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Here's Why Black Leaders Are Working To Stop Larry Elder's California Recall Campaign

Republican Larry Elder speaks to supporters during an Asian Rally for Yes Recall at the Asian Garden Mall in Little Saigon, Westminster, California, on September 4, 2021.
Ringo Chiu
AFP via Getty Images
Republican Larry Elder speaks to supporters during an Asian Rally for Yes Recall at the Asian Garden Mall in Little Saigon, Westminster, California, on September 4, 2021.

Updated September 12, 2021 at 10:36 AM ET

For 27 years, conservative talk radio host Larry Elder has been a provocateur on Los Angeles radio dials: a Black host who leans libertarian and delights in skewering Democratic politicians and liberal orthodoxy. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is just his latest target.

If the effort to recall Newsom on Tuesday is successful, Elder, a Republican, is the frontrunner to lead this deep blue state. (That scenario is a big "if", as recent polls have shown Newsom widening his lead among likely voters to defeat the recall by an average of nearly 15 points.)

California's recall rules let a replacement candidate win with just a plurality of votes, while Newsom must convince a majority of voters to choose "no" on the recall ballot in order to keep his seat as governor. The same polls show Elder has the support of more than a quarter of likely voters. That's far more than his closest rival, Democrat and financial advice YouTuber Kevin Paffrath, a political newcomer who wants to pipe water to California from the Mississippi River.

Elder would be the first Black governor in state history, and he's making a play for voters of color, while Black leaders line up to oppose him.

At a recent rally in Thousand Oaks, a city north of Los Angeles, Elder appealed to Black and Latino voters, arguing that Democrats take them for granted.

"You are being betrayed," Elder said. "And what they're afraid of is that Larry Elder, from the 'hood, who went to a public school, will be able to make the case to Black and Brown people: You are being used. You are being manipulated."

In this case, Elder was talking about charter schools and the power of the California teachers' union, a major Newsom supporter that backed the governor's decision to require masking in public schools and vaccines for school staff. Elder has pledged to repeal such restrictions on his first morning in office.

He says Newsom's decision last year to halt in-person education for public schools in counties with high coronavirus infections and hospitalizations was hypocritical, "ignoring science," and damaging to Black and Latino kids the most.

Black leaders push back

But many of California's African American leaders say, not so fast. "In the Black community, we are very familiar with Larry Elder," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Karen Bass. Like Elder, Bass got her start in South Los Angeles. She was an emergency room nurse-turned-community organizer. She now represents much of the area in Congress.

In an interview with member station KPCC, Bass said Elder's promise to rescind public health restrictions would put lives at risk.

"The policies that he projects are an absolute threat to the Black community," she said. "When you talk about the COVID-19 rate, the death rate and the infection rate in the Black community, it's a pretty obvious choice."

"The community isn't stupid," Bass said. "People understand where their interests are."

Bass and more than a dozen prominent Black leaders in California partnered with the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project to mobilize Black voters to turn in their recall ballots.

Keyva Clark, a volunteer for the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project, scrolls through a list of registered voters to call to encourage them to vote in the Sept. 14 California recall election.
Libby Denkmann / KPCC
Keyva Clark, a volunteer for the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project, scrolls through a list of registered voters to call to encourage them to vote in the Sept. 14 California recall election.

On a recent Saturday afternoon in the Baldwin Village neighborhood in South Los Angeles., volunteer Keyva Clark cranked through a phone bank list. Groups like this one have helped California's electorate become more diverse in recent years, but it's still whiter and more affluent than the state as a whole.

Clark said Newsom has been supportive of stricter use-of-force standards for police and environmental policies that she cares about. When asked about Elder, she cites an adage popularized by the author Zora Neale Hurston.

"All skinfolk ain't kinfolk," she said. "He doesn't embody what African American voters really need and want in a governor."

In his decades as a political contrarian, Elder has heard those criticisms before — especially from Los Angeles' Black community. His radio show was the subject of a Black-led advertiser boycott in the 1990s. He would face a larger battle as governor, where Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature.

A long history in Los Angeles

Over the decades, Black leaders on the left have largely ignored Elder for not wanting to give his brand of right-wing talk radio any more oxygen. Since the 1990s, he's had a tough time convincing potential guests, such as Rep. Maxine Waters — a frequent target of his — to appear on his program.

Political consultant Kerman Maddox recalls in the 1990s people often telling him that he and Elder should debate. That was when they were among the few regular African American voices on local PBS programs. Maddox wasn't interested.

"His thinking is so far out of the mainstream, I would tell people, 'Don't pay attention to the guy.' People like that crave attention."

"When affirmative action was on the ballot, he was crying 'reverse discrimination,' " Maddox said. "Whatever the issues are where the Black community rallies together, he goes out of his way to be on the other side. That's just who Larry Elder is."

Elder's Los Angeles-based show has been nationally syndicated for years, initially by ABC Radio and later Salem Radio Network, though Elder is not hosting while he's a candidate for Governor.

Elected officials, labor leaders and political organizers are no longer looking past "The Sage from South Central", as he calls himself. Elder attended Crenshaw High School before heading off to Brown University in the 1970s and then the University of Michigan Law School.

Maddox says the stakes of the recall are too high to simply sit back and watch.

"It's OK to be Republican. That doesn't bother me," he said. "What bothers me is Larry gives comfort to the people who are white supremacists, or who don't believe racism exists."

"If a guy like this wins in a blue state like California, can you imagine what role he plays nationally in 2022?"

Elder on systemic racism: 'It's a lie'

Elder's conservative positions put him at odds with mainstream Black policymakers and civil rights activists.

According to Elder systemic racism in policing is "a lie." (It's not a lie. There's a pile of research showing Black people in the U.S. are disproportionately subject to police use of force, including deadly shootings — even when you consider rates of violent crime committed by Black people.)

Elder blames criminal justice reforms Democrats have championed, and progressive talk of defunding the police, for a rise in violent crime — something cities across the country have seen, in red and blue states.

On the radio and on the campaign trail, Elder is fond of saying that Black leaders who call out the ongoing legacy of racist systems are taking on a "victim" mindset, and should instead follow the advice of his late father who was a Marine Corps veteran: "Hard work wins."

Black Lives Matter-L.A. co-founder Melina Abdullah called Elder "The Black face of white supremacy" in an L.A. Times' column.

At a campaign event, Elder said that criticism, "is because I dare to say racism is no longer a major problem in America ... It's what the left does to divide us because they want to scare Black people and guilt-trip white liberals into pulling the lever for them."

Elder's perspective on racism made headlines for a different reason last week. While campaigning in Venice, Calif., on Wednesday, a woman in a gorilla mask threw an egg at the candidate while he was viewing homeless encampments. The woman later struck a member of his security detail. Videos of the attack went viral online, with some commentators decrying a double standard in how the media covered the event. The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating.

Elder said on Fox News that he wasn't sure if the alleged assault was racially motivated, but added "the left would be screaming about systemic racism," if he were a liberal candidate.

At a rally and fundraiser in Orange County, Navy veteran Chris McGee said Elder's "personal responsibility" message resonates with him.

"They call him 'the Black face of white supremacy' — is that not an oxymoron?" McGee said. "Why are we trying to divide each other? We should be embracing the things that make us different and coming together. I think Larry wants to change that narrative."

Chris McGee, the Westminster city chair for the Orange County Republican Party, attends an rally and fundraiser for gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder on Aug. 21.
Libby Denkmann / KPCC
Chris McGee, the Westminster city chair for the Orange County Republican Party, attends an rally and fundraiser for gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder on Aug. 21.

McGee is African American and is the Westminster city chair for the Orange County GOP. He argued that Newsom shutting down businesses and churches over COVID-19 was arbitrary and not based on science.

"I know Larry can make a difference," McGee said. "I really don't understand why other African Americans and people of color aren't here today supporting him."

Newsom's focus on Elder

In speeches and messaging in the final days of the campaign, Newsom is zeroing in on Elder as the strongest recall challenger, warning he would roll back climate change mitigation efforts and appoint conservative judges — possibly even a Republican U.S. Senator if 88-year old Dianne Feinstein decides to retire before her term ends.

Democrats are also tying the recall effort to national issues, such as voting rights and abortion. In the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris contrasted the strict abortion law in Texas and comments by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott about rape survivors to Newsom's support of reproductive rights.

Elder has given mixed signals on what he would do about access to abortion as governor, but he said he is "pro-life, 100%."

The strategy — along with tens of millions of dollars in anti-recall spending — appears to be riling up liberal voters.

Democrats aren't taking the numbers for granted. They're bringing in more heavy-hitting names to carry Newsom over the finish line. Former President Barack Obama taped a plea for voters to keep the governor in office, which debuted online and on television this week. And President Biden has committed to appearing with Newsom on election eve in Long Beach.

Copyright 2021 LAist 89.3

Libby Denkmann is KPCC's veterans and military reporter. She focuses on stories about active duty service members, veterans, and their families in Southern California.