One candidate wants to fight for freedom. Another wants to protect children, families, and small businesses. And almost everyone running in California’s gubernatorial recall election wants to restore the so-called California dream.
Read through enough candidate statements—many of which vow to magically resolve the state’s litany of overlapping crises: fires, droughts, and homelessness—in the official voter guide, and they all begin to blend together. The statement for Adam Papagan, a 33-year-old tour guide with no party preference, is a notable exception.
It does away with any semblance of a platform or a biography, and instead contains just two words: “Love U.” It’s since become a catchphrase for Papagan’s millennial adherents, who sprinkle it in the comments of his TikTok videos, and a punch line for befuddled pundits, including on a recent episode of The New York Times’ The Daily podcast. To many voters, the statement exemplifies the farcical nature of a recall election in which 46 mostly unknown challengers are vying to oust incumbent Governor Gavin Newsom.
But Papagan’s candidate statement is as much a joke as it is the result of his own budget constraints: The state charges candidates $25 per word, which means that even a fairly concise statement could run thousands of dollars. For example, Republican front-runner Larry Elder’s statement, a Trumpian screed about “California’s war on the middle class,” clocks in at just under the 250-word maximum, at a cost of more than $6,000.
“That’s ridiculous, that fee,” said Papagan, who has a shaved head, a moustache, and a tendency toward nihilism. “It’s so expensive.”
It’s less than a month before the election, and Papagan is lounging in his de facto campaign headquarters, a small office—just big enough to fit a desk and a couch—lodged in an alley off the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s plastered with kitschy mementos from his day job shuttling tourists around to L.A. spots made famous by the likes of O.J. Simpson and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Lisa Vanderpump. He started the company in 2016 and remains its sole employee.
The only indication that he’s running for governor is a red, white, and blue “Adam for Gov” bumper sticker pinned to his bulletin board—and it, too, already looks like yet another piece of California ephemera from the past. He has no campaign events planned and is perfectly content with his nearly nonexistent chances of winning, let alone appearing in polls.
“People still are like, ‘What if you win?’ and I’m like, ‘Don’t you understand? Don’t you realize how it’s set up?’” said Papagan. “I’m never gonna win. Not unless you have a lot of money and name recognition.”
In the absence of both of those things, Papagan has transformed his candidacy into a radical kind of public service exercise aimed at exposing how the electoral process really works. On TikTok, he has chronicled his quest to get on the ballot, including mailing in his candidate intention form in May; discovering a few days later that he had to fill it out again to correct an error (he identified himself as an independent, but the state requires that independents register with no party preference); and collecting the required signatures from at least 65 registered voters within the span of a holiday weekend. The result is a deeply cynical, intensely gonzo look at what it takes to run for office as a person with zero political experience, no staff or committee, and an income modest enough to necessitate a roommate.
Papagan was 15 years old when California held its first and only other gubernatorial recall election. It was 2003, and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, the body builder turned action star who had appeared that year in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, had successfully unseated Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat. Papagan, who grew up in Los Angeles and listened to punk bands like the Dead Kennedys, who famously satirized Governor Jerry Brown, remembers being glued to TV news coverage in the lead-up to the election.
“I loved that recall election. I loved all the crazy candidates,” he said with a big smile, rattling off a Z-list of celebrities, including former child actor Gary Coleman and the prop comedian Gallagher. “As soon as I started seeing ‘recall Newsom’ stuff last year, I was like, ‘Oh, what if this goes through? I’m gonna run.’ Like, how often do you get a second chance like this at something?”
Like the current recall, the first one was sparked by a crisis and then fueled by the perception of state corruption within it. In the early 2000s, it was an energy crisis. There were rolling blackouts and skyrocketing electricity bills, while trading companies like Enron—whose market manipulation contributed to the power outages—raked in massive profits.
California voters, many of them Republicans, blamed Davis for mismanaging the crisis. In 2002, their suspicions about his cozy ties to energy companies were stoked when it came to light that Davis had met repeatedly with Enron’s then chairman, who was being investigated (and would later be convicted) for insider trading. A year later, as an enormous wildfire ravaged Southern California, Davis was forced to vacate his office.
In the nearly two decades since, the fires in California have gotten deadlier and far more destructive as the drought rages on, homelessness has ballooned amid an affordable housing shortage, and the Covid-19 pandemic has compounded existing inequalities in labor, health care, and housing. When Newsom issued stay-at-home orders and mask mandates to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, a small but fierce faction of opponents, Trump supporters and anti-vaccine groups prominent among them, blamed him for closing schools and businesses, which they claimed amounted to “government tyranny.”
If the recall effort was a fringe idea early on in the pandemic, it gained full steam last November, when Newsom—who had ordered the closure of indoor dining throughout the state—was photographed attending a dinner with lobbyists at the high-end Napa Valley restaurant French Laundry. By late April of this year, a group calling itself the California Patriot Coalition—Recall Governor Gavin Newsom had gathered more than 1.6 million verified signatures on its petition, effectively forcing the recall.
Ballots, which are due by September 14, contain just two questions. If a majority of voters answer “yes” to the first question—Shall Governor Gavin Newsom be recalled from the office of governor?—then the candidate with the highest percentage of votes in the next question, about who should replace him, wins. “It’s entirely conceivable this time around that someone with 20 percent of the vote could win,” said Larry Gerston, political science professor emeritus at San Jose State University, and the author of a book about the 2003 recall. “It’s much easier to gain that office through a recall than it is through an election.” The format, which in some ways incentivizes unpopular candidates to run, is already being challenged as unconstitutional in a federal lawsuit.
The California Democratic Party, in tandem with Newsom’s campaign, is urging voters to skip the second question. Their refusal to legitimize the recall means the field of replacement candidates skews largely Republican; the highest-polling Democrat is a 29-year-old real estate mogul and YouTuber named Kevin Paffrath, who uses his channel to dish out cryptocurrency and stock market advice to his 1.7 million subscribers. Paffrath is one of a handful of millionaires in the running, including another real estate investor, John Cox, a Republican who lost to Newsom in 2018 and more recently drew headlines for inviting a 1,000-pound bear to his press event.
Tens of millions of dollars have poured into this election, with most of it aimed at supporting Newsom and opposing the recall effort. Freed from the usual imperative to collect from small donors—targets of recalls in California aren’t subjected to the same campaign contribution limits as candidates—Newsom has raked in mounds of cash from political action committees and CEOs, including Netflix’s Reed Hastings, who gave $3 million. Meanwhile, Republican megadonors, including billionaire L.A. real estate developer (and nightmare landlord) Geoff Palmer and even Cox himself, have spent millions in support of the recall. (“It does feel like a rich person’s game,” a campaign finance expert told Mother Jones.)
In that context, the startup costs of a candidacy like Papagan’s are peanuts. “Honestly, if you can’t raise $10,000, you’re not a serious candidate in California, period,” Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, told me. For Papagan, that’s precisely the problem.
“If you raise or spend more than $2,000, you need to form a political committee,” Papagan said. “You have to open a special bank account, and none of the banks knew how to do it. I went to all these different banks, nobody knew. Wells Fargo finally figured it out.”
Deterred by the prospect of actually campaigning, Papagan ultimately decided against forming a committee. “I didn’t want to have to be, like, raising money all the time, and like, asking my friends to, like, buy these yard signs,” he said. It meant he’d be legally restricted from raising more than $2,000. (The filing costs and candidate statement fees don’t count toward this cap. Asked about the high cost of those statements, Jenna Dresner, a communications manager for the California secretary of state, wrote in an email that it was far below “the actual cost per page for inclusion.”)
Candidates have to pay a filing fee of $4,194.94, or the equivalent of 2 percent of the governor’s first-year salary. The only way to waive the fee was to gather a minimum of 7,000 verified signatures—a Herculean feat considering that candidates had just six days, many of which fell during the Fourth of July holiday weekend, to do so. Papagan wasn’t fazed: He’d been saving up for months to pay the filing fee. “I knew this was coming, even if the governor didn’t,” he said smugly.
Though Papagan’s politics generally skew left (“wage labor is exploitation, if you really want to know what I think,” he told me), he is just as passionate as any Republican when it comes to his frustration with Democrat-controlled California. Papagan has plenty of ire directed at Newsom, a multimillionaire whose wine and hospitality conglomerate got its first investment from billionaire Gordon Getty, a longtime family friend. During his first term in office—he’ll be up for reelection in November 2022 if the recall fails—he’s come under fire for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. while publicly criticizing it for “corporate greed” (its outdated equipment was responsible for sparking deadly blazes throughout the state) and presiding over its bankruptcy reorganization plan. More recently, The Washington Post reported that Newsom awarded a $15 million contract to Blue Shield of California, a major donor to his campaign, for statewide vaccination rollout efforts.
“You can’t tell me that everything’s hunky-dory in California. Like, it’s not,” said Papagan, the sound of fire trucks and police choppers wailing nearby, a sonic metaphor for the problems every candidate says plague the state. “My dream used to be to own a house. Then it was to live in a house. And now my dream is to live in a one-bedroom apartment.” (The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in California is $2,603, according to one recent estimate; that means a person working full-time at the state’s median hourly wage of $22.74 would have to spend nearly three-quarters of their income on rent.)
That’s part of the reason why he believes wealthy Republicans and Democrats are functionally the same. “Especially at the high levels of government, how different is your outlook gonna be from somebody who has, like, the same life as you?” he said. “They’re going to be naturally out of touch. They’re not going to see what the average person sees.”
It’s a stance many Democratic voters might consider reckless, considering the stakes of the recall. If it passes, conservative radio host Larry Elder, who has argued that the minimum wage should be $0 and that former slave owners could be owed reparations for the loss of their property, would likely assume office. That possibility has stoked fears that Elder would repeal progress on climate and mask and vaccine mandates, restrict access to abortion (his campaign denies this), and replace 88-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein with a Republican, were she to vacate the office. Indeed, he’s pledged to do just that.
Still, Papagan maintains that the recall is a good thing: an unusual but beneficial exercise in democracy. “Wouldn’t it be great if every election had a crazy list of candidates like this, and there was actually some people to choose from, and it got you talking and stuff instead of [having to choose between] two guys that you don’t really like?”
Though he’s nearly abandoned his own campaign, he’s at least succeeded in getting people talking. His cell phone number is printed in the voter guide, which means he fields dozens of calls and emails from California voters every week. Some of them are prank calls from teens, but more often he hears from people who just want somebody to listen to them.
“People are so disillusioned with politics and feel like no one is listening, [so] they’ll just call these numbers in the voting guide,” said Papagan. “They want an answer from someone. They know the front-runners aren’t gonna give them anything.”
“This lady called me. She was just like, ‘Yeah, I saw your thing, and it caught my eye, like, what do you think about California?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, well, you know.’ I did my whole thing. And she was like, ‘Oh, well, you know, that sounds pretty good. I’m leaning towards you right now. I got some more people to call,’” Papagan said. “People are interested! They want things to be better! They’re curious about why it doesn’t work. So if I can tell people about that, it’s a little good that could come out of this whole thing.”