In summary

The leading Republican candidate in the California recall election is trying to build a multi-ethnic coalition of voters — and overcome criticism for his views on race.

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In nearly every way, Larry Elder appears to be the candidate that the California Republican Party has been waiting for.

The party hasn’t won a statewide election since 2006. Its base of supporters has been gradually whittled down to an ever whiter and older demographic in one of the country’s most diverse states

Now here comes Elder, offering something different. A longtime conservative talk radio host in Los Angeles, he is the most credible Black candidate for governor since the 1980s in a state that has never had one.

Throughout his short campaign, Elder has made explicit efforts to reach out to communities who have not traditionally found a home in the GOP. In press conferences, Elder has prioritized reporters from Chinese-language and Latino-focused media outlets and underscored endorsements from political leaders of color, including a former Democratic state Senate leader. 

And he’s told and retold the story of his hardscrabble upbringing — as a boast, but also an appeal to voters who rarely see their own biographies among Republican frontrunners. “I’m from the ’hood,” Elder told CalMatters in a recent interview. “It seems to me that I ought to be a success story.”

The latest polls suggest that Gov. Gavin Newsom will survive the Sept. 14 recall. But if it succeeds, Elder — the top-polling replacement candidate — could pull off the unlikeliest of success stories and become California’s next governor. 

Still, if there’s one thing standing in Elder’s way of reshaping the California Republican Party, his critics say, it might be this: What he believes and says.

‘Do I look like a white supremacist?’

Since hitting the AM airwaves in the early 1990s, Elder has built his brand around a Libertarian economic philosophy and his deeply-held belief that liberals and Democrats overstate the role of race and racism in American life. That brand helped Elder quickly leap-frog more traditional GOP hopefuls in the recall, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the party’s 2018 gubernatorial candidate John Cox

But Elder’s pugnacious conservatism has also made it easy for Newsom and his defenders to portray him as the latest face of “Trumpism” — “he’s even more extreme than Trump,” the governor said recently

Much of California’s political establishment has the same take. Newspaper editorial boards have denounced his “extremist views” and “misogynistic attitudes.” A columnist with the Los Angeles Times wrote last month that Elder “opposes every single public policy idea that’s supported by Black people to help Black people” and labeled him “the Black face of white supremacy.” 

Elder’s camp has highlighted the disapproval of the commentariat as an indication of his anti-establishment cred, but he has also pushed back. “Do I look like a white supremacist?” he said in a recent campaign ad. “I walked those hard streets.”

But most statewide surveys show that Elder polls like a typical Republican candidate: He is less popular with Latino, Black and Asian voters than he is with whites. 

That doesn’t surprise Matt Barreto, founder of UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Initiative. 

“If Larry Elder had run on a very welcoming racial unity message, he could have presented himself as a different type of Republican,” he said. “He’s just not the candidate who says ‘racial unity’ to voters.”

Elder’s pitch to voters

Last week, Elder held an especially unlikely kind of press conference. He was endorsed on Zoom by former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, long perceived to be a moderate Republican, and former state Senate leader Gloria Romero, a Democrat. 

The event was also unusual in its appeal. Elder rattled off his long-held positions on education (parents should have more options and teachers’ unions are blocking needed reforms) and crime (state laws are too lax). But he repeatedly emphasized how those views ought to appeal to Black and Latino Californians. 

“I do believe that the impact of the poor quality of education disproportionately hurts Black and brown people,” Elder said. “Crime disproportionately affects people living in the inner city, many of whom…are the Black and brown people that the left claims that they care about.”

When it came time for questions for the man who has spent much of his adult life opposing affirmative action, reporters “representing the Latino communities” were given priority.

Republican recall candidate Larry Elder speaks during a campaign event at the Paul Shaghoian Concert Hall in Fresno on Aug. 22, 2021. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, The Fresno Bee

Both Maldonado and Romero pointed to Elder’s background as evidence of his credibility. Sacramento politics needs to be “shaken up,” said Maldonado, the last Republican to be lieutenant governor, in 2010-11. And who could be in a better position to do that shaking than “a brother from South Central Los Angeles?”

In an earlier interview, Romero said she does not agree with Elder on many issues. But she was drawn to his candidacy for his support for charter schools and his criticism of teachers’ unions, but also his “lived experience.”

“I don’t mean any disrespect, but I don’t necessarily see a Cox or a Faulconer really motivating African-American youth,” she said.

Romero lambasts Newsom and the state’s Democratic leadership, but she bristles at the notion that she no longer belongs in the party. “Nobody’s going to bully me out,” she said. “I’m waiting for someone to call me ‘the Latino face of white supremacy.’”

“I don’t mean any disrespect, but I don’t necessarily see a Cox or a Faulconer really motivating African-American youth.”

gloria romero, a former state senate leader and democrat endorsing elder

Elder’s outreach to traditionally Democratic Latino and Asian American voters isn’t lost on the Newsom campaign, which did some counterprogramming the very same day. Newsom held a press conference with Rob Bonta, whom he appointed as the state’s first Filipino-American attorney general, along with other Asian-American political leaders. The next day, Latino Democrats in the Legislature and the California Latino PAC posted a video urging voters to reject the recall. Newsom, himself, went to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he campaigned with Bonta, ate dim sum and accused Republicans of bigotry.

The campaigns already have an eye on the regular election for governor in 2022. Win or lose in the recall, Elder will need to make inroads with Latinos and Asians and disaffected Democrats to have much hope of cobbling together a majority in a state where Republicans (24%) are vastly outnumbered by Democrats (46%) and no party preference voters (23%).  

Predicting a racial realignment

Ward Connerly — who spearheaded the 1996 Proposition 209 campaign to ban racial preferences in public employment, education and contracting in California and co-led the successful effort to defend the law against Prop. 16 last year — said he’s hopeful that Elder’s campaign will continue what he sees as a trend of voters of colors rethinking their historic support of the Democratic Party.

“These are people who have been ignored,” said Connerly, who said he encouraged Elder to enter the race.

Connerly, who has identified as both Black and mixed race, said there’s a “silent majority” in California “that voted in favor of (Proposition) 209, voted to reject Prop. 16, that are frustrated by this condition they perceive their state to be in — white, Latino, Chinese, successful Blacks.”

Chinese-American community organizers were among the most vocal and prominent organizers against Prop. 16, breaking ranks with Newsom and Democratic leaders who supported the measure.

Some of those organizers have now found a new cause in Elder’s candidacy, including Ying Ma, the No campaign’s spokesperson who is now Elder’s press chief. 

Elder repeated the multiracial silent majority theme over the weekend in his latest interview on Fox News, in which he lamented the criticism he’s received from liberal opinion writers. “They’re deathly afraid that Larry Elder, a Black guy from the ’hood who went to public school, might break the stranglehold that the Democrats have had on Black and brown voters here in California,” he said.

But the notion that significant numbers of voters of color are on the verge of supporting an arch-conservative like Elder doesn’t sound credible to Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California.

“The Republican brand is in permanent decline in the state, particularly the more it associates itself with Trump, anti-vax, anti-mask,” he said. 

(Elder is vaccinated, but opposes vaccine and mask mandates. He is also a consistent supporter of the former president.) 

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is also skeptical of Elder’s outreach strategy. A political commentator and author who has occasionally found himself on the opposite side of the debate stage from Elder over the years, Hutchinson said by email that “no amount of pandering by Elder to (Black voters) will up his Black support.” 

“Now if he were a Democrat, even with his primitive right-wing hype, that might change somewhat,” Hutchinson wrote. “But that ain’t the case.”

“No amount of pandering by Elder to (Black voters) will up his Black support.”

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political commentator and elder critic

Last month, the anti-recall campaign organized a virtual press conference of the state’s most prominent Black politicians: U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee and Karen Bass, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, state schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond and Board of Equalization member Malia Cohen. 

The digital meetup was divided equally between praising Newsom and bashing Elder. While Newsom has “always put the needs of our communities, and in particular the needs of African Americans, forward,” Thurmond said, “Larry Elder has spent his entire career trying to erase it.”

Cohen was more succinct: “We know that not all skin folk are kinfolk.”

‘The core of what I believe’

For as long as Elder has been a public persona — and for much longer than that, as Elder tells it — his views on politics, race and racism have set him apart from his peers.

Elder’s father Randolph, who ran a cafe, was the only Republican that Elder knew in their mostly Black neighborhood in South Central L.A. His mother, Viola, was a Democrat, but held conservative views on immigration and welfare.

“I came from a household where people believe in hard work, in less government, in lower taxes,” Elder said in his CalMatters interview. “And one of the things both my mom and my dad strongly agreed on was their hostility to what they call the welfare state.” 

Elder’s parents also taught their three sons to put their faith in personal responsibility. He quotes his father in his 2018 biography: “No matter how bad things are, you have a responsibility to try.” 

That apparently extended to racism. “We didn’t want them to use race as a crutch,” Viola, who died 15 years ago, told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1998

That was an outlier view for a student at Crenshaw High School in 1970. 

“I came from a household where people believe in hard work, in less government, in lower taxes.”

larry elder, in a calmatters interview

Jack Shu — who was a member of the Knights Service and Honor Club with Elder in their senior year and who now serves as vice mayor of La Mesa in San Diego County — said he recalls that the school was riven by “student strikes, demonstrations (and) an atmosphere of anti-white sentiment.” 

“Within the Knights Club, there were no divisions due to race,” said Shu, who does not remember Elder. 

Elder recalls even then gravitating toward the politics of self-reliance. Speaking to the libertarian Reason magazine in 1995, he remembers scolding his fellow classmates in a report on Booker T. Washington for calling the Black critic of racial agitation an “Uncle Tom.”

“He used to talk about self help and not relying on government and hard work wins,” Elder said. “That philosophy is the core of what I believe right now.”

A yearbook photo of Larry Elder while he was attending Brown University.

The rest of his political education, Elder attributes to his time at Brown University, the Ivy League school in Rhode Island. 

“I think I remember feeling, at one point, that we should have socialized medicine until I took economics and realized that the best way of improving the quality of anything is competition,” he told CalMatters.

In the early 1970s, Brown had only recently introduced an affirmative action program — something that Elder has said he benefited from — and the campus was a hotbed of civil rights activism, recalls Vincent Thomas, who was a year ahead of Elder and was friendly with Elder’s roommate. 

Elder, however, was not a part of that scene, said Thomas, who started the first radio program for a Black audience in Providence, R.I. “He was sort of to himself,” he recalled. “He just didn’t march to that drummer…he didn’t really come to the Afro meetings.”

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Elder — after getting a law degree, working at a well-heeled Cleveland law firm and then running his own legal headhunting company — got his first gig as a professional opinionator. 

“He was controversial in the way I wanted our people to be controversial,” said George Green, the former general manager at KABC in Los Angeles. Elder came recommended by Dennis Prager, another conservative host at the station. But Green said Elder’s appeal wasn’t his politics, but his skill and style: “Extremely talented, flexible, controversial but not obnoxious.”

“Hiring Larry had nothing to do with his color,” Green added. “Though being Black, he happened to be extremely popular in all the minority communities.”

William Darity, a Duke University economics professor who studies racial inequality and who was also in Elder’s class at Brown, said race is at the core of Elder’s popularity, but not because of his appeal with minority communities.

“There are many, many people who subscribe to this view that the social groups who are in a disadvantaged position are there because of a pattern of dysfunctional behavior. And they are thrilled to see someone Black saying that,” said Darity. “He’s giving them cover.” 

Among Elder’s most inflammatory and long-held views is that public assistance programs encourage women “to marry the government” and men “to abandon their financial and moral responsibility.” There’s also his belief that the public sector should play as limited a role as possible in education and his advocacy for a flat tax.

“The police are being unfairly maligned by this false assertion that they’re engaging in systemic racism.”

larry elder, in a press conference aimed at latino voters

But the issues that have raised — and continue to raise — the most ire from the left are his views on race. He regularly rails against the idea that bigotry plays a major role in the lives of Black and brown communities. 

Take the latest snippet of tape unearthed and passed around on social media by Elder’s  aghast political opponents: A discussion with fellow Black conservative firebrand Candace Owens about slavery.

“Like it or not, slavery was legal,” Elder said on her show in April 2019. “So you could make an argument that the people that are owed reparations are not only just Black people, but also the people whose, quote, property, closed quote, was taken away after the end of the Civil War.”

Elder has also identified a regular list of malefactors who, he argues, undermine Black and brown achievement by setting low expectations and devaluing responsibility: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, the entire Black Lives Matter movement.

“The police are being unfairly maligned by this false assertion that they’re engaging in systemic racism,” Elder said at last week’s press conference. “If anything the studies show that the police are more hesitant, more reluctant, to pull the trigger on a Black suspect.” (Though police shooting data is limited, that claim isn’t supported by most research on the subject.)

Elder doesn’t view that kind of rhetoric as anti-Black, but as a kind of empowering tough love. 

That tension came to the fore when Elder spoke last month to Los Angeles-based progressive Black radio host Tavis Smiley.

After Elder spent the first minutes of the interview listing the ways in which he believes the state’s public education system, its environmental regulations and its criminal justice system have disproportionately harmed Black families, Smiley suggested that Elder might be pandering.

“I don’t think I’ve asked you a question yet about Black folk in particular and yet every stat you’ve given me has been a Black stat. Why you always giving Black stats?” Smiley asked.

“Because I have a particular concern about Black people in America,” Elder replied. “I would have thought you would have been concerned about that as well.”

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...