Gavin Mussolini, the ‘Superhero Pirate’ and the Ragtag Campaign that Could Take Down California’s Governor

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CULVER CITY, Calif.—The on-air bulb lit red. Strains of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” rolled through the introduction. And inside the studio at KABC-AM in suburban Los Angeles one recent Friday night, the three people at the center of the campaign to recall California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, settled in for the latest episode of “Friday Night at The French Laundry, ” the call-in show they created for the sole purpose of humiliating him.

The $2,000 an hour that the campaign pays the station for the block of time is cheaper than advertising, said Orrin Heatlie, the recall’s lead proponent.

In a normal political environment, none of this would be happening. Not the radio program. Not Susan, the caller on Line 2, referring to Newsom as “Gavin Mussolini.” Not the signature-gathering booths that sprung up outside Wal-Marts, Targets and Hobby Lobby stores from San Diego north to Crescent City, or the rallies that followed up and down the state. Not the millions of dollars pouring into the campaign to remove Newsom.

Not long ago, no one involved in California politics had ever heard of Heatlie, or of Mike Netter, a co-founder of the recall effort. Randy Economy – the campaign’s self-described “superhero pirate,” owing to the eyepatch he wears as a result of blindness in his right eye – is the only one of the three men with any political experience. And he only joined the campaign in the fall.

Early last year, Heatlie, a retired sheriff’s sergeant who runs the signature-gathering effort out of an aluminum Airstream trailer in his driveway in Folsom, Calif., was having difficulty even persuading his bank to add the names of other committee members to his campaign account. It was just a paperwork problem, but they hadn’t done anything like it before. Six of them loaded into Heatlie’s truck and one other vehicle and caravanned from branch to branch in the Sacramento suburbs pleading their case. They held an impromptu meeting in a bank’s lobby, scribbling out minutes in an effort to prove they were a legitimate group. Eventually, Netter said, did they find a banker who relented.

Yet by the time California’s deadline for submitting recall petitions struck on Wednesday, Heatlie, Netter and Economy had announced that the campaign had amassed more than 2 million signatures, likely enough to qualify it for the ballot in the fall.

Even in a national political universe that seems to get upended every year or two—by Donald Trump, by the Squad, by Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert—the story of the California recall effort stands out. To look at how it rose, and grew, and hit the point that it might take down the powerful, connected, immaculately groomed governor of the nation’s most populous state is either a triumph of democracy, or a confirmation that there are no rules anymore. Absolutely anything can happen.

Already, the recall campaign is wreaking havoc on California politics, generating an off-year bonanza of enthusiasm for Republicans long adrift in this heavily Democratic state, and still stinging nationally from their loss of the White House in November. It has put Newsom, the Democratic governor, on defense. The Republican National Committee is sending money. The recall has opened an unexpected door for a host of would-be replacements: John Cox, the wealthy Republican businessman Newsom battered in 2018, is running, as is former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and former Rep. Doug Ose. Richard Grenell, a staunch ally of Trump and a celebrity in MAGA politics, is considering entering the race, too.

The recall wasn’t purely the work of Heatlie, Netter and the superhero pirate; if not for a professional signature-gathering operation funded by more traditional Republican donors, it’s possible the recall would not have qualified. But Heatlie’s volunteer corps was still responsible for the large majority of signatures collected. And the origin of the entire enterprise was, essentially, a series of flukes.

Heatlie, who filed the initial recall paperwork, was off work and laid up with a bad back when he said he became “engaged in social media and Facebook-ing and YouTube and all that stuff.” It was only when he came across a 2019 video of Newsom advising immigrants of their right to refuse to open their door to anyone without a warrant that he began researching the possibility of a recall. Netter, a former office product sales executive who now sells real estate, said he initially “got a hair up my ass” not because of Newsom, but because of then-Senator Kamala Harris, who he saw as rising too fast through politics. When he found out senators couldn’t be recalled, he volunteered instead with a previous, failed effort to recall Newsom.

Netter and Heatlie met through that campaign, and another connection there introduced them to Economy. (“He’s our media consultant,” Heatlie said. “Or our senior adviser, as he likes to be called.”) “None of us had ever done anything like this before,” Heatlie said, adding, “Sometimes, you just have to wing it.”

Looking back, Heatlie said he never doubted his approach would work. But the political establishment has been stunned. “It’s unbelievable,” said Tom Del Beccaro, a former state Republican Party chairman who is helping to raise money for the effort. “It’s not like some normal phenomenon.”

California is now poised to get a gubernatorial recall election for the first time since Gray Davis was removed from office in 2003. And in the Los Angeles area, AM radio listeners get “Friday Night at The French Laundry,” the program named for Newsom’s notoriously bad decision to attend a dinner party at an upscale Napa Valley restaurant last November while discouraging the state’s residents from gathering for the holidays.

The show, Economy beamed, is “a little hokey” and “kind of schmaltzy,” but also “brilliant.”

As the three men piled into the studio last week, the announcer blared, “This is your ‘Friday Night at The French Laundry,’ with Chef Orrin Heatlie, maître d‘ Mike Netter and head cashier Randy Economy.”

Netter, 64, pumped his fist and barked out the 800-number. Standing at the doorway, Daryl Messina, an account executive at the station, shook his head at the proficiency of the amateurs.

“It’s like they’ve been doing it for 10 years,” he said.

To get this out of the way: Newsom isn’t likely to be recalled. His approval ratings, despite tumbling in recent months, are still far higher than Davis’ were in 2003, and the state has swung almost insuperably to the left since then. Democrats now outnumber Republicans nearly two to one in California. There’s a reason Newsom beat Cox by about 3 million votes in 2018, why Democrats hold supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature, why Trump lost to Joe Biden by nearly 30 percentage points here last year and why no Republican presidential candidate has carried California since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

The coronavirus hurt Newsom’s popularity when it was raging in California last year. But the weight of the pandemic appears to be lifting, with vaccinations up, caseloads down and restaurants and gyms reopening. The mood of the electorate is widely expected to improve by the time a recall election would be held, likely in October or November. And unlike in 2003, when the magnetic and well-funded Arnold Schwarzenegger was waiting in the wings to replace a damaged governor, there is no clear Republican successor.

Davis, the former governor, said in January that “nobody has been dealt a tougher hand than Gavin Newsom,” suggesting Newsom had it harder even than he did. “Look, I had the energy crisis and a recession. He has a pandemic we haven’t seen for 100 years. He has the fallout from that pandemic, racial injustice, wildfires, and I think I’m leaving something out. But nobody, no living governor, has had to experience as many crises as him.”

Given all that, Davis predicted then that Newsom had “done a remarkable job” and that the public would come around. And today, he senses it already has – and that Californians will be even more content with the state of the state by the time the recall election arrives.

“If you look at the big picture,” Davis said in an interview, “people will feel better about their future, kids will be back in school and life will be returning to something close to normal.”

But unlikely is not impossible. For Republicans searching for relevance in California, the governorship has long seemed like the most tempting target—a powerful job that’s just one Hail Mary election out of reach. Republicans here cite Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland, and Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, as proof a Republican can win in a Democratic-leaning state. And the unpredictable nature of recall elections may be more favorable to the GOP than a traditional general election. For one thing, turnout will likely be lower. And on the ballot, Newsom will be up against himself – not, expressly, a Republican challenger. On the ballot, voters will first decide whether they want to recall Newsom and, if they do, which person from a multiparty menu of candidates they want to replace him. Among Republican strategists, the recall is seen as a much better chance to take the governor’s mansion than a traditional election.

“A Democratic governor running for reelection has not lost in California since 1966,” said Dave Gilliard, the Republican strategist who helped orchestrate Davis’ recall in 2003 and is advising the paid portion of the Newsom recall effort. “So, the chances of winning in 2022 or any general election are very slim. The recall provides a golden opportunity, I think, for a Republican to get into the governor’s office.”

“This,” Gilliard said, “is the shot.”

Republicans acknowledge the long odds. “Newsom probably won’t lose the recall, let’s face it,” said Edward Ring, co-founder of the conservative California Policy Center. However, he said, “It’s still a chance to put him on trial.”

And what’s “truly unique,” Ring said, is that Heatlie and his organization got the recall on the ballot at all.

Nineteen states allow for the recall of state officials, and the bar for qualifying a recall for the ballot in California is relatively low, requiring the signatures of only 12 percent of the number of voters in the last election. Still, in a state the size of California, 12 percent of the turnout in 2018, or roughly 1.5 million signatures, is more than most activists can muster. Since 1913, California has seen 179 recall attempts of state elected officials, of which 10 qualified for the ballot. Newsom had been the subject of five failed recall attempts before the current one.

For that reason, few people initially took Heatlie and Netter seriously, or were even aware of what they were doing. The chairwoman of the California Republican Party, Jessica Millan Patterson, said she “had never heard of them before June of last year.” Del Beccaro, one former party chairman, said the same, as did another, Jim Brulte. “But obviously,” Brutle said, “they have something going.”

What Heatlie and Netter had, initially, was $500 each in seed money, a network of connections from their participation in the previous recall campaign, Heatlie’s familiarity, through his law enforcement training, with the National Incident Management System – a management tool he said he applied to the recall – and a prolific presence on social media.

“I belong to 475 Facebook groups,” Netter said. “Do you have any idea how fucking painful that is?”

Over the course of last year, they began circulating petitions while expanding their network, marshalling more than 150 volunteer organizers across the state. Those organizers gathered signatures. They posted relentlessly on social media. They called and emailed conservative talk radio stations. Netter and Heatlie took every media booking they could get. And when it still seemed as though their campaign was going nowhere, they benefited from three strokes of good luck.

First, far short of collecting the required number of signatures last fall, and with a deadline looming on Nov. 17, Heatlie and his group, known officially as the “California Patriot Coalition – Recall Governor Gavin Newsom,” successfully petitioned a Sacramento County superior court judge to extend their 160-day signature-gathering window for an extra 120 days, citing the difficulty of collecting signatures during the pandemic. As of mid-October, the proponents had gathered about 675,000 signatures. The extension, combined with the large number of signatures that the proponents had already gathered, turned what had seemed like a quixotic campaign into a possible one. Big donors got involved.

In retrospect, said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who has previously advised Newsom and was a senior adviser to Davis, “The only reason this thing will qualify – the only reason – is because this idiot judge in Sacramento ruled that these people had another 120 days beyond the original 160 days.”

He said, “Why Democrats didn’t appeal that decision is mystifying to me.”

Second, Newsom committed self-sabotage with his misadventure at The French Laundry, the world-famous restaurant near Napa whose impossible-to-get dinner reservations start at $350 per person. Newsom would later say “I made a bad mistake.” But that was a gross understatement. The incident was damaging to Newsom not only because of the rank hypocrisy of dining out in a group while telling Californians to stay isolated in their homes, but because it confirmed for Newsom’s critics the elitist label they have always tried to pin on him. And it served as a reminder of his management of a pandemic that, at the time, was burning almost uncontrollably throughout the state.

By early this year, Newsom’s approval rating had plummeted to 46 percent in one measure, down from 64 percent in September. Saturday Night Live mocked him. The French Laundry, Economy said, “changed his political life forever.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trump lost the White House while simultaneously persuading a majority of Republicans, falsely, that the election wasn’t free or fair. The combination of disappointment and outrage left Trump’s supporters in an off-election year to scan the map for other causes to support, none more prominent than Newsom’s recall.

The recall’s organizers, cognizant of Trump’s toxicity in California, have labored to paint their movement as a bipartisan effort, estimating that more than 30 percent of the signatures they’ve gathered are from people who are not Republicans. Netter disputes the notion that Trump’s loss, and the anger it sparked among Republicans, helped the recall campaign’s cause, saying website traffic dropped after the November election in part because people were distracted by the controversy surrounding the election’s outcome.

But the atmosphere surrounding the recall campaign at times is indistinguishable from the Trump rallies of 2020 and the effort to overturn his defeat. At a rally at a park in Ventura, on the California oceanfront, one recent Saturday afternoon, Netter took the stage to herald a “moment of joy” in California – a campaign he said was about “bringing up the people of California.” He introduced Heatlie, who was in the crowd, and, acknowledging the group’s humble beginnings, said, “Out of small things, big things come!” Recall organizers collected signatures.

But the air hanging over the rally was thick with passions broader than that one cause. Vendors sold Trump T-shirts and bejeweled Trump hats from booths across from the stage, while a flag likening Trump to Jesus waved in the breeze. The Right Side Broadcasting Network carried the program live. Judy Mikovits, the discredited scientist elevated by anti-vaccine activists and coronavirus conspiracy theorists, addressed the crowd, followed by Cordie Williams, a young chiropractor in sunglasses and a T-shirt with the name of the group he founded, 1776 Forever Free, printed on the chest. He called the governor “Adolf Newsom” and asked “how many pissed off patriots” were on hand.

Williams, who often moderates the recall proponents’ virtual town hall meetings, suggested the recall was only part of a bigger fight against “anti-Americans.” “California’s the head of the snake,” he said. “The rest of the tail is Sleepy Joe, and we’ve got to take back our country.”

He added, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit back and watch this whole country go to hell.”

The rally, and others like it, appeared to support Los Angeles Times reporting in January that found “recall campaign leaders, seeking to capitalize on the darkening public mood, allied with radical and extreme elements early on to help collect signatures.” And Democrats have seized on those connections as they fight the campaign. Shortly after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January, Rusty Hicks, the chairman of the California Democratic Party, called the recall effort a “California coup,” for which he was widely criticized. Dan Newman, a senior Newsom adviser, said “the origin story of the Republican recall is inexorably intertwined with hateful Trumpian rhetoric that is anathema to fundamental California values.”

Heatlie and Netter did vote for Trump, they said; Economy volunteered for his campaign in 2016. And Heatlie has been criticized specifically – including by Newsom himself – for a 2019 Facebook post in which he suggested that the United States “microchip all illegal immigrants,” adding, “It works! Just ask Animal control!” (Heatlie said at the time that it was “bait for a larger conversation,” and that he does not “really advocate microchipping.” In an interview last week, he said it “was an inflammatory statement, and I regret saying it now.”)

But it’s also true that Heatlie and Netter, when promoting the recall at events organized by other groups, “don’t choose the speakers,” as Heatlie said. He knows people aligned with the campaign “have their own agendas,” but he said that except for prohibiting posts on the campaign’s Facebook pages unrelated to the recall, “I don’t spend a lot of time vetting them … as long as it doesn’t spill over into our movement.”

Heatlie and Netter’s stated reasons for wanting to recall Newsom are printed in black and white on the recall petition. In its own way, the petition plants a foot in two Republican worlds: In quasi-Constitutional language evocative of the Tea Party, it lays out a bill of complaints that would feel familiar to any traditional California conservative feeling trapped under Democratic rule:

“Governor Newsom has implemented laws which are detrimental to the citizens of this state and our way of life. Laws he endorsed favor foreign nationals, in our country illegally, over that of our own citizens. People in this state suffer the highest taxes in the nation, the highest homelessness rates, and the lowest quality of life as a result. He has imposed sanctuary state status and fails to enforce immigration laws. He unilaterally over-ruled the will of the people regarding the death penalty. He seeks to impose additional burdens on our state by the following; removing the protections of Proposition 13, rationing our water use, increasing taxes and restricting parental rights. Having no other recourse, we the people have come together to take this action, remedy these misdeeds and prevent further injustices.”

Heatlie acknowledges the campaign is “not just about recalling” Newsom, but of reimagining the way politics is run in California. Netter and Economy do, too. In their minds, their crusade is broader than just taking down one governor: It’s as much against the Republican political establishment as it is against the Democratic one. Heatlie and Netter chafed when consultants told them they needed to raise millions of dollars to qualify a recall initiative. And though professionals like Gilliard and Anne Dunsmore, a well-known Republican fundraiser, had helped Heatlie and Netter last year, the two groups eventually split – coordinating with each other, but with separate books.

The professional side of the campaign, working with Del Beccaro’s PAC, Rescue California, raised money to supplement Heatlie’s volunteer signature gathering with a paid operation, largely through direct mail to Republicans and independent voters. “The larger donors go with the more familiar,” said Del Beccaro, and the original recall proponents “are not familiar to more traditional donors.” The PAC, he said, was a vehicle to help put their signature gathering effort over the top.

Heatlie and Netter and Economy might have needed those donors’ power to surpass the signature threshold. But otherwise, they would seem content to blow the entire system up. Heatlie said political consultants treated them like “a bunch of dumb, hillbilly hicks who don’t know what we’re doing,” though he declined to “get into the weeds on that.” Economy denounced a “talking head culture” of consultants who “don’t know their ass from a hole in the wall.”

“This campaign belongs to the people,” Economy said. “It does not belong to the political establishment.”

When the recall qualifies, he predicted, “Politics as we know it here in California is over.”

If the recall qualifies for the ballot and then fails with voters, as seems likely, it’s possible Heatlie, Netter and Economy will be remembered mostly as a footnote, a last messy burst of conservative energy in an increasingly Democratic state. Whereas they see a state in despair – Heatlie said that over the past year, he’s learned “the full scope of their frustration, and they’re desperate” – public polling suggests that Californians aren’t anywhere near as frustrated with Newsom as they were when they last recalled a governor, in 2003. By this time next year, the midterms will have turned national Republicans’ focus back away from California. And then it will be on to the Republican presidential primary in 2024. In that scenario, it’s easy to imagine the proponents of a failed gubernatorial recall election in California quickly fading from view.

But there is another way this could go. Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann were little-known figures before authoring California’s landmark property-tax limiting measure, Proposition 13, in 1978. But their outsider initiative won at the ballot box, changing the state’s budget permanently and spurring a tax revolt that spread across the country. Jarvis, a retired businessman, ended up on the cover of Time.

The lead proponent of the successful 2003 recall that kicked out a sitting Democrat and put Schwarzenegger in office was a relatively little-known anti-tax crusader named Ted Costa, who referred to his signature-gathering operation that year as a “funny farm.” Veterans of that campaign often compare it to the work that Heatlie, Netter and Economy are doing now.

“These things often start with people who are labeled gadflies or kind of on the fringe of things,” Gilliard said. “It’s very, very similar.” Heatlie and his volunteers, Gilliard said “did a fabulous job … Sometimes it’s not the professionals who lead.”

And California’s unique fixation not only on the recall, but on direct democracy, generally – as evidenced in its mountain of ballot initiatives each year, on issues ranging from the death penalty and marijuana legalization to stem cell research and the sale of horse meat for human consumption – is fertile ground for activists who, like Heatlie and his group, can gather signatures inexpensively.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, Heatlie said his partners are considering organizing future ballot initiatives, with interests including elections administration, tax policy and school choice – all hot topics in conservative circles. “It’s just a matter of gathering 600,000 signatures,” Heatlie said, a rough estimate of the number of signatures required to qualify some statewide initiatives. “We could do that in our sleep.”

Ring, of the California Policy Center, said he asked Heatlie recently, only half-joking, “How does it feel to be one of the most powerful people in the state of California?”

“These people aren’t done,” Ring said. “They’re not going away.”

In the meantime, a filmmaker is documenting the recall effort and raising money for what he promises will be a “modern-day story of David vs. Goliath.” The recall proponents plan to keep their radio show going for as long as they can pay for it.

It’s unclear how many people listen to them flog the governor every week. But they get calls from all over the state. And people in conservative circles are paying attention. During a break in the show on Friday, Economy scrolled on his phone for recent stories mentioning Heatlie. There were several of them.

“What the hell, Orrin?” he said. “You’re everywhere, man.”

Heatlie told Economy and Netter that while driving through California’s Central Valley recently, he called into Fresno’s powerhouse KMJ talk radio when he heard the hosts of the station’s afternoon drive discussing the recall.

“Did you tell them who you were?” Economy asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Heatlie replied. “They put me right on.”

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