In summary

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democrats pushed a rule requiring recall candidates to disclose five years of tax returns. What will candidates do?

Adam Papagan has no illusions that he’ll become California’s next governor by replacing Gov. Gavin Newsom in the recall election that appears headed for the ballot in September. A Los Angeles guide who leads tours of celebrity homes, Papagan has never held elective office. He doesn’t have a political consultant and has not yet secured the type of bank account necessary to raise money for a campaign.  

“Obviously, I’m not going to win,” he said. “I am just really curious how government works.” 

Papagan is among dozens of people who intend to run against Newsom in a race that could attract a huge field of inexperienced candidates. When then-Gov. Gray Davis was recalled in 2003, 135 people ran to replace him. Movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger won, and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante came in second place — but most of the names on the ballot were basically random citizens. 

Conventional wisdom has been that the Newsom recall could attract even more unknown candidates because the rise of social media makes it easier to raise money and gather support. To get on the ballot, people need to pay a $4,000 filing fee or submit signatures from 7,000 supporters. 

But now there’s a new requirement that sets the bar for entry a little higher. Secretary of State Shirley Weber recently announced that candidates must also submit five years of tax returns — records that will be available to the public on a government website. 

It’s not yet clear how the new requirement will shape the field of competition, but it has the potential to weed out some candidates who lack professional campaigns or are running just for kicks.

“It’s a screener of your seriousness,” said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. 

“To run a state of 40 million people, you need to be committed to that process and be able to put as much effort up front as anyone does to get a house loan.”

Until now, Vermont was the only state that required gubernatorial candidates to release their tax returns, and even then, local media reported that there was no consequence for candidates who didn’t comply. California’s requirement is stricter: Candidates’ names can’t be printed on the ballot unless they supply their tax returns. Newsom, a Democrat, signed the requirement into law in 2019, arguing that voters deserve transparency.  

“Democrats are always saying Republicans are trying to suppress voters. Well, here I believe Newsom and the Secretary of State are engaging in a process to suppress recall candidates.”

Armando Perez-Serrato, a potential recall candidate who opposes the tax return rule

Inspired by Democrats’ frustration that then-President Donald Trump never released his tax returns, the law originally applied to candidates for both president and governor. The California Supreme Court struck down the requirement for presidential candidates, but didn’t change the part about candidates for governor. Though legal experts question whether it applies to the recall — the law says candidates must hand over tax returns to appear on a primary election ballot, and the recall is not a primary — so far, it hasn’t been challenged in court.

“It’s safe to say that the application of this law to the recall effort at least in part is a political calculation. An assumption is being made that it will at least keep a few people from declaring their candidacy,” said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California.

“Some of them will object to giving over their taxes, there will be a privacy issue and it won’t be worth it for them.”

Other would-be candidates might not even be organized enough to get five years of financial documents in order during what could be a very short period for filing papers to run. 

Republicans plan to turn over taxes

Of course, the requirement is unlikely to deter serious candidates, who expect to be scrutinized and typically have lawyers and accountants to help them navigate a run for office. The campaigns of three prominent Republicans — former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former Congressman Doug Ose and businessman John Cox — said they will release their tax returns. Cox released part of his tax returns during his unsuccessful run against Newsom in 2018. 

Newsom appears well positioned to beat back the recall, with polls showing less than half of California voters support it and only 22 percent back Faulconer and Cox. Still, a smaller field of candidates — especially if they’re all Republicans — could help Newsom consolidate more support among an overwhelmingly blue electorate as he makes the case that the recall is a GOP attack. (That strategy hit a minor snag this week with the revelation that Newsom may not be listed as a Democrat on the recall ballot because his lawyers missed a deadline to identify his party affiliation.)

So far 55 people have filed a statement of intention to run in the recall, which is a preliminary step required to start fundraising. In addition to the handful of experienced Republican politicians and media personalities, they include a whole lot of activists, eccentrics and everyday people from across the political spectrum.  

There’s Louis Marinelli, a Republican who led an effort to get California to secede from the United States. Veronika Fimbres is a Green Party candidate who describes herself as a transgender Vietnam War vet. Democrat John Drake is a college student in Ventura. San Diego pastor Sarah Stephens is a Republican who says vaccines should be optional. 

Armando Perez-Serrato, a Democrat who registered to vote for the first time earlier this year, said he doesn’t mind turning in his tax returns. But has been unable to figure out how. He said he asked election officials and accountants for guidance, but they didn’t have answers.

“Democrats are always saying Republicans are trying to suppress voters,” he said. “Well, here I believe Newsom and the Secretary of State are engaging in a process to suppress recall candidates.”

Papagan, the Los Angeles tour guide who is not registered with any party, said he wasn’t aware he’ll have to turn in his tax returns until a reporter called him.  

“This seems like more of the gatekeeping that I’ve encountered so far,” he said. “If a citizen of California who meets the requirements wants to run, why are they making it harder for people to exercise their rights?”

Adam Papagan, a Los Angeles tour guide, said he wasn’t aware he’ll have to turn in his tax returns. Photo from
Adam Papagan, a Los Angeles tour guide, said he wasn’t aware he’ll have to turn in his tax returns to run in the recall election. Photo from

By contrast, candidate Joel Ventresca, a former San Francisco airport administrator positioning himself as a progressive Democrat, said he has no problem with the rule: “If you want to be the governor of California… everything you do is under scrutiny. If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

Newsom let reporters review six years of his tax returns when he ran for governor in 2018. They showed that he made more than $4 million from his wineries and restaurants while he was serving as lieutenant governor — and hundreds of thousands more selling bars of silver. As governor, he’s allowed reporters to look at his tax returns for about an hour each year but has not allowed them to be photographed or copied.

Because he’s not technically a candidate on the recall ballot, Newsom is not required to release his tax returns. But he plans to meet the requirement anyway, said his spokesman Nathan Click. That means the records from Newsom and all his challengers will be available on the Secretary of State’s website. 

A possible court challenge?

GOP Assemblymember Kevin Kiley — who’s exploring a run for governor — has sued Newsom over his use of executive power during the pandemic, but said at this point he doesn’t plan to challenge the tax return requirement. 

“I’m not sure I would take it to court, but I think it probably does deserve to be challenged and I would support any effort to do that,” Kiley said.

Then there are the media-made candidates who have no political experience but are used to public exposure. A spokesperson for GOP reality TV personality Caitlyn Jenner said “the campaign will meet all requirements of the recall election” but did not specifically agree to release five years of tax returns.

“I’m willing to put everything out there. “I don’t want to have any secrets. I don’t want to end up being like Donald Trump.”

Former porn actress Mary Carey, on the tax return requirement for recall candidates

Kevin Paffrath, a YouTube personality who sells real estate, said he’s accustomed to displaying his tax returns on his videos. 

“As a financial creator on YouTube, I think it’s very inspiring for folks to be able to see how folks can build wealth,” he said. “The best way to do that was with a real example.”

Former porn actress Mary Carey said she has no problem revealing her tax returns. They’ll show that most of her household income comes from her husband’s job as a doctor, she said, and a smaller amount from the subscribers who pay $9.99 a month to follow a social media account where she posts sexy photos. 

“I’m willing to put everything out there,” Carey said on a phone interview from Florida, where she said she’s spent most of her time since the pandemic. “I don’t want to have any secrets. I don’t want to end up being like Donald Trump.”

Papagan, the tour guide, said he doesn’t have anything to hide either. 

“I don’t make any money, anybody can know that,” he said. “But I know what will happen: People will go, ‘This guy is broke. He’s not qualified.’”

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Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the state Capitol. She's been included in the Washington Post’s list of outstanding state politics reporters...