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Cynthia Rojas never had much interest in politics. A mother who owns an online business selling hair accessories from her home in West Los Angeles, Rojas chose Democrats when she voted. But she skipped a lot of elections — and she certainly never glanced at a city council agenda or attended school board meetings.

That all changed after her kids’ elementary school closed down last year amid the pandemic. 

“I became very engaged because of my children,” Rojas said. “My son was suffering on Zoom school.”

She started watching school board meetings, reading county public health orders and studying the state’s color-coded tiers of COVID restrictions. After public health authorities said it was safe for children to return to school, Rojas protested with other parents to demand that campuses reopen. And when that didn’t work, she printed out a petition to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

“A lot of us were like, ‘Why aren’t the Democratic politicians standing up for us?’ Democrats were always supposed to be for the little guy,” Rojas said. 

“It seemed so clear to me that it was to protect the teacher unions, because they didn’t shut down the private schools.”

Rojas and her husband signed the recall petition. Then she sent copies to several friends who also signed, helping recall proponents gather some of the 1.7 million signatures that triggered California’s historic Sept. 14 election — only the second time in state history that voters will decide whether to oust a governor.

Recall supporters say that women like Rojas — fed up with school closures and job losses caused by the pandemic — played a huge role in getting the signatures necessary to launch their campaign. Their activism may reflect the pandemic’s uneven toll on women, who have been disproportionately burdened by unemployment, increased child care responsibilities and, among parents with kids at home, feelings of anxiety and depression. They were so instrumental in organizing the recall that one strategist came up with a special name for them: “Mad Moms.”

“‘Mad moms’ are what we used to call soccer moms,” said recall campaign manager Anne Dunsmore. “You mess around with their daily life or their quality life or what they’re able to do with their children, and they become very grouchy.”

“Mad moms” may have helped spark the recall, but now, with children back in school and the state’s economy rebounding, their power to influence the outcome of the election is less clear. Polls show that women voters are overwhelmingly on Newsom’s side — with two-thirds saying they’re against the recall in a Public Policy Institute of California poll released last week. But among parents (both mothers and fathers) who have children at home, only half say they’ll vote no. Likely voters overall oppose removing the governor by a 58% to 39% margin.

Historically, California women largely vote Democratic, and Newsom’s strategy of persuading other prominent Democrats to stay out of the recall race has helped him maintain their support — sometimes more because they fear a Republican alternative than because they’re enthusiastic about Newsom.      

Shannon Huffaker, for example, said she voted against the recall even though she’s unhappy with Newsom. The nurse practitioner from Albany was livid that her children’s school stayed closed as long as it did. Even now that it’s reopened, Huffaker said the new COVID-19 protocols are chaotic and the school isn’t getting enough support from the state. 

“‘Mad moms’ are what we used to call soccer moms. You mess around with their daily life or their quality life or what they’re able to do with their children, and they become very grouchy.”

Anne Dunsmore, RECALL CAMPAIGN MANAGER

“I am so frustrated that I would have considered voting yes if I felt there was any viable alternative, a viable Democrat who had a chance of winning,” she said. “I am angry, but I’m not willing to go so far as to hand the election to someone whose views I find abhorrent.”

Female voters helped elect Newsom in 2018, when exit polls showed 64% voted for him, compared with 55% of men. Aware that women are key to his political future, Newsom is spending the closing days of this campaign trying to ensure that women vote in what could be a low-turnout election. 

The governor is highlighting support from powerful Democratic women, campaigning with U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar over the weekend in Southern California, and today with the nation’s first female vice president, Kamala Harris, in the Bay Area. 

“Governor Newsom understands that California succeeds when we invest in women’s economic futures,” Warren said Saturday to cheers from a friendly audience of Newsom supporters. “He’s worked to close the gender pay gap, to expand paid family leave. Oh yeah, and he believes that basic health care for women includes access to safe, legal abortion.”

She joined Newsom in stoking fears about the rollback of abortion rights by drawing attention to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week not to block a very restrictive Texas law signed by its Republican governor. It’s another way Newsom is contrasting himself with his leading Republican rival, whose retrograde comments on women have handed the governor daily opportunities to pump up his progressive base.  

“Women are smarter in politics, smarter in civics, they’re smarter in economics,” Newsom said as he campaigned in Los Angeles over the weekend.  

“Women rule.”

The Elder factor

It was a clear dig at Larry Elder, the Republican frontrunner in the recall race, who wrote an article 20 years ago about an academic study that reported women know less than men in those subjects. 

During his long career as a conservative commentator, Elder has also written that sexual harassment doesn’t hold women back at work and that women should “overlook some boorish behavior by men,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Elder said on past radio programs that he has been accused of sexual harassment, but when CNN asked him about the comments last week, Elder said he didn’t remember making them. And Elder wrote in a 2002 book that employers should be able to ask women if they plan to become pregnant, which is prohibited by workplace discrimination laws. He stood by that opinion when the AP asked about it last month

“Women are smarter in politics, smarter in civics, they’re smarter in economics. Women rule.” 

Gov. gavin newsom, campaigning in los angeles on sept. 4

All of it has helped Newsom define himself for voters, something he struggled with in earlier phases of the campaign, said Democratic political consultant Katie Merrill. 

“Larry Elder’s out-of-step positions should help the governor’s effort to get women to vote,” she said. “Gavin has the perfect foil.” 

Elder’s comments about women have also drawn criticism from some of his Republican opponents

“His attack on working women is unconscionable,” Kevin Faulconer, the GOP former mayor of San Diego, said at a recent debate

“To all the working moms out there, know that when Kevin Faulconer is governor, I’m going to support your right to raise a family, to have a career.” 

The next day, Faulconer announced plans to back a new paid family leave law that would give parents full pay while caring for a new baby. California’s existing law pays parents as much as 70% of their normal salary while on family leave, while a pending bill would gradually increase that to 90%. 

It was a sign that Faulconer, who is positioning himself as the most moderate of the major Republican candidates, is trying to compete with Newsom for support from women voters. Newsom made lengthening paid family leave from six weeks to eight a top priority in his first year as governor, part of what he calls a “parents’ agenda.” This year, he signed a budget that will phase in preschool for all 4-year-olds and permanently repeal taxes on diapers and menstrual products.

Oakland resident Leta Smith speaks with union volunteer Jennifer Shanoski about the recall Newsom recall.
Oakland resident Leta Smith speaks with volunteer Jennifer Shanoski about the recall election on July 27, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

But these were not things campaign volunteer Jennifer Shanoski highlighted as she knocked on doors in Oakland last month asking union members to vote against the recall. Instead, she said that if Newsom loses, a Republican governor will try to take away union jobs and benefits. 

“I’ll vote to keep him,” Leta Smith said from the doorway of her blue bungalow. “I’m not totally happy with everything, but it’s better than the options.”

Smith said last month she was concerned about whether it’s safe for her kids to go back to school now that the Delta variant is causing a spike in COVID cases. In her opinion, Newsom reopened the state too fast in mid-June.

“I think he felt pressured to get things back to normal,” Smith said. “But we are not at that point yet.”

Rojas, the West Los Angeles mother, said she’s already sent her ballot in, checking “yes” to recall Newsom and selecting GOP Assemblymember Kevin Kiley to replace him. Kiley, who unsuccessfully sued Newsom over his pandemic executive orders, has developed a fervent following among voters upset about school closures, though polling shows his overall support has remained between 3% and 5%. Like other major GOP candidates, he opposes Newsom’s requirements for students to wear masks at school and teachers to be vaccinated.

Cynthia Rojas and Kevin Jardim play with their kids in the front yard of their Culver City home. According to the couple, if the Newsom recall doesn't succeed, they may move to another state.
Cynthia Rojas and Kevin Jardim play with their kids in the front yard of their home in Culver City, on Sept. 3, 2021. The couple says if Gov. Gavin Newsom does not get recalled, they may move to another state. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

As for her children? After watching her son break down from the isolation of Zoom lessons, Rojas did the same thing as Newsom and enrolled her kids in private school, where children have been attending in-person through most of the pandemic. 

“He was beaming that first week,” Rojas said. “That’s why I think this recall is so important. So many of us feel like if Newsom stays, he is going to close our schools again.”

Newsom has said many times that he wants children to attend school full-time and in-person this year. But the fear of so many mad moms still lingers, shaping the recall election that will determine his fate.

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Laurel Rosenhall

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...