SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - The race to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom has attracted a nationally syndicated radio show host, an ex-Olympic champion turned reality TV star and the former mayor of one of the nation’s 10 most populous cities who has deep ties to the Republican Party establishment.
And then there is Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a 36-year-old lawyer who represents the Sacramento suburbs in the state Legislature. While little known outside his district, the former teacher and state prosecutor has gained a devoted but relatively small following by staking a claim as one of Newsom’s chief critics during the pandemic.
He’s a conservative who often flirts with the fringes of the GOP.
Kiley says climate change is real, but opposes Newsom’s orders to ban all oil-drilling by 2045 and the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. He supports a minimum wage, but says it should vary by region and not be as high as Democrats want.
He is vaccinated against COVID-19 and says the virus is not a hoax, but if elected governor has pledged to overturn Newsom’s emergency declaration and all of the rules mandating vaccines and masks that come with it.
Last year, at the start of the pandemic, Kiley and the Legislature voted to let Newsom — with little oversight — spend $1 billion responding to to the pandemic, urging everyone "to trust in Governor Newsom’s leadership and listen to his guidance." But later he turned hard against Newsom, saying he "made a mockery of that trust."
Kiley teamed up with Republican Assemblyman James Gallagher on a lawsuit to block Newsom’s emergency powers, a case that earned a favorable ruling from a judge but was overturned on appeal. He traveled statewide to help qualify the recall election for the ballot and even wrote a book with the unambiguous title " Recall Newsom."
Kiley has raised close to $1 million, mostly in small amounts from thousands of contributors across the state and has pledged to not accept money from special interests. But it takes many millions to mount the kind of statewide media campaign that can raise his name recognition in a Republican field that includes talk radio host Larry Elder, ex-Olympian Caitlyn Jenner and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
Voters have two choices in the Sept. 14 election: Should Newsom be removed from office and who among 46 candidates should replace him? If a majority votes to oust Newsom, whoever gets the most votes on the second question will be governor. With so many candidates dividing the votes it’s likely a winner could emerge with 25% or less.
Jon Fleischman, former chair of the California Republican Party, is among GOP observers who say Kiley’s campaign is more about the future than pulling an upset next month. No Republicans hold statewide office in California and the party is desperate to find new political leaders to rally around.
The state is home to 5.3 million registered Republicans — more than the total populations of more than half the states. Jon Fleischman, publisher of the "Flash Report," a conservative news website, said many people forget that reality because Democrats have such a stranglehold on power in the state.
"I think Kevin, whether he is the governor or not ... will emerge from this as a very significant leader" of California Republicans, predicted Fleischman, who voted early and went with Elder, the GOP front-runner.
Kiley grew up in Granite Bay, California, a city of about 20,000 northeast of Sacramento. He was the valedictorian of Granite Bay High School and got his undergraduate degree at Harvard and law degree from Yale Law School.
He spent two years teaching Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar" and George Orwell’s "Animal Farm" to 10th-graders in a cramped portable classroom at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. After teaching, he joined a law firm in Los Angeles and helped prepare a case for T-Mobile accusing Chinese mobile phone giant Huawei of stealing its technology, a case that eventually was the basis for a U.S. criminal investigation into the company.
He got elected to the state Assembly in 2016 — the same year Donald Trump upended national politics. He won’t say whether he voted for Trump or if he supported his policies.
"My position in that campaign and since I have been in office is that I just stay out of national politics altogether," Kiley said. "I think national politics is a distraction that is used frankly by those in power in Sacramento (as) kind of a smokescreen for their own failures."
In the Legislature, Kiley has sometimes worked across the aisle. He teamed with the Democratic majority to pass a bill that made transcripts of grand jury proceedings public. This year, a bill Kiley authored to let students sue schools in sexual assault cases even if their parents signed a document waiving their rights has passed the Legislature and will soon be on Newsom’s desk.
He has gotten the most attention for things he opposes. He led the charge against a state law that required most companies to treat independent contractors as full-time employees — although voters overturned a provision of the law that applied to Uber and Lyft, among others. Last week, the voter-approved law applying to ride-hailing app companies was ruled unconstitutional by a California Superior Court judge.
It was Kiley’s opposition to Newsom’s coronavirus orders that got the attention of Heidi Hall, who said she never paid attention to politics until the pandemic. The lifelong Democrat registered as a Republican and got elected to a school board in Roseville, a city within Kiley’s legislative district.
She said she was particularly impressed with Kiley’s lawsuit against Newsom.
"I recognize someone who sees a problem and instead of just sitting around yapping about it ... he took action," Hall said.
Kiley said he decided to run for governor after getting encouragement from Orrin Heatlie, the former police officer who organized and launched the recall petition to remove Newsom. Heatlie, speaking only for himself and not the recall campaign, said he supports Kiley because of his experience in the Legislature.
"You’re going to have to have somebody that knows the ropes and experience working within the Capitol that can get in, roll their sleeves up, get right to work," he said.
Kiley hasn’t said much about the other candidates in the race, saying he views them as "teammates" working toward a shared goal of recalling Newsom. If the recall is successful, whoever replaces Newsom will finish out the remainder of his term. A general election will be held in 2022.
"You are not signing on for four years. You are signing on for one year," Kiley said in a pitch to California voters who might be hesitant to vote for a Republican. "You can see if your quality of life improves, and then you can, you know, decide whether you want to continue down that path."