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Meet the California state senator spending big to keep Gov. Newsom in office

With less than two weeks remaining before the first recall election since 2003, local Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, has emerged as Newsom’s biggest backer in the state legislature, donating gobs of money for mailers, dropping television ads and drawing national media attention in the process.

Although political experts have heralded the move as smart politics, Dodd, a onetime Republican who has known Newsom for two decades, said he feels strongly that the recall effort is wrongheaded and driven by those who delight in chaos.

“As I look at all of the reasons why the recall authors were putting the governor up for recall, I can’t imagine that anybody would be elected governor,” Dodd said in a phone interview last week. “And if they were held to the same standard he’s being held to, they would also be recalled.”

Dodd, whose district includes Petaluma and southern Sonoma County, Napa and rural swaths north of Vacaville, worked with Newsom on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission about a decade ago when Newsom was mayor of San Francisco and Dodd was a Napa County supervisor.

That longstanding relationship, coupled with Dodd’s belief that the recall is simply unfair, have driven him to tap $120,000 from a special ballot initiative fund his donors have helped fill through the years. The money, Dodd said, has helped send “hundreds of thousands” of pro-Newsom mailers, bolstering a $63 million-plus effort to keep the governor in office beyond the Sept. 14 recall election, according to the latest campaign finance filings.

Citing Newsom’s undefeated record on the campaign trail, Sonoma State University political science professor David McCuan called Dodd’s move to support the embattled governor “smart politics” amid the “political story of the year.”

“The senator has made a decision to be all in. That’s smart politics for him,” said McCuan. “Being the leader of the pack places him in a strong position on Sept. 15 regardless of what happens. And that’s important.”

Dodd, a prolific fundraiser and powerbroker as chair of the Senate Committee on Governmental Organization, saw his efforts highlighted late last week in Politico Playbook’s California afternoon newsletter. Although the newsletter, attributing Dodd’s team, said the Napa lawmaker was outpacing his fellow legislators, Dodd said he’s not focused on being the biggest financial backer for the governor.

“I don’t look at what anybody else does. I just do what I think is right,” Dodd said, adding that other legislators are welcome to jump in. “It’s not too late for them to do it. I would encourage them.”

Dodd’s planned $120,000 in independent expenditures comprise about 10% of the independent expenditures made as of Aug. 26, joining the California Nurses Association and National Nurses Organizing Committee, which spent $300,000 on radio ads opposing the recall.

It's a small fraction of the amount raised to defend Newsom’s seat, where supporters have amassed more than $63 million in donations to fight recall proponents, who have raised a little more than $7 million, according to filings.

Dodd acknowledged that many of his own constituents would like to see the recall succeed, tossing out a governor they say has mishandled multiple crises while appearing out of touch, including with an ill-advised trip to the exclusive French Laundry restaurant in Napa County – squarely within Dodd’s Wine Country-heavy district.

But even while acknowledging Newsom’s missteps, Dodd, who is term limited after 2024, said throwing the governor out of office in favor of candidates he sees as unqualified would only lead to chaos.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t like the governor – don’t like his persona,” Dodd said. “And they want him recalled for the same reason they wanted Donald Trump elected president. They want chaos, and they want chaos more than effective government.”

Among those supporting the recall is Marc Klaas, the father of Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old Petaluma girl who was abducted and murdered in late 1993. In public appearances supporting Newsom’s removal, Klaas has cast the governor as soft on crime in part for Newsom’s decision March 2019 to enact a moratorium on executions.

It’s one of dozens of reasons to recall cited on the official recall website, recallgavin2020.com, which lists everything from Newsom’s French Laundry reservation to his public health orders, posture on immigration and surging homelessness.

But Dodd said Newsom has been attentive to the needs of Dodd’s district, and through unprecedented crisis has guided the state better than most governors in the country. He said he worries about the status of wildfire relief programs and other efforts that have grown out of the strong relationship he has with the governor’s office.

“I just think he’s done a good job, but he’s been dealt a hand that nobody in their right mind would want,” said Dodd. “And I doubt that anybody could do it more effectively than this governor has done it.”

McCuan said Dodd’s decision to take a leading role speaks volumes about the state of California’s Democratic party. Dodd, who was a registered Republican before running for State Assembly in 2014, is poised to be a strong voice for that party in the future, McCuan said.

“Regardless of what happens with the recall, with redistricting, Sen. Bill Dodd is going to be an important influencer, an influential presence at the capital for some time,” McCuan said.

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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