California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a No on the Recall campaign event with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris at IBEW-NECA Joint Apprenticeship Training Center on September 08, 2021 in San Leandro, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Many Californians breathed a sigh of relief last week when Gov. Gavin Newsom ran away with a win in the Republican-backed, nearly $300 million recall election. 

Though the recall efforts were met with a wave of advocacy to keep Newsom in office, much of the conversation was fueled by fears that a loss in the election would spell danger for Californians of color. While the governor garnered some goodwill through progressive legislative actions during his tenure, some Californians across the political spectrum found themselves disappointed by Newsom’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even those who supported him in his initial candidacy felt he did not go far enough to protect those most vulnerable to the pandemic, specifically those hit hardest by the economic fallout and renters worried about keeping their homes after temporary tenant protections expire. 

Now, those who kept him in office—like the organizers who canvassed up and down the Central Valley to mobilize voters of color, and the Black and brown housing rights advocates who helped get him elected in the first place—are putting the pressure on Newsom to hold true to his campaign promises. 

According to an NBC News exit poll, 83% of Black voters in California voted to oppose the recall, 64% of Asian voters supported Newsom, and Latinx voters trailed behind with 60% voting to keep the governor in office. This is a slight decline from the support Newsom garnered in the 2018 gubernatorial election, where a CNN poll found that 90% of Democratic Black voters and 69% of Latinx Democratic voters cast their ballots in his favor. 

Monica Madrid, community organizer with the Sacramento chapter of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), said she and her fellow organizers campaigned hard to keep Newsom in office. 

“ACCE as well as other nonprofits showed up and ran a whole statewide campaign to defeat this,” Madrid said. “In Sacramento alone, my team spoke with 4,600 voters. I hope he can see the value of our work and decide to work with us and support our policy initiatives.”

“It really comes down to the people power that won this election, and people power wins every election,” said Luciano Quezada, lead organizer for Power California Action. Quezada and his team of organizers spent months canvassing and phone banking in the Central Valley. And it worked. In Merced County, where 61% of the population is Latinx, 75% of Latinx residents voted against the recall.   

While Newsom has been touted by national press and right-wing Californians as the bold, fearless leader of a progressive movement, Black and brown organizers who’ve been working in the state for decades know that’s an embellishment. 

When COVID-19 outbreaks tore through California prisons, for example, leaving those incarcerated to be sitting ducks in the face of a deadly virus, Newsom only released a fraction of people eligible for compassionate release policies that would have significantly eased the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Still, many have stuck with Newsom not because he’s delivered progressive politics to California, but because with enough pressure and community organizing he’s proven himself to be moveable on the issues that matter. And, because for Black and brown Californians, the alternative would have been much worse.

“We knew that we had to win this election, not only for the state of California, but for our community.” Quezada said. “We knew that if someone like Larry Elder were to be elected into office, it would be catastrophic for our lower income communities and our communities of color. We know that they would be left out when it came to any type of policy making.” 

Now that Newsom has survived the recall election, voters are expecting the governor to make good on his promises and focus his attention on one of the largest issues plaguing the state—the housing crisis. 

“There are about 18 million renters in California and renters showed up and voted to support Governor Newsom,” Madrid said.

The housing crisis has been a spectre looming over California for years now. More than 161,000 people are houseless in the state, an estimate according to the 2020 Point-in-Time count conducted once a year. Houselessness has increased by 24.3% alone from 2018 to 2020. The median home price in the state is $800,000, and the median household income is just $75,235.

Lopez said he’s grateful for the advances Newsom’s administration has made on housing rights, like the statewide rent cap implemented through the 2019 Tenant Protection Act and the statewide eviction moratorium and Emergency Rental Assistance program offered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it hasn’t gone far enough to address the pervasive housing inequality affecting Californians across the state. 

“I would like to see the governor recognize Housing as a Human Right and work to make sure all Californians are able to live in affordable, safe, and dignified housing,” said Jose Lopez, Deputy director of the San Diego chapter of ACCE. “As COVID continues to devastate our communities, we need the governor to pass a strong eviction moratorium that prevents all evictions not related to health and public safety, cancel the rent for tenants who can’t pay due to COVID 19, and stop all rent increases until we recover from this pandemic.”

One of Newsom’s first actions post-recall was to pass a slate of housing legislation, which among many things, bolster housing production and streamlines the process for rezoning residential properties for multi-family housing. 

Lopez and his team at ACCE are also advocating for the repeal of the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which would remove restrictions for cities to enact rent control laws on certain residential properties. Initiatives to repeal Costa Hawkins have made it on the ballot twice, in 2017 and 2019, but have failed. 

Organizers are also looking to Newsom to sign AB 1487, a bill that would establish a Homelessness Prevention Fund that would distribute grants to support tenants facing eviction or displacement, and give tenants the right to counsel during an eviction hearing. The bill has passed the California legislature and is awaiting Newsom’s signature. 

For the Black and brown organizers who’ve helped Newsom secure both gubernatorial victories, organizing and electoral politics are not mutually exclusive. 

“I actually started off political organizing and then I ended up working as a community organizer. I think the two go hand in hand,” Madrid said. “Political organizing helps elect people who can support our agenda and community organizing gives the community a voice and helps push our policy agenda. I do think community organizing helps empower those who don’t typically get engaged politically, learn how their elected officials vote and helps them decide how they will vote come election time.”

Montse Reyes is a writer and editor based in Oakland and raised in California's Central Valley. She enjoys writing about the intersection of race, gender and class, often as they relate to culture at large.