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Gavin Newsom Defends His Pandemic Decisions Ahead Of A September Recall Election

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

California voters can begin to cast early ballots in just over a week for a recall election of Governor Gavin Newsom. Critics contend that his COVID-19 restrictions have damaged small businesses in the state. From member station KQED, Guy Marzorati explains that with polls tightening ahead of the September election, Governor Newsom is defending his actions.

GUY MARZORATI, BYLINE: In Calaveras County, tucked in the foothills of the Sierra in California's Gold Country, nearly 1 in 5 voters signed the petition to recall Newsom, the third-highest rate of any county in the state. And small business owners like Gretel Tiscornia were at the heart of the campaign.

GRETEL TISCORNIA: This is a really great, like, Calaveras shirt.

MARZORATI: Tiscornia owns the Pickle Patch restaurant in San Andreas and Mingos on Main, a store in downtown Angels Camp.

TISCORNIA: Kind of a - just an eclectic group of snarky items that make people laugh when they come in.

MARZORATI: When the pandemic hit, Tiscornia closed her shop but felt big business was getting a pass.

TISCORNIA: Places like Walmart and Costco that are open all the time serving hundreds of people.

MARZORATI: So when Newsom declared a second stay-at-home order in December, Tiscornia and other local business owners in Calaveras decided to ignore it.

TISCORNIA: So I just stopped listening, and I just went about business as usual.

MARZORATI: Tiscornia stayed open for outdoor dining with a new item on the menu, a petition to recall the governor.

TISCORNIA: Sometimes, they came in just to sign that. They didn't have lunch. They didn't buy anything. They just came in to sign it.

MARZORATI: Recall organizers say 900 business owners across the state offered petition-signing in their shops, helping qualify a recall election that now presents Newsom with the most important challenge of his political career. It's a career that started in the '90s after Newsom spent years running his own small businesses, a wine shop and restaurants in San Francisco.

ELLIE SCHAFER: His experiences in small business - he felt like he could help people using those experiences.

MARZORATI: Ellie Schafer ran Newsom's very first campaign, a 1998 run for city supervisor. Unlike your average shop owner, Newsom had ties to some of San Francisco's wealthiest and most well-connected families. But Schafer says Newsom still centered his original political pitch on the frustrations of being a store owner.

SCHAFER: He still ran up against roadblock after roadblock about starting his small business. And his philosophy, you know, at the time was, like, if I'm running up against these roadblocks and I have the leg up that I have, what are other people who don't have these advantages running up against?

MARZORATI: Now, as business owners face months of back rent after a year of digging into personal savings and watching inventory go bad, Newsom is directing billions of dollars in grants to help those businesses get back on their feet. And he argues that he still gets it, that he uniquely understands their plight. After all, to find the last California governor who went straight from running a business into politics, you'd have to go back roughly a century. At a visit to a San Francisco restaurant in June, I asked Newsom if that history made him feel a special responsibility to small business owners across the state.

GAVIN NEWSOM: It's a big point of pride. It's personal for me. You know, I can't express to you how many extraordinary things have happened in my life because I had the privilege to be behind a counter serving other people.

MARZORATI: And some shop owners say business recovery should come with a sense of togetherness, not political retribution. In Oakland, Tyranny Allen runs Beastmode Barbershop, which was shuttered for 11 months during the pandemic.

TYRANNY ALLEN: We shouldn't blame the government. We shouldn't blame Gavin Newsom, blame the president. We have to come together.

MARZORATI: With small businesses still facing debt and staffing uncertainties, Newsom is hoping that communal feeling prevails before voting ends on September 14. For NPR News, I'm Guy Marzorati. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.