California Recall Push Has Little Precedent
By Mike Clements, Special to Stateline
CORRECTED 7/28/03 TO ADD RHODE ISLAND TO LIST OF STATES WITH RECALL MECHANISMS.
If supporters of California's recall movement are successful, Gov. Gray Davis (D) will become only the second governor to face a recall election in U.S. history. The lone precedent occurred in North Dakota more than 80 years ago.
Davis is facing a vigorous challenge from critics angry about California's $38 billion deficit and his handling of the state's energy crisis. Recent public opinion polls place his popularity at around 21 percent. Davis' foes, bankrolled by Republican U.S. Rep Darrell Issa, an unsuccessful candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2002 , say they have gathered far more than the 897,158 signatures needed to force a recall election.
Davis's supporters say the recall drive is a blatant partisan effort to overturn the results of the 2002 election. And the Democratic National Committee has announced that if a recall election is held in California, no Democrat will participate as a candidate.
The drive to oust Davis from office threatens to take California into relatively uncharted political territory. Only one governor has ever been recalled, and that instance occurred in North Dakota in 1921 when voters ousted Gov. Lynn Frazier (R) amid charges that he and officials in a state agency called the Industrial League abused their power and misused state funds.
In Arizona, Gov. Evan Mecham (R) faced a recall election in 1988, but was impeached by the state legislature for obstruction of justice before it took place.
Mecham became a political lightning rod and embarrassment to the state Republican Party because of his controversial statements and actions, including his decision to rescind the state's Martin Luther King Day, University of North Carolina political scientist Thad Beyle said.
A recall drive was launched against then Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I) in 1999 by environmentalist Leslie Davis. Davis claimed that Ventura had committed malfeasance by using his position as governor to get a better book deal and to receive a higher pay for a wrestling match in which he participated, but state Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz ruled the allegations did not meet the constitutional requirements for a recall.
Eighteen states have recall mechanisms. In addition to California and North Dakota, they are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin.
New Jersey and Minnesota estabilished the process in 1995 and 1996 respectively.
The notion of giving voters the power to recall state elected officials first gained steam in western states during the early 20th century, said Thomas Cronin, president of Whitman College in Washington State and the author of several books on the democratic process.
"There was a lot of corrupt government at that time, since banks and railroads controlled much of the politics out West," Cronin said. "Recalls were considered measures that would be safety valves on political corruption."
Many Western states were drafting their first constitutions, which made it easier for recall provisions to be included, he said.
The California situation has political pundits and analysts debating the merits of the recall as a tool of democracy, as well as the potential economic and political fallout.
Alan Rosenthal, professor of public policy at Rutgers, called the current situation "dangerous." He said a form of recall already exists the election process.
"People should wait until (Davis) is up for election again. If you don't like the way the government is operating, that is when you can do something about it," he said.
Rosenthal said the threat of recall could restrain a state leader from taking unpopular or tough decisions. "California is sort of a groundbreaker when it comes to progressive change and pathology," he said. "The possibility is that this encourages other kinds of recall operations or movements. It opens up a Pandora's box."
UNC's Beyle said the recall could destabilize the Californian economy, one of the ten largest in the world, thereby prolonging the whole nation's economic woes.
Some scholars argue, however, that the recall mechanism serves a valuable purpose as an additional check on state government. While saying he does not agree with the current push in California, Cronin said the recall process does have its merits.