Recall puts California’s direct democracy to the test

When California’s newly elected Governor Hiram Johnson delivered his inaugural address on January 3, 1911, he made a radical proposal.

My first duty, Johnson declared on the solemn day, “is to eliminate any private interest in government and to make the public service of the state available only to the people.”

His words sent shock waves through halls of power used to an easy exchange of money and influence. Determined to “arm the people to protect themselves from such abuses”, Johnson proposed that the state constitution be amended with “initiative, referendum and recall”.

The day’s shrewd electorate understood that their governor, a Republican well-versed in the progressive agenda, advocated giving voters the right to petition laws, weigh laws passed by the legislature, and officials without To be removed from office for any reason or without trial.

Ten months later, voters voted, and representative democracy, the coronation of the Founding Fathers of 1787, now had a powerful rival – direct democracy – that would indelibly shape California’s political landscape.

“The people of California are ready to rule,” said Johnson. “You have the intelligence and the flair to rule.”

California, popularly touted as fertile ground for personal reinvention, now had the ability to reinvent itself politically. Quickly shedding the insignia of the past, citizens had tools to shape their future and to add fluidity and dynamism to the legislative and electoral process that only grew stronger, if not exaggerated, over time.

Today Johnson’s vision for California is in the final days of a campaign that began in April when a little less than 5% of the population voted to remove Governor Gavin Newsom, who took office with nearly 62% of the vote in 2018.

If the drama has at times resembled a sideshow with a traveling bear, a yoga healer, and a billboard celebrity among the 46 nominees, then it’s a measure of how far the democratic spirit Johnson advocated has evolved.

Social media, prominent candidates, and attention seekers have changed the equation, but more than 100 years after Johnson’s reforms, there is no going back.

“We have all been socialized in a state where we expect voters to flex their muscles,” said Thad Kousser, professor of political science at UC San Diego.

Johnson wasn’t the first to come up with these ideas – Los Angeles doctor and socialist John Randolph Haynes was involved – but Johnson gave them a bigger stage and initiated a crusade and movement that sparked what was called ” California’s Political Regeneration ”. ”

The timing was perfect. By the turn of the century, Californians had had enough of the excesses and abuses of the Golden Age, whose well-heeled capitalists wrapped their tentacles around daily life, promoting transplants, smashing unions, and promoting corruption.

The reform took the name of progressivism, which, as historian Kevin Starr wrote, helped transform the United States from an agricultural nation owned by an almighty oligarchy and ruled by the corrupt party machines to an urban industrial society driven by an wealthy middle dependent was class.

Unlike other western states that similarly adopted direct democracy – Oregon adopted its version in 1902 – California gave its amendments “powers that make them far more muscular,” Kousser said.

To initiate a recall or the initiative process, almost every state has a higher signature threshold than California, and California is the only state where an initiative cannot be reversed without further popular vote.

“We mean direct democracy seriously,” said Kousser, “and we use it more than almost any other state.”

Since 1913, 179 national recall attempts have been made and more than 2,000 suggestions have been made. Together they follow the rise and fall of popular beliefs and fears, as well as economic and cultural endeavors. If California had a Zeitgeist barometer, these efforts would be its measure.

Initiatives have raised and lowered taxes. One gave women the right to vote; another tried to ban gay and lesbian teachers from the state’s public schools. One allowed landlords and homeowners to discriminate on ethnic grounds. Another denied undocumented immigrants access to public health care.

Of the nationwide recalls, only 11 qualified for the vote, of which only six were successful. Jerry Brown holds the record for his four terms as governor and attorney general of being targeted twelve times, and Governor George Deukmejian ranks second at eleven.

Six recall attempts have been filed against Newsom since 2019, the most recent following claiming that, among other things, it “implemented laws that harm the citizens of this state and our way of life”.

Once driven by more objective metrics than quality of life concerns, the recall process was designed to help voters root out misconduct, even crime, from public office that had no arrangements for impeachment.

When Marshall Black, a Republican senator, was removed from office by Santa Clara voters in 1912, he was found guilty of stealing $ 124,000 from the construction and credit union he once worked for.

When Frank Shaw, Los Angeles Mayor, was removed in 1938, voters were fed up with the political machinery he and his brother had built in what an attorney general described as “one of the most corrupt, grafted cities in the United States.” Conditions.”

Over the years, however, the threshold for voter indignation has fallen and partisan politics has filled a void left by progressive reforms, which were not only characterized by a non-partisan spirit but, according to the historian Starr, a distrust among Democrats and Republicans versus “big” government, big corporations and big workforce. “

“California progressivism contained both liberal and conservative impulses,” wrote Starr, who focuses on Earl Warren. In 1942, Warren stood up for governorship in both the Republican and Democratic primary elections, overtaking the former and losing the latter by only 11% of the vote. He easily won general elections in all but one of the state’s counties.

Starr describes Warren as a Republican who “had liberal inclinations about government social responsibility,” a democratic ideal he brought to Washington when he became the chief justice of the United States.

But sometime in the 1950s, rifts began to emerge in what Starr called “the Party of California,” and dissent became a stronger political force than unity.

The progressive movement laid the groundwork for holding elections in California, but an overlap of race, politics, and partisanship began to reshape the movement in the 1960s, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.

As an example, Sonenshein refers to Proposition 14, which was passed by 65% ​​of voters in 1964 and repealed the California Fair Housing Act, passed the previous year, to protect blacks and people of color from discrimination in housing. The proposal was eventually declared unconstitutional.

“This may have been the beginning of what would later become known as ‘the white backlash,'” said Sonenshein. “As politics became more diverse and partisan, direct democracy became entangled in it.”

Proposition 13’s success in lowering property taxes helped bring former Governor Ronald Reagan and his tax revolution to the White House. Subsequent proposals soon described a widening gap between liberals and conservatives, democratic and republican ideologies.

In the 1990s, the battlefield was demarcated by initiatives calling for English-language teaching in public schools (Proposition 227), banning undocumented immigrants from access to public services in the state (Proposition 187), and eradicating affirmative action policies in the state (Proposition 209 ). Voters voted in each case even though Proposition 187 was declared unconstitutional and Proposition 227 was repealed by Proposition 58 in 2016.

The initiative process has become a partisan instrument aimed at “combating the emergence and incorporation of Latino political power, which manifests itself in the election of democrats or liberals, both Latinos and whites, at the state or local level” said Fernando Guerra, professor of political science and chicano / degree at Loyola Marymount University.

The use of recall as a means of shifting the political equation has also increased. From 1913 to 1960, 11 elected state officials were targeted. There have been 168 since 1961.

The tactic has also spread to lower electoral offices that are non-aligned. Of the 50 product recalls attempted that year, 22 were directed to school districts and targeted either a member or the entire board.

“Something is accelerating,” said Sonenshein.

The reasoning, though disguised in ideology, is often personal and opportunistic. The key, Guerra said, is “to create a situation where voter turnout is low, where the incumbent can be labeled someone he is not and the candidate neutral.”

In the mid-1990s, state Republicans successfully carried out recalls against former colleagues Paul Horcher and Doris Allen who voted against the Republican caucus in favor of Democratic spokesman Willie Brown.

When Governor Gray Davis was elected to his second term in 2002 with only 47% of the votes cast, Arnold Schwarzenegger saw weakness. The actor-turned-politician took advantage of his celebrity and became governor a year later with 55% of the vote.

Describing himself as a Liberal Democrat, Guerra describes the tactic as “brilliant” and “a legitimate tool used by competing parties, ideologies or perspectives,” but he also regards them as “a sign of weakness or despair or a last gasp to the tendency of power one party has over another. It is the last stand of the resistance. “

Just as the electoral college reduces the disadvantage of small states in national elections, so the reforms Johnson advocated in 1911 are populist holdovers of another time and place that some have led some to believe are ripe for revision.

“Hiram Johnson is turning in the grave,” said Guerra, imagining that if the former governor were alive today, he would try to rid a system of “powerful money interests”.

“What happened is a distortion of the intentions of the progressives and the intentions of these founding fathers of the progressive movement,” Guerra said.

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