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Life Under Newsom
An interview with California State Senator Melissa Melendez on bipartisan discontent with one-party rule in California.
Melissa Ann Melendez is a Republican state senator for District 28, covering much of California’s Riverside County as well as portions of Glendale, Burbank, and Pasadena. The American Mind’s Nate Hochman spoke with her about California’s impending gubernatorial recall and its prospects for success.
Nate Hochman: A lot of people, particularly on our side of the aisle, think conservatism in California is basically a lost cause. They see a state Republican Party that’s in shambles, an overwhelmingly blue voter base, and one-party control of the state legislature, and think the state of California is essentially gone, at least for a generation. But the recall of Gavin Newsom was a huge victory for conservatives. And I think it really took the one-party Democratic regime by surprise. Why do you think the campaign was able to break through?
Melissa Melendez: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think it absolutely took them by surprise. I know that in the beginning they saw it as just some sort of one-off effort that would not succeed, and they could laugh about it later. And then lo and behold, it made it onto the ballot. And I think that was for a number of reasons, all things which predate the COVID shutdown. You still have very high homeless rates in California, you still have a very high cost of living, and you have a lot of people who can’t afford housing. Add to that the missteps that the governor had during the lockdown, and I think that was the perfect storm—people said, “we’ve had enough.” And I can tell you that while the governor thinks that this is a Republican recall, based on the emails that I get from my constituents—many of whom are Democrats or who are independent voters—they are on board with this recall. So it is not just a Republican recall. There are an awful lot of people who think that he’s just not doing the job well.
N.H. It’s difficult to discern how much of the grassroots energy that motivated people to go out and actually support the recall was a direct response to Newsom’s abuse of power during Coronavirus versus a broader animosity to the way that Newsom and the one-party Democratic regime in California has ruled for the past couple of decades or so.
M.M. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly, without polling everyone. I can only tell you anecdotally, what I hear from the people I speak with—and bear in mind that I was doing town halls twice a month up until COVID. So I’m certainly hearing from the constituents of Riverside County on a regular basis. And, you know, even Democrats are fed up. The gas tax really angered a lot of people. And the press has helped somewhat in that they have highlighted some of the hypocrisy coming from the majority party—certainly not to the extent that I feel that they should, but they have done so on occasion, and I think that caught people’s attention.
People are saying, “look, why do I have to follow these rules, and people in the legislature don’t?” It seems like it’s a caste system in California. And I don’t think Californians like that, regardless of their political party. And again, there’s just so many people who would love to be able to purchase a home that they can afford, but there aren’t any that they can afford. And they would like to be able to walk down their main streets and go shopping without seeing homeless people defecating. I mean, these are very basic needs and wants that a lot of the population is not seeing. And I think that contributed to people saying, this is enough.
N.H. When you’re interacting with constituents at your town halls, what are the specific things that people are pointing to about what Newsom did that crossed the line? Obviously, the French Laundry situation, paired with the draconian lockdowns, was just the perfect encapsulation of the way the ruling class in California lives by one set of rules while everyone else has to live by another. But are there other things that people, regardless of whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, are talking to you about when they’re voicing their frustrations about Newsom and the California Democrats?
M.M. There is, and it all is centered around their children. Irrespective of political party, parents are very angry about what has taken place with their children’s education over the last 15 months. Really, really, really angry. I cannot stress that enough. And they see that the governor’s kids are in a private school and their education got back to normal rather quickly, while everyone else was stuck trying to figure out how they’re going to make sure their kids are okay at home and still try to work, and that’s if they still have their job. And the fact that their kids were languishing behind the laptop computer day after day after day—that, I think, has really been the common denominator in all of this frustration with how the governor has handled this pandemic. People get angry about lots of different issues and policies, but there’s one above all else: Do not mess with their kids.
N.H. Do you think the recall opens new opportunities for Republicans to do outreach in California? You look at the state of California for the last few years—rolling blackouts, a totally hollowed-out middle class, now the most unequal state in the Union after being a middle-class paradise and a Reagan Republican state in the 1980s—and as conservatives, it’s confusing. How can people keep voting for the people who have run this beautiful, resource-rich state into the ground? Why haven’t Republicans been able to break through in what used to be a solid red state? And can they?
M.M. As far as California is concerned, honestly, people ask me this all the time. What’s it going to take? I have no idea. I really don’t know, short of going completely bankrupt. I don’t know what it’s going to take short of maybe them raising taxes so high that the rest of the upper middle class leaves. You really can’t move up the social ladder in the state anymore—I mean, you try to be an entrepreneur, you try to start your business, and the government just comes in and punches you every time you turn around. And when you keep getting up they keep punching you and knocking you back down. It’s no wonder people are leaving in droves.
N.H. California still has more Republican voters than any other state, because it’s just such a massive state. Do you think most of those Republicans are eventually going to leave? Is there any other realistic option? It seems like more radical initiatives like the State of Jefferson are off the table, at least for now.
M.M. There is a Facebook group that I stumbled upon that is called “Life After California.” It is hysterical—you must find it and read it. These are all people who have left or are leaving, and they’re telling you about where they’re going and how happy they are. And the difference in just the cost of gas, to register your car, to license your dog—I mean, you name it—is significant. And they are all literally doing cartwheels. They’re happy. So many of them are saying, “gosh, I wish I’d moved 30 years ago.” These are lifelong Californians, who are going to places like Montana, for God’s sake. I mean, they know how cold it is there and they don’t care. They don’t care. They’ll take it, they just want to have some freedom back.
So I don’t know how long the exodus will continue. I really don’t. But I mean, we just lost a congressional seat. That is pretty remarkable. Considering Democrats all along have been saying that people leaving California is just an overblown Republican narrative. Well, guess what? They are! And it has political consequences, as we see.
N.H. And the more of them that leave, the more cemented the Democratic Party’s one-party rule becomes.
M.M. Right. But the Democrats already act like they’re the only party. They know they don’t have to work across the aisle anymore. It just makes me crazy. I mean, my mom was a Democrat, my dad was a Republican, they got along just fine, even though they didn’t agree on everything. I don’t know how we got to this point where we now have the mindset that if you don’t like how the other person votes, you absolutely do not have to listen to them talk and should do everything in your power to stop them from being heard. But that’s where we are.
It happens all the time in my job. When I introduced a bill to protect political affiliation, one of the Democrat union hacks on the other side of the assembly tweeted out that, “your hateful, bigoted, rhetoric doesn’t need to be protected.” Of course, the bill doesn’t even say it’s protecting Republicans. It says protecting any political affiliation. But that’s where we are—you know, you’re the devil if you’re a Republican. So I guess I should tuck my horns neatly under my hair next time before I walk into the building.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.