vessel for voter anger — this time about the ripple effects from the pandemic — is similar. Newsom’s trip to Napa to break his own lockdown rules and dine at The French Laundry, one of the most expensive restaurants in the country, didn’t help.
In an interview with Edward Isaac-Dovere of the Atlantic last month, Newsom candidly acknowledged the reality of his situation in a way that sounded a lot like the way Davis reflected on his own troubles.

“At the end of the day, if you don’t take responsibility, everyone’s going to assign it to you. So you own it,” Newsom said.

A difference: No other major Democratic candidates this time around

Davis says he is convinced that Newsom will beat back the recall election. A big difference between then and now is that in 2003, Davis wasn’t just facing challengers on the recall ballot outside of his party, he also had a prominent Democratic opponent: his own lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante.

“The most important lesson is do not allow another Democrat to get into this race,” Davis told us, clearly still smarting over Bustamante’s candidacy.

Davis and other Democrats argue that one of the reasons he was recalled in 2003 is because Democratic voters had an alternative candidate in their party to replace him. And while there are other Democrats running in this year’s recall, none of them are well-established candidates.

Newsom’s team called the Bustamante run a cautionary tale in the effort to keep other well-known Democrats from jumping in this time around.

But Bustamante insists that is revisionist history and spin.

Bustamante: “I was hoping to be sort of an insurance policy”

“It’s kind of hard to take votes away from someone who’s polling in the high 20s and low 30s,” Bustamante told me, still swiping back hard at Davis nearly 20 years later.

He argues now, as he did in 2003, that he threw his hat in the ring against his own party’s governor in order to give fellow Democrats an alternative in the event Davis was recalled. (The recall ballot asks voters two questions: first, do they want to recall the governor, and second, whom would they replace him with.)

Schwarzenegger, right, then governor-elect, stops for a photo with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante before a meeting at the State Capitol in 2003.

Bustamante came in a distant second behind Schwarzenegger in the race to replace Davis.

“I jumped in knowing that there was a real chance, a substantial chance that I may not win. But I knew the governor was not going to win at this point. And so I was hoping to be sort of an insurance policy. I was hoping to be somebody who could defend the state of California from what I thought were going to be massive political antics from a celebrity,” Bustamante added.

Schwarzenegger: This is not a GOP ‘power grab’

Because there is no well-known Democrat among the 40-plus candidates running to replace Newsom, the governor’s campaign has been able to paint the recall effort as a “Republican power grab.”

A fired-up Schwarzenegger told me he thinks that Newsom’s messaging is misguided.

“Almost half of the people that are running are not Republicans. So it is incorrect to say to the people that it is a Republican power grab,” he said.

His point is that the recall process, pushed and passed by ballot initiative more than a century ago by then-Gov. Hiram Johnson — a progressive — is an integral part of California politics.

Despite losing his job through a recall, Davis agrees.

“If you don’t like that, don’t run for office in California, because that’s just part, you know, part of the territory,” he said.

Schwarzenegger added that the whole point of California’s ballot initiative system, and even recalls, is that voters are smart enough to make decisions that impact their lives.

“The bottom line is it is a recall and he has to deal with it and hear the rules,” Schwarzenegger said of Newsom.

A different California Republican Party

In 2003, California was already an increasingly blue state, but there was still a relatively robust Republican Party. Back then, 35% of Golden State voters were registered Republicans. Now, it’s just 24%. Democratic registration has remained relatively consistent — 44% in 2003 and nearly 47% this year, but registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans in the state nearly 2-to-1.

And it wasn’t just that Republicans were a bigger slice of the electorate in 2003 — there was also much more of a Republican Party infrastructure in the state than there is now to support its candidates.

Schwarzenegger campaigns in Sacramento in 2003.

Plus, it is hard to overstate how well-known Schwarzenegger was when he jumped into the race in 2003. He was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. None of the GOP candidates in the race now comes anywhere close to having that kind of name recognition — critical currency in politics. That helped Schwarzenegger run away with the election almost since the day he announced, finishing with nearly 50% of the vote in a field of 135 candidates.

The recall ballot is still confusing — 18 years later

Beyond the challenge of getting Democrats to pay attention to and participate in this year’s recall, the Newsom campaign has the additional hurdle of communicating a strategy to their voters on how to fill out a confusing ballot.

The ballot has two different sides. The basic question of whether or not Newsom should be recalled — yes or no — is on the first side. The slate of replacement candidates is on the other side.

Voting machines for use in the recall election are seen at the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk office last month.
Newsom’s campaign is urging supporters to vote “no” on the recall and to leave the other side blank. In other words, don’t choose a potential replacement.

This is another Newsom tactic Schwarzenegger thinks could be problematic.

“First of all, I think that most of the people don’t even understand what the hell he is talking about,” said Schwarzenegger.

Back in 2003, Bustamante’s campaign tried a directive even more detailed, and far more perplexing on its face. He asked supporters to vote “no” on whether to recall Davis, but then to still check the box for Bustamante on the slate of candidates on the other side of the ballot.

“You got to talk to people in a clear way,” Schwarzenegger said.

If the ballot is confusing this year, with more than 40 candidates vying to replace Newsom, imagine what it was like in 2003 when there were more than three times that.

But in 2003, one of those 135 names was among the most recognizable in the world — not to mention a superhuman in his movies. Everyone who ran back then, including Davis, says that made all the difference.

“I don’t begrudge my career. I was in 17 races. I won 14 of them. And I did very well against mere mortals,” Davis said.

Get the latest episode of “Total Recall: California’s Political Circus” as soon as they drop. Find it in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app.