Image: Thousands Rally On Governor Recall Election In CA
Recall supporters displayed signs in front of the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., during a rally in July.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 8/14/2003 9:11:14 AM ET 2003-08-14T13:11:14

Like California, 17 other states have procedures for recalling a governor. Unlike California, other states are not dealing with their fiscal distress by launching recall efforts. Instead, they are coping through old-fashioned methods: borrowing, cutting state workforces and delaying capital projects. Despite California’s uniqueness, does the attempted recall of Gov. Gray Davis reveal anything about politics in general in the United States? Is the effort part of a national trend?

The Davis-Arnold Schwarzenegger extravaganza is not likely to spark recall-mania elsewhere because it is more difficult in almost all of the 17 other recall states to put the matter on the ballot.

In California, recall proponents are required to get the signatures of the number of voters equal to 12 percent of the number who voted in the last gubernatorial election. In most of the recall states, the requirement is 25 percent or higher; in only one state, Montana, is the threshold lower than in California.

COMMON FACTORS

Even so, other factors at work in the Davis recall apply to the states and to national politics:

Celebrity.

The urge to push matters to their logical, if disruptive, conclusion by using the political equivalent of “unconventional warfare.”

A deep-seated, but often frustrated populism that has characterized politics, especially California politics, since the 1960s.

FROM STAGE TO STATEHOUSE

Celebrity candidates have been a recurring feature of American politics for over 150 years.

The very first presidential candidate of the Republican Party in 1856 was a California superstar, John Charles Fremont, the “Pathfinder” who explored and mapped the Far West in the 1840s. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fremont was a wealthy man: Gold had been discovered on his land in California.

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More recently, Hollywood celebrities have parlayed film fame into election success. Actor George Murphy won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1964; Ronald Reagan followed two years later by winning the governor’s race in California.

Some analysts liken the Schwarzenegger phenomenon to the election of wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota in 1998.

Ventura charmed some in the news media who portrayed him as a refreshing populist. He turned out to be a middling chief executive who had the misfortune to have the last two years of his term coincide with a recession. Ventura’s belligerent personality, combined with a $3 billion state budget shortfall, made him unpopular by the time his term expired.

The lesson for Minnesota or any state was that being a maverick populist only gets a politician so far.

RECALL AND IMPEACHMENT

One way to assess the national impact of the Davis recall effort is to consider it together with the impeachment of Bill Clinton. The two episodes might be part of a trend: Don’t stop trying to remove an incumbent even after he has been re-elected.

Republicans learned from their impeachment effort that many people ended up resenting the time and emotion it demanded. Republicans lost five House seats in the 1998 elections, a year when they’d figured that disgust with Clinton would help gain them a dozen seats.

Yet the impeachment gambit may have paid dividends. In the 2000 election, Al Gore’s strategists decided that Clinton should not be asked to campaign for Gore in states such as West Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee, all of which Gore lost.

“Clinton hurt Gore very badly,” Tad Devine, Gore’s media adviser, said a year after the election.

So, too, the attempted recall may benefit the GOP, if voters choose Schwarzenegger or another Republican to replace Davis.

California is one of the most reliably Democratic states. The Democratic presidential candidate has won the state with an average plurality of 1.3 million votes in the last three elections.

Unless there is a Walter Mondale-style Democratic debacle, President Bush is not likely to win California. If, however, a new Republican governor is popular next year and if he campaigns across the state with Bush in the fall of 2004, the GOP might force the Democrats to invest money in California that they could otherwise have spent in competitive states such as Minnesota.

FRUSTRATED POPULISM

California populism, expressed through ballot initiatives and through the recall mechanism, has had its share of failure, frustration and unintended consequences. It also has had some success, even if indirect.

Consider:

Proposition 13: The 1978 measure did limit property tax increases. Yet local governments devised ways to impose “user fees” and assessments. And the state increased the cost of motor vehicle licenses and raised taxes on liquor and beer.

California now ranks eighth among the 50 states in state and local taxes as a percentage of income, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research group.

Term limits: California voters used a ballot initiative to impose term limits on their state legislators in 1990, hoping to rid the Legislature of career politicians who became too cozy with special interests.

But faster turnover has not yet produced a majority of fiscally conservative legislators.

The majority of legislators are still willing to go along with the requests of interests such as the prison guards union, which got a robust pay-and-benefits package last year for its members.

Web journalist Jill Stewart argues in her commentary on California politics that gerrymandering has proven to be more important than term limits in ensuring that there are relatively few competitive elections for the Legislature.

Proposition 187: Voters overwhelmingly approved a 1994 ballot initiative that denied state benefits to illegal immigrants.

But a federal judge struck down the measure.

“California is powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate immigration,” ruled U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer in 1998. “It is likewise powerless to enact its own scheme to regulate alien access to public benefits.”

Powerless, indeed, is how Proposition 187 supporters felt after Pfaelzer’s ruling. After all, more than five million of them voted for the measure; a single judge overruled them.

Yet partly in reaction to Proposition 187, Congress did impose restrictions on benefits for immigrants as part of the 1996 welfare reform law.

In the Davis recall, populism may win again in the short run. If opinion polls are accurate, Davis will be out.

Like populist efforts of the past, however, the saga may end in frustration for taxpayers if the new governor and the old legislators do not find the resolve to manage the taxpayers’ money prudently.

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