California’s Recall: How a Progressive Reform Was Immediately Politicized

PUBLISHED JUL 2, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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California Governor Gavin Newsom, target of a 2021 recall election.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, target of a 2021 recall election.   Government of California / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

Though the original intention of California’s 110-year-old “recall” law was to oust corrupt officials, the law itself requires no reason or rationale for recalling a governor or other official. Unlike impeachment, which is reserved for public officials who engage in official misconduct, to get a recall under way requires only signatures. For statewide officials such as the governor, that means a petition with enough signers to equal 12 percent of the total turnout in the most recent state election. In 2021, the magic number was 1,495,709 signatures.

Under California election statutes, the signatures on a recall petition need to be manually validated and verified by county election officials, a laborious process that must be repeated in all 58 California counties. The recall process became even more laborious in 2017, when the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature revised the law, as they attempted to fend off a recall effort against State Senator Josh Newman. That effort was a bust. The first-term Democratic senator lost the recall vote and was replaced by Republican Lin Lin Chang. 

But the Democrats did succeed in making the recall process more cumbersome. The new legislation added up to two months for lawmakers and state finance officials to “review” the costs of conducting a recall election, as well as a six-week period during which voters who signed a recall petition would be allowed to change their minds and pull their names from the list.

On April 26, 2021, state election officials announced that a petition to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom had collected 1,626,042 valid signatures. That was more than enough to force a recall election for later that year. On July 2,  Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis announced that enough signatures had been validated to actually set the election date, which she determined would be September 14, 2021.

Recall election ballots consist of two questions. On the first question, voters must check “yes” if they agree that the governor should be removed from office, or “no” if they want him to remain. Pretty straightforward. With a “no” vote above 50 percent, the governor keeps his job and life goes on. If “yes” tops 50 percent, the governor is sent packing.

Anyone Can Play This Game

The second question on the recall ballot is more daunting, consisting of a lengthy list of candidates seeking to replace the governor, in the event that he is, indeed, sent packing. Even voters who choose “no” on the first question may want to vote for their favorite replacement candidate, just in case. The question is, which one?

The list of hopeful replacements will be extremely long. Why? Because under California’s recall procedures, it is ridiculously easy to get on the ballot. For a filing fee of $3,916.12, anyone who’s an American citizen, qualified to vote, and has never been convicted of bribery, embezzling public funds, perjury or a similar crime can get on the ballot. Even if a gubernatorial hopeful doesn’t have a spare 4,000 bucks laying around, if he or she can collect 7,000 signatures on a nominating petition, that will do the trick as well. 

The only other people who are prohibited from running are anyone who has served two terms as California governor already, and the sitting governor himself.

In the event that the governor is indeed removed from office, whoever gets the most votes out of the dozens of candidates on the ballot is the winner. A 50 percent vote total is not necessary. There is no runoff election in the recall process. The leading vote-getter becomes the new governor. End of story.

California is already one of only two states to ever recall a governor, and one of three to hold a recall election. (Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker survived a recall vote in 2012.) Since California, way back in 1911, revised its constitution to allow for the recall of elected officials, there have been no fewer than 55 attempts to recall governors

Almost every governor has been the target of at least one recall petition starting in 1939 with Gov. Culbert Olson, who fended off three recall petitions that year, and another two in 1940. But none of those petitions reached the ballot.

Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, a Democrat, was peppered with three recall petitions, and his Republican successor, Gov. Ronald Reagan, was hit with three of his own. Brown’s son Edmund G. Brown Jr.—better known as Jerry—holds the record, with nine recall petitions. Of course those were spread over the two, separate two-term stints as governor that made him the longest-serving governor in the state’s history.

The Circus Act of 2003 

Californians never had a chance to actually vote on kicking a governor out of office until 2003, when a petition to recall Democrat Gray Davis, who had been elected to his second term the previous year, qualified for the ballot. It was the third recall effort against Davis, and the third time was a charm, at least for the recall forces. Not only did the petition qualify for a statewide vote, but 55.4 percent of the 9.4 million voters who turned out on October 7, 2003, did, in fact, check “yes,” meaning that Davis was indeed removed from office. 

Not only that, but a bizarre field of 132 gubernatorial wannabes populated the ballot to replace Davis. The crowd included former child actor Gary Coleman, Los Angeles billboard icon Angelyne, prop comic Gallagher, porn actress Mary Carey, and sumo wrestler Kurt “Tachikaze” Rightmyer, whose candidate info also listed him as a “Pushcart Prize nominated poet.” 

The state’s lieutenant governor at the time, Cruz Bustamante, also chose to run against Davis, after initially pledging that he would stay out of the race. Though he was by far the most prominent Democrat in the race, Bustamante collected just 32.2 percent of the vote.

In other words, there was a certain unserious quality to the recall election, evidenced by the fact that, when all the votes were in, former bodybuilding champion Arnold Schwarznegger, who in the previous decade had been one of Hollywood's top box office movie stars, became California’s new governor. The Terminator star, who quickly adopted the new sobriquet “Governator,” topped the vast field easily, winning 49 percent of the vote, breezing past runner-up Bustamante.

As unserious as the 2003 recall election and its outcome seemed to be, the consequences of the only the second successful gubernatorial recall campaign in United States history were quite serious indeed. 

By the time Schwarznegger—who was reelected to a full, second term in 2006—left office on January 1, 2011, his approval rating was limping along at a minuscule 22 percent, tying the record low set by Davis. The state’s debt had tripled during Schwarznegger’s seven years in Sacramento, despite his campaign pledge to cut up the state’s credit card, and in his vain effort to rein in the spiralling debt he slashed social safety net programs to the bone.

In his seven years as governor, Schwarznegger was, himself, targeted by seven recall petitions. None made it to the ballot. 

An Early 20th Century ‘Progressive’ Reform Gone Awry

While Newsom’s position appeared much healthier than Davis’s 18 years earlier—Newsom enjoyed a 53 percent approval rating among likely voters as of March 2021—if 2003 proved anything it is that recall elections can be dangerous wild cards.

California is one of 20 U.S. states that offer voters the opportunity to terminate a governor’s term early. But prior to the Davis recall, there had been only one recall election for a sitting governor in the U.S. That took place in 1921, when North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier was recalled largely because his policies were considered too far left. Though a Republican, Frazier’s administration saw North Dakota grant women the vote, impose a graduated income tax, institute a worker’s compensation program, and other policies which are generally taken for granted today, but 100 years ago were looked upon as dangerously socialist.

Frazier was a member of the same “Progressive” movement that created recall election laws in the first place. The recall law in California and other states was designed to place a check on the domination of government by corporations, the super-rich, and the runaway corruption of public officials that resulted from those powerful entities keeping governments in their pockets. But as it turned out, neither of the only two governors ever to be recalled was accused of corruption.

Today, the political term “progressive” is most closely associated with supporters of broad social programs such as universal health care, free higher education, student debt forgiveness, and efforts to halt climate change. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Progressive movement’s strongest initiative was government reform.

America’s “Gilded Age” was an era of near-total political corruption and extreme economic inequality. Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, to cite one example, took in income of about $20 million per year—or approximately $535 million in 2021 cash—while a typical worker in one of his steel mills earned an annual wage of about $450 (slightly more than $12K today).

California was a prime example of a state government that had been taken over by private interests—specifically, the Southern Pacific Railroad. The rail company effectively controlled every aspect of the state’s economy through monopolistic price fixing and paying off public officials. Southern Pacific earned the popular nickname “The Octopus,” because its tentacles were said to reach everywhere, and to strangle anyone who threatened this corporate monstrosity. The colorful nickname for the rail monopoly appears to have originated in a political cartoon by G. Frederick Keller, published in The Wasp, a satirical magazine edited by iconoclastic writer Ambrose Bierce.

California’s Progressives were set on untangling the Octopus’s chokehold on the state. In 1910 voters elected Hiram Johnson, an anti-corruption prosecutor in the San Francisco district attorney's office, who became the leader of the state’s Progressives and arguably the most consequential governor in state history.

Shortly after taking office, Johnson successfully pushed voters to approve a package of reforms that went under the heading of “direct democracy.” The three reforms written into California’s Constitution—initiative, referendum, and recall—empowered California voters to pass their own laws, veto laws passed by the legislature, and, of course, recall elected officials  if they turned out to be corrupt—or for any reason at all. All the while cutting the state legislature and the governor out of the process.

Like Davis before him, Newsom was not accused of corruption—though his ill-advised November dinner at Napa’s ultra-high-end French Laundry restaurant helped drive the recall petition’s success.

The pandemic itself was the driving force behind the recall petition, the third against Newsom, who was also targeted by two unsuccessful recall petitions in 2019. Newsom’s health and safety restrictions seem to have served as a pretext for Republicans, both in and out of state, to target the Democratic governor, with the Republican National Committee pouring a quarter-million dollars into the recall campaign and at least three major donors to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign kicking in another $325,000.

Those funds are nothing compared to what the California public may end up paying for the attempt to oust Newsom just a year before his term ends anyway. According to a Los Angeles Times report, election officials put the cost of executing the recall election at an eye-opening $400 million.

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