A Larry Elder supporter holds a sticker in Norwalk on July 13, 2021.
A Larry Elder supporter holds a sticker in Norwalk on July 13.
(Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters)
Civic Life

Larry Elder’s outspoken conservative radio rhetoric is under scrutiny in recall election

Larry Elder leapfrogs the others vying to replace Gavin Newsom as California’s governor in the Sept. 14 recall election, with provocative stances from firing teachers to downplaying the danger of secondhand smoke.

He has on occasion fueled climate change skepticism, depicting global warming as a “crock” and a “myth.” He said the medical establishment and “professional victims” have overblown the danger from secondhand tobacco smoke.

He offered no pushback when a doctor called into his nationally syndicated radio show last month to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines were dangerous and didn’t object when the physician then implied that Bill Gates might have backed the “experimental” immunizations as a form of “population control.”

Larry Elder created a platform for those views in a more than 30-year career in the media, epitomizing the convention-defying persona that has helped him seemingly leapfrog other candidates in the race to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom in next month’s recall election.

On issues such as smoking, climate change and the best ways to treat COVID-19, he has sometimes given airtime to views outside the mainstream, simultaneously inspiring those who say he would be a maverick leader and alarming others who say his brand of libertarianism is too extreme for California.

Those conflicting realities have leapt to the fore, less than a month after the talk radio host entered the recall race and as journalists and rivals begin to dive into Elder’s three-decade record on the radio, as well as his books, newsletters and social media pronouncements.

Elder is being revealed as someone who has occasionally been comfortable standing outside the scientific consensus on issues such as secondhand smoke and climate change, while fervently promoting dramatic measures to unravel some of the core policies and beliefs of liberal-leaning California.

He has called the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision, which creates a legal right for women to have abortions, “one of the worst decisions that the Supreme Court ever handed down,” called abortion “murder” and said abortion rules should be left to the states.

He said he would have voted against the law that requires employers to offer workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to bond with new children or to care for family members with medical emergencies. He has rejected the notion that women confront a “glass ceiling” in attempts at career advancement and embraced the libertarian truism that citizens have become too reliant on an overbearing government.

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A recent interview with The Times suggested that his introduction to the California electorate will create even more provocative fodder. Elder implied that he might declare a state of emergency in order to fire “bad” teachers, estimating they make up somewhere between 5% and 7% of the California public school faculty of about 300,000.

He added that he could declare another emergency to “suspend” the California Environmental Quality Act, the law requiring environmental review of building projects. He depicted the law, known as CEQA, as part of a bureaucracy that is “treating contractors and developers like they are criminals.”

Such measures would undoubtedly face monumental legal and political hurdles and almost certainly alienate a large number of Californians. But they would also be sure to thrill those who view Elder — the self-proclaimed “Sage from South-Central” Los Angeles — as a blast of fresh air in a state foggy with liberal “political correctness.”

But it appears that, on at least one topic, he wants to make clear he has moved away from a past view. Elder told opinion editors for the McClatchy newspapers last week: “I do believe in climate change. I do believe our climate is getting warmer.”

Elder would not answer detailed questions and a campaign spokeswoman insisted that many of the past statements and positions highlighted by The Times were not pertinent to the recall.

Recall Newsom volunteer Pat Miller holds up a sign during petition-signing event at SaveMart in Sacramento on Jan. 5, 2021.
Recall Newsom volunteer Pat Miller holds up a sign during a petition-signing event at SaveMart in Sacramento.
(Anne Wernikoff / CalMatters)

“Some involve statements out of context, while others reflect prevailing notions of political bias,” spokeswoman Ying Ma said. “For instance, there is a clear inability [to] comprehend why a talk radio host might want to allow a caller to express views different from his own, or why anyone would consider unconventional assertions presented by reputable researchers.”

Ma said that the central recall issues should be “rampant crime, rising homelessness, out-of-control costs of living, water shortages, disastrous wildfires, rolling brownouts, and repressive COVID restrictions.” The spokeswoman said The Times was conducting “opposition research,” with some topics dating back “many years,” in a way she said mimicked “a (French) laundry list of attacks from the Newsom campaign.”

Under the unusual ground rules of California recall elections — where Newsom needs a simple majority of the vote to remain in office, while, if Newsom falls short, Elder needs only to defeat other would-be replacements, no matter how small his plurality — experts said Elder’s provocative views actually could advance his cause, and Newsom’s.

“These kinds of statements and issues benefit both Larry Elder and Gavin Newsom,” said Dan Schnur, a UC Berkeley and USC political scientist and previous adviser to numerous Republican candidates. “Elder needs only one more vote from conservative voters to prevail over other recall challengers. And his supporters will love these ideas.

“Meanwhile, it’s clear Newsom and his team have decided that — rather than motivating progressives by telling them good things about this governor — they are better off telling them frightening things about the person who might replace him.”

Schnur noted that some politicians viewed as extreme by large numbers of voters — like Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left — used their plain-spoken personas to push their way into the center of the political debate.

Elder, 69, jumped into the race in mid-July, months after some other candidates, and immediately changed the dynamic in the race. He became the front-runner in the polls and quickly raised significant sums of money, with a particularly strong showing among people who gave less than $100.

Between his entry into the race on July 12 and July 31, he collected nearly $4.5 million, according to fundraising disclosures filed last week with the secretary of state. That’s more than every other GOP candidate in the race except John Cox, who is largely self-funding his campaign.

A graduate of Brown University and the University of Michigan Law School, Elder leaves little doubt that he relishes a good debate. “I can articulate these issues in such a way that Joe and Joan Six-pack can go, ‘OK, now I get it,’” he told The Times in the recent interview.

He said the seed of his candidacy was planted by his talk radio mentor, conservative Dennis Prager. Elder initially demurred because he worried the state had become “ungovernable.” But further research convinced him he could make dramatic changes, partly by invoking emergency powers, he said.

Elder said he believes such an “education emergency” declaration would spur reform, particularly for inner-city schools. He said a tiny number of teachers have been fired annually, on average, from among the 300,000 who work in California public schools. “Unions are protecting bad teachers,” he said, “to the point where the worst ones get in the areas where the kids need them the most.”

Elder correctly notes that California removes fewer teachers than some other states, though the state’s practices around teacher performance and retention are complex.

Tenure offers strong protections for teachers against removal after two years on the job. But a significant number of teachers leave the profession anyway, sometimes under pressure because of substandard performance. Some experts argue the greater problem is the loss of effective teachers, many of whom protest a lack of support from their schools and communities.

“Someone told me that between 5 and 7% of public school teachers need to be fired,” Elder said, adding that the emergency declaration would provide “the power to get rid of bad teachers faster than the system allows.” He concluded: “Once you did that, automatically, education would improve overnight.”

Because Elder declined to field follow-up questions, it was impossible to know who had advised him on teacher terminations and exactly how he might weed out educators he judged to be underperforming.

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Similarly, Elder said in interviews with The Times and opinion editors at McClatchy newspapers that he envisioned an emergency action on homelessness that would allow him to waive the state’s environmental review law “so that I can unleash the developers and contractors who would be able to build low-cost housing and low-cost apartments.”

He said many builders had moved their work out of California because CEQA “allows almost anybody to stop anything for any length of time.”

On the other most pressing issue of the day in California, the COVID pandemic, Elder subscribes to the conservative view that the government and health officials should allow individuals to make choices about wearing masks. He has decried attempts to force people to get vaccinated.

He remained silent last month, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, when “Kathy,” a gynecologist who claimed no expertise in infectious diseases, claimed that vaccines could be a threat and asserted that unnamed individuals “are going to specifically target the minority areas first and lower-income areas.”

When she spun out dark intimations about a Gates-organized plot to administer dangerous vaccines, Elder also did not respond. Instead, as first reported by HuffPost, a page on his website promoted the gynecologist’s pronouncements, saying, “You’ll Want to Hear This Physician’s Take on the Vaccines.”

But Elder has said he has been vaccinated (as an “old man” with “co-morbidities,” he told the McClatchy editors) and supports others who have done so. He added: “A lot of people have made the choice, rightly or wrongly, not to get a vaccine. And I think in America, you want to have that choice.”

As with other topics, Elder prefers to focus the COVID issue on Newsom, saying that the governor hadn’t followed his own mandates, as when he didn’t wear a mask while attending a party at the tony French Laundry restaurant. Elder’s website says COVID business shutdowns have gone too far and “inflicted unnecessary pain on ordinary Californians,” adding: “I will govern as your governor, not as your tyrant.”

Elder’s views on other issues, like climate change, have been equally provocative. He recently has contended that he has been either taken out of context or misinterpreted in the past.

He once maintained a page on his website devoted to “debunking the Gore-Bull warming myth.” (A reference to Al Gore, the former vice president who has made the battle against climate change his life’s work.) The web page contained links to a list of stories, several rejecting the consensus of mainstream science: that the planet is warming to dangerous levels and that humankind is responsible.

In a 2008 CNN interview, Elder called global warming “a crock” and disparaged Republicans, such as John McCain and George W. Bush, who disagreed. He rejected Bush’s contention that “global warming is this big peril to the planet,” concluding: “It is not.”

In his meeting with the opinion editors last week, Elder sounded a markedly different note, expressing his belief in a warming planet and adding, “I do believe that human activity has something to do with it.” He said he also believes that the warming is “a factor” in California’s worsening wildfires. But he added: “What I don’t believe in is climate-change alarmism.”

His 2000 book suggesting the dangers of secondhand tobacco smoke have been exaggerated puts his views outside the scientific consensus.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. surgeon general have long warned of the magnitude of that threat. The CDC estimated in 2014 that 2.5 million people had died over the previous 50 years from health problems caused by secondary smoke exposure. That would average 50,000 deaths a year.

Elder’s provocative missives have been so frequent and over such a long span that many quickly blew over.

In 2017, he posted a picture on Twitter of three women attending the Women’s March in Washington to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump, who faced serial accusations of sexual assault and misconduct. Above the picture, he wrote: “Ladies, I think you’re safe.”

That drew immediate complaints that Elder was suggesting the women were too unattractive to be sexually assaulted. A member of the Nebraska state Senate retweeted Elder’s post, then, facing a storm of condemnation, resigned his post. The original tweet was apparently deleted.

In a 2000 column, Elder asserted that Democrats had an advantage over Republicans because they were supported by women and “women know less than men about political issues, economics, and current events.” In the piece for Capitalism Magazine, he added that women could be misled because “the less one knows, the easier the manipulation.”

In the column, Elder cited research done at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center on “gender gaps” in political knowledge.

Surveys have detected such gaps and no clear explanation for them, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg policy center. She said related research has shown that women are “factoring in other information and consistently making decisions at the ballot box that are consistent with their self-interests.”

Elder’s late entry into the race, about two months before the Sept. 14 vote on Newsom’s future, leaves relatively little time for voters to examine the candidate with arguably the most voluminous record of public policy pronouncements.

“I mean, he has created his own opposition research for decades,” said Jessica Levinson, an election law professor at Loyola Law School. “On the other hand, he does have a shortened timeline here. I think what a lot of people just know is that he’s the Republican, leading in the polls, and a talk-show host. There’s not a lot of details that are filled in; it’s basically a sketch.”

“So has he been vetted?” Levinson asked. “Not in the way that we’re used to of candidates having to go through a process of showing up to town halls and press conferences, and respond to opponents, and provide answers and explanations for what they’ve said in their public life.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.