The Recall Is Not Our Friend

It’s an odd perspective that mistakes gang rape for courtly love, but I fear some of my friends may be doing just that.

In recent articles, two terrific writers whose work has graced this paper have seen silver linings in the Gray Davis recall movement that just plain aren’t there. Writing in the July 13 New York Times, Michael Ventura rightly noted the increasing domination of California’s ballot measure process by big money, but still situated the Davis recall in the tradition of “little people” taking charge — a political phenomenon on the same continuum as town meetings. Writing in the Weekly two weeks ago, Marc Cooper, though noting the recall “was born as a cynical Republican ploy,” nonetheless extolled it as “real democracy” and added that, “it offers a unique opportunity not only for Democrats, liberals and progressives, but also for all decent, fed-up Californians to find and support a candidate who will break with the all-powerful special-interest lobbies that helped get us into this fiscal jam in the first place.” Wondering what the “Republican wolves … could possibly do to us that the Davis administration has not already wrought,” Cooper exhorts us to “have the courage to imagine some choice beyond the Simple Simon Republicans, the Terminator twit and the stench of Gray Davis.”

Hell, I’ve got the courage to imagine Cooper or Ventura as governor. Would that my courage had any effect on elections.

A little reality check — on the California ballot measure industry and on the Davis recall in particular — seems in order here. First, the increasing number of ballot measures that California has seen since the epochal Proposition 13 in 1978 is not a manifestation of the spread of democracy. If it were, voter turnout would at least have held steady since then, rather than, in fact, declining precipitiously. On the contrary, the rise in initiatives is the direct result of the fact that the special interests, whose hold on the legislature Californians rightly deplore, have realized that they can dominate the initiative process as well. The professionalization of signature gathering — which means, the transformation of the process into a big-money industry dominated by a handful of firms, and the switch in the composition of signature gatherers from local volunteers to migrant professionals moving from state to state in search of the highest-paying initiatives — has actually made the initiative, referendum and recall more prey to big-money domination than the legislature itself.

Second, Gray Davis is indeed hugely unpopular, but that is not the primary reason why the recall is going forward. (And Davis, it must be said, is by any progressive perspective still the best of the last three California governors, faint praise though that may be. Or would you trade him for Pete Wilson, who argued that the children of undocumented immigrants be tossed out of school, or for George Deukmejian, who spent eight years vetoing everything except stiffer criminal penalties?) The ma-nishtana question, the reason that this recall is different from all the 31 previous gubernatorial recalls that never made it to the ballot, is that an ambitious Republican (with enough personal baggage to submerge the Titanic) put more than a million dollars into the campaign.

Which is bad enough, but we need to put Darrell Issa’s campaign to recall Davis in the context of envelope-pushing right-wing efforts that are increasingly common in this age of Bush. Put the recall alongside House Republican Leader Tom DeLay’s campaign for a mid-decade reapportionment of the Texas Congressional delegation, and those of other states where Republicans now hold a stronger legislative majority than they did when they were required to reapportion their states after the new census data became available. Put it alongside Senate Republicans’ efforts to end the minority’s ability to filibuster judicial appointments. What you see is a tenuous but raging majority party determined to push its agenda even if it means revisiting legitimately settled questions (last November’s gubernatorial election, last year’s decennial reapportionments) because of a momentary political advantage or opportunity.

In short, this is a thoroughly partisan abuse of the recall process, redolent of the thoroughly partisan abuse of the impeachment process that we went through in 1998-9. The more so because the problem in Sacramento is not the fault primarily of Davis, or of “special interests,” but of one of the only two state constitutions in the U.S. that requires a two-thirds vote for enacting a budget. And of a president who doles out trillions to the rich but essentially nothing for states in budget crisis (roughly, 49 out of 50). And of a California Republican Party, opposed to anything government has done since 1933, whose stated solution for the budget mess is to delay eligibility for kindergarten for a year and eliminate Medi-Cal funding for such trifles as prosthetic limbs.


So can the “Republican wolves” really do no worse to us than Davis? I seem to recall having heard that argument made about Bush in comparison with Gore, and if the world were just, those who made it would be in purgatory now, diagramming Bush’s sentences. But focusing just on Sacramento, the argument this paper made in last fall’s endorsement of Davis, whom we disliked then and dislike now, was that the difference between Dems and Repubs in California was wider and more real than just about anywhere. And that under the leadership of progressives like Senate President pro tem John Burton, the legislature had enacted laws creating the first paid family leave program in the U.S., providing binding arbitration for farm workers, enacting fuel efficiency standards far stricter than the feds’, mandating utilities to shift to renewable resources, funding stem-cell research, restoring overtime pay for the 8-hour day and so on. And that these were bills that Davis signed, often kicking and screaming, to be sure, while they would set even a moderate Republican to retching and vetoing. In short, given the progressive politics of the state and its Democratic legislature, any Democratic governor is likely to be better than any Republican.

All that said, should we be encouraging progressive Democrats to enter the field? If Davis ends up challenged by a strong Republican like Arnold, I’d say we need to look very hard at encouraging a strong Democrat — singular, not plural — to take the plunge. To defend everyplace is to defend no place, Frederick the Great once proclaimed, and to run multiple candidates on this fershlugeneh recall ballot is equivalent to running none. And while I admire Arianna, she’s hardly the candidate who would keep other Democrats from running. Much as I like her, I dislike the prospect of a traffic jam on the left side of the recall ballot even more.

Not every crisis is an opportunity, after all. And whatever this recall may ultimately become, it sure as hell’s not going to be a magic bullet for the left.