In summary

Recall updates: VP Kamala Harris cancels event to help Newsom, Kevin Faulconer appeals to working moms, state GOP sues over Newsom finances and intra-party sniping between Democrats Jacqueline McGowan and Kevin Paffrath.

I’m learning that covering an election — especially a recall — requires seeing both the forest and the trees.

The forest represents developments such as Vice President Kamala Harris’ Thursday cancellation of today’s Bay Area rally, where she was set to join Gov. Gavin Newsom to campaign against the Sept. 14 recall. Neither Harris nor Newsom’s office gave a reason for the cancellation, though politicos speculated it likely had to do with suicide attacks in Afghanistan that killed at least 13 American service members and scores of Afghan civilians.

With less than three weeks until Election Day and President Joe Biden preoccupied with trying to meet an Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, it’s unclear if Harris or Biden will keep their promise to campaign for Newsom in California. But, some experts suggested, that could actually be a blessing in disguise.

  • Ron Nehring, a former California Republican Party chairman, told my colleague Ben Christopher: “Kamala Harris’ credibility as a messenger on anything has been severely compromised by what’s happening in Afghanistan.”

And Newsom has other things going in his favor: Today, millions of low- and middle-income Californians will begin receiving Golden State stimulus checks. Learn more about the program and check to see if you’re eligible here.

Meanwhile, GOP recall candidate and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer made his own appeal to working families Thursday, unveiling a slew of gender-equity proposals that include what he says would be the nation’s first fully paid parental leave program. The package served as an implicit dis against recall frontrunner Larry Elder — whom Faulconer has attacked for his past comments on women — and Newsom, who made paid family leave a central part of his policy agenda.

Then there are the trees, which tend to take the form of lawsuits and petty squabbles. On Thursday, the California Republican Party filed a complaint with the state’s campaign finance watchdog alleging that Newsom failed to report $3.7 million in interests relating to his Fair Oaks home — only to see it swiftly rejected by the Fair Political Practices Commission, which noted it already investigated a similar complaint last year. The commission recently opened an investigation into Elder following the California Democratic Party’s allegation that the conservative talk show host failed to properly disclose his business holdings.

And, if you thought things couldn’t get juicier than businessman John Cox getting served a subpoena mid-debate, consider this: Democratic recall candidate Jacqueline McGowan on Thursday issued a cease-and-desist letter to YouTuber Kevin Paffrath, insisting that he “stop impersonating a Democrat.”

If all this makes you think California’s recall process needs to be revamped, you aren’t alone. I spoke with Gray Davis, the only California governor to ever be recalled, about how he thinks the process should change — and why he believes Democrats and Republicans need to work together on any reforms. Check out our conversation here.  

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 4,157,319 confirmed cases (+0.3% from previous day) and 64,931 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data.

California has administered 46,390,955 vaccine doses, and 65.8% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.

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1. Some controversial bills die — others survive

Image via iStock

State lawmakers on Thursday appeared to shield Newsom from having to make some politically dicey decisions ahead of the recall election by culling hundreds of bills in an often mysterious ritual called the “suspense file.” Among the bills that were either shelved for the year or met their demise: a proposal to legalize mushrooms, ecstasy and other psychedelic drugs; a bill to turn people into garden compost after they die; and a proposal that would have required prosecutors to recuse themselves from investigating police shootings if they received campaign donations from law enforcement unions, CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall and Sameea Kamal report

Despite ongoing crises at the state unemployment department, Democratic lawmakers also killed numerous bills aimed at reforming the Employment Development Department — many of them authored by Republicans. Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, the San Diego Democrat who leads the committee that axed the bills, said other key reforms were still alive.

Meanwhile, plenty of controversial legislation remains. Using a contentious process called “gut-and-amend,” Democratic lawmakers unveiled plans to gut a bill that originally would have created bus-only lanes on Oakland’s Bay Bridge and amend it to instead mandate vaccines for many indoor venues and mandate employers to require worker vaccinations or regular COVID testing. However, the bill may not be formally introduced until January, Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks of Oakland said. Other controversial bills that lived to see another day: one that would permit the state to pay Californians struggling with drug addiction to stay sober, and another that would eliminate single-family zoning statewide.

2. State Supreme Court upholds death penalty

Supreme Court of California justices on the bench. Photo via California Courts
The Supreme Court of California justices on the bench. Photo via California Courts

The California Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously rejected an attempt to make it harder for a jury to impose the death penalty — a direct blow to Newsom, who last year took the unprecedented step of urging the court to change the state’s application of capital punishment, citing a process “infected by racism.” However, the court’s decision also suggests the case is far from closed: In addition to noting that state lawmakers could consider changes to make the death penalty fairer, the justices also said future cases that rely on different legal arguments could potentially render California’s death penalty process unconstitutional. For the time being, the decision from the state’s highest court preserves the sentences for the 699 inmates currently on Death Row — though Newsom in 2019 said he would not carry out in executions while in office.

The ruling came a day after the state Supreme Court rejected another appeal from the Newsom administration — this one seeking to overturn a lower court decision requiring the Department of State Hospitals to promptly provide treatment for criminal defendants found mentally incompetent to stand trial. A state appeals court found that as of 2017, those defendants were held in county jails for an average of 86 days before being transferred to a hospital. The ruling upheld by the state’s high court would require California to cut that down to 28 days starting in January.

3. Caldor Fire approaches Lake Tahoe

Central Calaveras firefighter Ryan Carpenter extinguishes flames from the Caldor Fire on Hazel Valley Road east of Riverton on Aug. 19, 2021. Photo by Ethan Swope, AP Photo
Central Calaveras firefighter Ryan Carpenter extinguishes flames from the Caldor Fire on Hazel Valley Road east of Riverton on Aug. 19, 2021. Photo by Ethan Swope, AP Photo

Much of Northern California is settling in for an unseasonably warm weekend punctuated by dry, gusty winds that experts warn could exacerbate an already hellacious fire season. The Caldor Fire on Thursday came within 15 miles of South Lake Tahoe, threatening historic Sierra sites and a beloved summer camp as it prompted a string of mandatory evacuations in El Dorado County and, for the first time, evacuation warnings within the Tahoe basin. Even as firefighters remained confident they would be able to prevent the blaze from entering the basin, the looming threat — in addition to clouds of heavy smoke — left the normally bustling region looking more like a ghost town.

As of Thursday morning, nearly 34,000 Californians were under evacuation orders — the vast majority in El Dorado County. On Thursday afternoon, some Tuolumne County residents were ordered to evacuate due to the fast-moving Washington Fire.

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CalMatters commentary

To house homeless, California must reimagine housing: State and local governments must change housing law and zoning rules to move toward permanently housing unsheltered Californians, writes Robert Strock, co-founder of the Global Bridge Foundation.

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Other things worth your time

California Democrats urge Biden: Send us Afghan evacuees. // Los Angeles Times

California school officials raise money for those displaced by fires. // Sacramento Bee

Newsom spent $11K on ‘one hell of a budget signing’ ahead of recall election. // Politico

Democrats say abortion is on the line in recall election, but rolling back rights wouldn’t be easy. // California Healthline

California unemployment claims climb to highest total in two months. // Mercury News

San Francisco faces ‘sluggish’ tourism recovery, with visitor spending below half of 2019 levels. // San Francisco Chronicle

The dark side of California’s emergency grid rescue plan: More dirty emissions from backup generators. // Canary Media

Massive solar farm gets OK, but Kern County’s fight with Newsom over oil isn’t over. // San Joaquin Valley Sun

Why 2021 was so hot in California and the West. // The Atlantic

Only 198 of California’s 625 fire lookout towers remain as more forests burn. // Orange County Register

Union City to spend $250,000 on police recruiting campaign. // Mercury News

Bonta, Ramachandran battle down to the wire in East Bay Assembly race. // San Francisco Chronicle

See you Monday.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...