Recall the Recall

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Ms. Rosen is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and former Professor of History at the University of California Davis.

POLITICIANS of all political persuasions are busy invoking the legacy of Hiram Johnson, the governor of California from 1911 to 1917, who pushed the constitutional amendments for initiative, referendum and recall that California voters ratified in 1911. These reforms set the stage for the state's tradition of "direct democracy."

But does anyone really know what Johnson, who became governor without ever having held public office before, really wanted the recall to do?

To find out, I decided to take a closer look at this patron saint of populism who stumbled into reform politics because he wanted to quash the stranglehold that the railroad companies held on local and state government.

In his first inaugural address, Johnson tried to convince Californians why they should support these reforms that would give voters greater power to counter the corrupting influence of money on elected officials. "How best," he asked, "can we arm the people to protect themselves?" His answer was clear: The initiative and referendum would permit new reforms and "the precautionary measure by which a recalcitrant official can be removed is designated the 'Recall.' "

To impeach a president, the U.S. Constitution requires the "conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." But the California Constitution requires no malfeasance: "Sufficiency of reason is not reviewable. "

So what did Johnson really intend? He wanted a representative democracy that reflected the interests of ordinary people. When government failed to protect "the people," he wanted them to have the right to recall a "recalcitrant" governor who failed to fight the influence of corporate money.

You could argue that this definition aptly fits the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. And you'd be right. Although he's not accused of personal corruption, critics have justifiably charged him (as well as the Legislature) with "pay or play" politics. And let's not forget his lack of leadership that, until he felt the hot breath of the electorate on his neck, resulted in his constant waffling.

Without the threat of a recall, would Davis have signaled his support for financial privacy, legal recognition of same-sex partnerships or making illegal immigrants eligible for driver's licenses? Probably not.

Although Hiram Johnson would have condemned Davis, he would have insisted on a populist recall -- not one purchased by independently wealthy Republicans conservatives intent on hijacking an election they previously had failed to win. To him, this recall would have seemed like Southern Pacific buying a recall so it could protect its corporate control over government.

Now that we know how easily a recall can be purchased, it's time to amend the California Constitution so that a recall, like impeachment, is reserved for crimes, rather than for political opportunism. In the meantime, what should we do?

We should vote against this recall and here's why:

  • It represents an opportunistic power grab by Republicans, not a populist response to an abuse of power. Like the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the presidential election of 2000 -- the recall is destructive to representative democracy, the cornerstone of our political system.

  • For all his faults, Davis is responsible for signing landmark legislation. He signed the nation's most progressive legislation on women's reproductive rights, gave farmworkers more power in labor negotiations with growers and signed the country's first bill to ban toxic flammable chemicals that threaten public health.

  • Davis is not responsible for the budget crisis. The recall fails to address the real corporate corruption: Enron's theft of billion of dollars. Nor does it deal with the Legislature's own "pay or play" politics. Federal tax cuts, moreover, which have mainly benefited the very rich, have resulted in budget deficits in all states.

If he were alive, Hiram Johnson would regard this recall with revulsion. A right-wing attempt to reverse an election is not what he meant by returning sovereignty to the people of California.

Related Links

  • Timothy Noah,"Does the GOP Subvert Democracy?" (Slate)
  • Merlin E. Nelson,"Recalling the First Recall" (NYT)

  • This article was first published by the San Francisco Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.