CALIFORNIA — Just a few months ago, Orrin Heatlie was a political neophyte with some volunteer experience and a grudge against Gov. Gavin Newsom's policies. Now he's at the head of hundreds of organizers and an email list of 200,000 from which to harvest campaign dollars.
As the recall approaches probable certification, an A-list candidate has yet to emerge. And Heatlie is beginning to consider who will get his support.
"They need to embrace their role as a public servant," Heatlie said of the qualities he's looking for. "Accountable and responsible to the people they serve."
The candidates so far have ranged from long-time politicians to carnival sideshow attractions. Kevin Faulconer, a former San Diego mayor, has pushed middle-class tax cuts, and businessman John Cox has campaigned alongside a 1,000-pound live bear. Caitlyn Jenner, of "Keeping up with the Kardashians" fame, has also begun issuing campaign commercials.
Heatlie himself comes with baggage, having made controversial comments his opponents have amplified, arguing his views represent the radical elements of Republican thought.
A Sacramento Bee editorial called the former Sheriff's Sergeant "racist" quoting a comment he'd made on an online forum.
"Microchip Illegal Aliens. It Works! Just Ask Animal Control," Heatlie wrote.
Heatlie called it a bad joke and insists he's a centrist whose only prejudice is against Newsom's ideas.
Those ideas include Newsom's opposition to the death penalty and how he's distributed federal stimulus money. Heatlie, who lives in Folsom, argues Newsom has withheld money from cities that resist affordable housing quotas.
"I'm not a far-right-wing racist as they try to paint me. When the governor can't defend his own policies he begins to attack the people behind the recall," Heatlie said. "It's much easier to attack me than address the reasons behind the recall."
Even so, University of California, Irvine political science professor Tony Smith said now is not a good time for a fledgling Republican political career to survive.
"If I were an up-and-coming politician in California and thought I had a future, the last thing I would do is start by losing," Smith said. "Once you're associated with losing, it's very hard to raise money from donors."
Conditions for any candidate looking to oust Newsom aren't favorable. At the height of signature gathering for the recall, organizers benefitted from extensions, barked about shutdowns of businesses and the mass layoffs that followed.
In recent days, the coronavirus has been more tightly controlled with rising vaccination rates so promising that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks.
Plus, California has found itself flush with cash. Newsom has been touting ambitious spending for popular programs like universal pre-K for 4-year-olds. That idea has a 7 out of ten approval rating among Californians. He also wants to spend big on stimulus money for the middle class and supply money to tenants behind rent.
Dismay over Newsom's handling of the pandemic also appears on the decline. Just 36% of likely voters are in favor of a recall, according to a recent poll from University of California, Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.
And there's the absence of a candidate with statewide name recognition and enough political credibility to earn votes.
But Heatlie has heard "rumors" of new candidates who may appear and said he'd consider putting his network behind them. Among them is Richard Grenell, a former ambassador to Germany who served as the acting director of National Intelligence.
While his bona fides in the White House and with national Republicans may exist, Grenell, or anyone else, will have only a short time to make their case to voters.
"No serious A-list Republican exists who can make it competitive," Smith said. "You can't win the World Series if you don't have anyone who can hit the ball."
Heatlie believes the recall effort he began has potential, but he's already begun looking for ways to maximize his impact after the recall election.
He's looking at backing initiatives like subsidies for school choice, saying if Newsom can send his children to private schools, why shouldn't everyone else.
He may even directly oppose certain candidates, specifically identifying state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, calling his ideas dangerous.
Newman, who was booted in a recall election before retaking his seat in November, proposed a bill that would ban paid signature gatherers. Heatlie testified against the bill on privacy grounds.
"I was totally willing to accept a bunch of amendments to protect people's privacy," Newman said.
While Newman may have been vulnerable in the past, a second recall would be more difficult than the first. But there are always initiatives on the ballot with big money backers willing to spend. If Heatlie is going to become one of the guys to run campaigns for initiatives, he'll have to distinguish himself in a crowded field of seasoned political campaigners. Thus far, Heatlie's loyalties have been clear.
"[Heatlie has] in many ways been more forthright than other campaigns about what he's doing and why," Newman said.
For now, Heatlie is waiting to see which candidate he wants to get behind. Although he's amassed a large email list, it isn't large by California standards. Even so, he's already calling his campaign a win.
"Win, lose or draw, with this recall, we've already slayed the village dragon and won the hearts and minds of the villagers," Heatlie said.