The sudden front-runner to replace California's Gavin Newsom is bigger than his reputation.
I don’t want to say that Larry Elder is smarter than you think—but Larry Elder is probably smarter than you think.
The all-but-literally comic-sans announcement email that arrived in my inbox last month that the “Sage of South Central” was in the race, instructing “his Elder-ados and Elderberries” to get in gear, belied what would become a truly serious campaign for governor of the nation’s most important state. At the time, it seemed a rollout befitting a smashmouth (if outdated) talk radio host, another act in the carnival to rule California. Governor Gavin Newsom had anxieties, but Larry Elder was not one of them, I thought safely.
A good local source told me I was wrong, but I carried my assumption when I traveled to the Golden State earlier this month and took in a recall debate.
His holiness, the beleaguered governor, didn’t attend, but neither did Elder, joining Caitlyn Jenner in that regard, in the cast of characters either too pious or too preposterous to take the debate stage. “This is a recall election, not a primary election for Republicans,” Ying Ma, a fiery conservative operative known in Washington but now working for Elder, told the Times of San Diego then. “It makes no sense to have a circular firing squad among GOP contenders, where the only one who benefits is Gavin Newsom.” It didn’t seem convincing.
But in the interim, I’ve learned to respect my Elder.
In the August heat, this radio man has convulsed the race, the odds-on favorite to replace Newsom if he gets the sack in September. This has turned into a two man contest. And it takes one sort of shock jock to know another.
“I think he realizes it’s going down,” California expat Joe Rogan said of Governor Newsom last week on his podcast. “That Larry Elder fella—is a smooth talker. Great, conservative radio host. Smooth talker. And people like him. People like him a lot. He’s very popular. He’s got a huge national show. I mean, he’s been around for a long time.”
Since I didn’t have debate footage to peruse, I reviewed another sort of debate over the weekend—Elder’s throwdown with the Los Angeles Times editorial board. It’s something to see.
“Crime has been up in lots of cities. It’s up in Chicago. It’s up in New York. It’s up in Los Angeles,” Elder told the board.
I think one of the primary reasons for this is that the police are engaging in systemic racism. And cops are pulling back. The former commissioner of New York [NYPD], Ray Kelly, said that only seven percent of cops would recommend the job to a family member or a friend, largely because of this notion that the police are engaged in systemic racism. I also think in places like Los Angeles and Oakland the Defund the Police movement has diverted funds from the police that otherwise would have been used to fight crime.
Much of the hour-long discourse goes on like that: Elder is clippy, authoritative and above all, uncompromising. He’s not nearly as careful as rival Kevin Faulconer, the former San Diego mayor, who Democrats are quietly encouraging their troops to vote for, if they answer “question two” on the ballot at all. He’s not as green as rising star Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, who at 36 is nearly half Elder’s 69. And he’s not as theatrical as John Cox, also a radio host, as well as the routed 2018 Republican gubernatorial nominee, who is wandering the state with a Kodiak bear, for whatever reason.
Longtime observers say this should come as no surprise. Elder, a self-made lawyer from the Ivy League, is no simple brawler. “Larry has probably thought and talked more about California’s pathologies than any California gubernatorial candidate since Ronald Reagan,” Ryan Williams, president of the Claremont Institute, told me.
The dramatic climax of the Times interview occurs about two-thirds through, when Elder and his top aide, Ma, blanch at the inclusion of Times political columnist Jean Guerrero, who has made her name in California by taking a hard-line racial lens to her reporting: first, with a biography of controversial Trump consigliere Stephen Miller, of Santa Monica, and more recently reporting on Elder, of South-Central Los Angeles. “If Larry Elder is elected, life will get harder for Black and Latino Californians,” Guerrero asserted earlier this month of Mr. Elder, who is black.
Back to the tape: Elder and Ma flatly refuse to hear Guerrero’s question. When her colleagues protest: If you can’t handle this, how can you deal with rowdy opposition in a massive state? Elder answers that a new era of media good faith should be demanded, and answers all other questions from other interviewers. The question is a fair one, though, and will certainly follow Elder if, indeed, he becomes governor.
Elder is no moderate, and it shows, but his appeal is clearly pan-ideological, as he appeals to the likes of the enormously popular Rogan, who is no conservative. He would bring to Sacramento what he believes is a moral dignity and clarity of purpose he and others, like Williams said, believe hasn’t been seen since Reagan. And he is a plainly alternative vision to Newsom.
I remember having breakfast a few years ago with Eric Garris, who made his name in radical libertarian circles in San Francisco in the 1970s and is now editor of Antiwar.com. We dined at the Cliff House, now as good a symbol as any of Californian disrepair: a small business closed for over a year through a combination of pandemic measures and other confusing interactions with the government. A new restaurant is set to open in 2022, but it rang in 2021 embossed with graffiti. Over lobster eggs benedict, Garris, the former activist, told me he saw little way around a probable future of socialized medicine, the pitched battles of the past now simply old war stories. Maybe it was for the best? Maybe it wasn’t.
Elder isn’t so compromising.
It’ll certainly land him in trouble in the governor’s mansion: Like Cox, Elder still (theoretically) opposes the minimum wage. A paper trail of questionable causes—like arguing Rubin Carter, the convicted-then-exonerated Middleweight champion made famous by Bob Dylan in “Hurricane” was actually guilty—will certainly dog him. His history raises questions about his ability to focus if in power.
But Elder’s charisma has, in just seven short weeks, expanded the horizon of what’s possible, which seems more important. The sense he’s engendering is what is most sought after in politics: hope. Elder is no fan of the most recent president who made his bones that way, but the similarities are there. If he pulls this off, then who knows? Adherents may not agree on all the details, but they dig the energy, which the nearly-70 Elder somehow has in spades. And if he triumphs shortly after Labor Day, he will be the California Republican Party’s necromancer, not to mention having delivered the national party its most surprising and significant electoral win since 2016.
Back in Washington, I broached this topic with another political hand. He speculated that Elder would probably have until about Easter, until semi-serious attempts at his impeachment sprouted up—so about the length of time President Joe Biden had. But President Biden is not going to be impeached and removed, and maybe neither would a Governor Elder. As Congressman Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts told Fox News last week, Biden made a “high integrity call” in seeing through the exit from Afghanistan. From the other side of the aisle, one senses Elder has it in him to make similar decisions for the Golden State, like Biden, proving more serious than longtime detractors expected. And like Biden, Elder would have arrived at a late-in-life station more befitting his restless spirit.