Homepage image for third recall drive against Gov. Gavin Newsom, which had a goal of collecting 2 million signatures by mid-November. Image via recallgavin2020.com

Citing pandemic restrictions and friendly court rulings, a group seeking to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom is asking a Sacramento court to extend its signature-gathering deadline by four months.

In a 23-page argument, recall organizer Orrin Heatlie of Folsom and his California Patriot Coalition say Secretary of State Alex Padilla should be ordered to push back the deadline to March 17, 2021.

The state wants the judge to leave the original deadline of Nov. 17 alone.

“The ongoing restrictions imposed by the government in response to the Covid-19 pandemic have severely inhibited Petitioners’ ability to circulate petitions and gather signatures in support of the recall effort,” says Heatlie’s lawyer, Bradley Benbrook. “Many of the traditional places to gather signatures – shopping malls, sporting events, concerts, festivals, fairs, and political rallies – are unavailable.”

Orrin Heatlie arguments for delaying recall signature deadline. (PDF)

He bemoaned that “our citizens have been told to remain socially distant from everyone other than members of their household, which makes it virtually impossible to conduct in-person signature gathering at the scale required to comply with the 160-day rule.”

Recall organizers say they have 675,000 signatures in hand and will exceed 1 million by the Nov. 17 deadline, “but will nevertheless likely fall short of the 1,495,709 signatures needed to initiate a recall election,” said the brief signed Oct. 16 by Benbrook of Sacramento.

Benbrook hopes Superior Court Judge James P. Arguelles rules in his client’s favor at a hearing set for 11 a.m. Nov. 6 — to be shown live here on YouTube.

Arguelles recently approved deadline extensions for two ballot measure drives — initiatives titled the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act of 2020 and the California Sports Wagering Regulation and Unlawful Gambling Enforcement Act (a tribal-backed that would legalize California sportsbooks at tribal casinos and existing horse racetracks).

Secretary of State Alex Padilla argues for keeping Nov. 17 recall deadline. (PDF)

The recycling measure got the needed signatures and will be on the November 2022 state ballot. It’s unclear whether the wagering issue will be on the same ballot.

On Wednesday, attorneys for Padilla countered contentions that the COVID pandemic handicapped the recall group’s signature-gathering efforts.

“Petitioners cannot demonstrate that their lack of success in collecting the required number of signatures is because of state-imposed restrictions related to COVID-19 rather than their lack of diligence in raising funds, their unexplained delay in turning in signatures to county elections officials, and their unprecedented choice to rely on all-volunteer effort instead of hiring paid signature gatherers,” wrote Padilla attorney Kevin Calia.

Calia noted that only once in California history (out of 54 tries) has a governor recall drive been successful (ousting Gov. Gray Davis in 2003).

“In the most recent failed attempt to recall Governor Newsom, the proponents collected signatures from September 6, 2019, through February 13, 2020 — a period entirely unaffected by any state restrictions related to COVID-19,” he wrote. “Indeed, the proponents collected fewer than 300,000 valid signatures out of the almost 1.5 million signatures required.”

That’s a reference to the failed recall drive by GOP congressional candidate Erin Cruz. An earlier effort — by La Jolla physician James Veltmeyer — also came up well short.

Recall proponents also argue that strict enforcement of the 160-deadline would “pervert the purpose of the recall power by allowing state officials to effectively insulate themselves from removal by passing restrictions that make it impossible for proponents to collect sufficient signatures.”

Padilla’s lawyer pushed back, saying the state has a “strong interest” in avoiding a costly recall election that does not have strong support among the electorate.

“More than 7.7 million Californians voted for Governor Newsom in 2018,” said Calia for Padilla. “Those voters elected the governor to a four-year term and have a strong interest in not having their votes undermined by a minority that could not meet the California Constitution’s requirements for initiating a recall election.”

Heatlie is unfazed.

In a phone interview Wednesday, the former Yolo County sheriff’s sergeant said that under equal application of the law, “the courts have to give us the same courtesy” of an extended deadline.

Although only 55,356 unverified signatures have been submitted, Heatlie says “we have 600,000 signatures (in hand). … We have told our teams in the field to hold onto the signatures that they have, don’t turn them into [consulting firm] GoCo just yet.”

If Judge Arguelles approves the extension, he said, all the banked petitions will be sent to GoCo, which will make sure the forms are signed by registered voters. If not, the forms go straight to elections officials in the state’s 58 counties.

“My team will personally start distributing the forms that GoCo has … to the registrars’ offices to conserve money,” Heatlie said. “We’re out of funds to be honest with you.”

But crowd funding — including $50,000 from Newsom’s 2018 rival John Cox of Rancho Santa Fe — has allowed his group to pay its attorneys a retainer.

“That’s a $40,000 bill,” Heatlie said. “It’s money well-spent if we get the extension we’re asking for.”

Interestingly, in the last report from the counties, San Diego County is the lone office reporting recall signatures — just 30.

Heatlie told Times of San Diego: “It was just one gatherer (in San Diego). I have no idea who that was. They have to have a letter of authorization from me to turn them in. I’m not sure those were even lawfully turned in.  … It could have been somebody off the street.”

Thursday afternoon, county Registrar of Voters Michael Vu identified the person turning in the 30 signatures as Lori Sutherland, who is listed among San Diego County volunteers at recallgavin2020.com.

Sutherland said she was a part-time volunteer with the group and was authorized to submit signatures. She told Times of San Diego she hadn’t heard of GoCo.

In a recent blog post, Heatlie wrote: “We all know a lot hinges on this hearing. We simply need more time. Earlier this year, the courts granted extensions to other initiatives circulating petitions and the attorney general posed no objection. In fact, quite the opposite. That said, the Court has set precedence and our legal team is confident we will prevail.”

Heatlie called for more money at “this critical juncture.”

“We need your help once again,” he wrote. “This is truly a battle between good and evil and we need your help to win. We must regain control of this state and your donations are the lifeblood of this movement.”

Updated at 5:16 p.m. Oct. 29, 2020