Court fights mark run-up to California recall election


LOS ANGELES — Several court scuffles are underway as California moves toward finalizing the list of candidates for the September recall election that could oust Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom from office during his first term.

Conservative talk radio host Larry Elder filed a lawsuit Monday challenging a decision by California election officials that blocked him from the contest, saying he’s the target of political “shenanigans” by Democrats who fear he’s a threat to Newsom.

Meanwhile, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is expected in court to seek permission to identify himself as the “retired” San Diego mayor on the ballot, a label the state rejected. He qualified as a candidate but wants to use his title of choice.

In another dispute over ballot language, YouTube creator and candidate Kevin Paffrath has sued to get his nickname “Meet Kevin” on the ballot, with a hearing set for Wednesday afternoon.

The legal maneuvering provided the latest drama as the state moved toward finalizing the list of candidates for the recall, which is scheduled to be released Wednesday.

The election in the nation’s most populous state will be a marquee contest with national implications, watched closely as a barometer of the public mood heading toward the 2022 elections, when a closely divided Congress again will be in play.

Elder, a Republican also known for his appearances on Fox News, said in a statement that he filed all the necessary paperwork to qualify for a slot on the ballot, including over 300 pages of tax returns that are required to become a candidate. But the secretary of state’s office did not include Elder on a preliminary list of 41 candidates last weekend, saying he filed incomplete information on those returns.

Elder’s lawsuit is seeking an order from a court in Sacramento that would require Secretary of State Shirley Weber to list Elder as a candidate on the final certified list of candidates, scheduled to be issued Wednesday.

“The politicians in Sacramento know I’m the only candidate who can beat Gavin Newsom. They are afraid, and they are using whatever shenanigans they can to try to trip me up,” said Elder, an attorney and popular voice on the political right whose show is nationally syndicated.

The secretary of state’s office on Tuesday added another name to the list, making it 42 replacement candidates in the Sept. 14 contest. It wasn’t immediately clear why Democrat Armando “Mando” Perez-Serrato was a late addition.

The Republican Faulconer, meanwhile, will be in court to seek permission to use his preferred title on the ballot, “retired San Diego mayor.” His campaign says it’s unclear why the title was rejected.

State election officials “seem to be saying the term ‘retired’ is problematic,” said Faulconer campaign spokesman John Burke, noting that the former mayor was twice elected to the job. “There’s no common sense behind that.”

Paffrath, a Democrat, hosts a YouTube channel with nearly 1.7 million subscribers where he gives financial advice. He wants to be on the ballot as Kevin “Meet Kevin” Paffrath. He argues the nickname is how he is known to most of his followers, many of whom don’t know his last name, and that he trademarked the name six years ago. He noted candidates have previously been identified with nicknames on the ballot.

If Elder fails to make the ballot, it would be a setback for recall organizers who hoped for a large field of prominent candidates to attract voters. When Elder announced his candidacy last week, he immediately became one of the most recognized Republicans in the race, given his years on talk radio as well as appearances on Fox News and other media.

In a statement, Weber’s office said the agency applies the same criteria to each candidate that seeks elected office. The preliminary list of candidates issued “did not include Mr. Elder and others that failed to comply with those requirements,” the agency said.

Elder is facing a narrow window of time for the court to make a change. With the election less than two months away, election officials already are arranging for ballots to be printed. Mail-in ballots go out next month.

Other Republicans who qualified to run include reality TV personality and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner; businessman John Cox, who was defeated by Newsom in 2018; and state lawmaker Kevin Kiley.

Elder’s campaign argued that under state law, Weber has the authority, if not the duty, to “fix” any redaction errors for the public. The campaign said Weber’s office has not informed Elder of its specific objections to the filing of his tax returns and added that Weber was “effectively engaging in voter suppression” by denying voters the ability to choose Elder.

The campaign also said Weber’s decision violates the equal protection clause of the California Constitution because Newsom did not have to comply with the same tax return disclosures.

Voters will be sent a ballot with two questions: Should Newsom be recalled? And who should replace him? If more than half of voters say “yes” to the first question, then whoever on the list of potential replacements gets the most votes is the new governor of the nation’s most populous state. With numerous candidates and no clear front-runner, it’s possible that someone could win with less than 25% of the votes.

The push to oust the first-term, Democratic governor is largely rooted in frustration with school and business closures during the coronavirus pandemic that upended daily life for millions of Californians.

Ronayne reported from Sacramento.

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