California Recall, Part One
By Jack Rabbit
News that a recall of California Governor Gray Davis qualified
for the ballot shook the American political establishment
last week. To some, Davis is an inept leader who plays favorites
with his campaign contributors, and the one responsible for
huge long-term energy contracts at what are now well above
market prices. To these people, Davis richly deserves to be
removed from power now, three years before his term expires.
To others, the attempt to recall Davis is a pointless, partisan
waste of time and money. They point out that Davis, a Democrat,
was re-elected less than a year ago in a fair election, and
that the effort to put the recall question on the ballot only
gathered steam when Darrell Issa, a wealthy right-wing Republican
congressman, poured $1.7 million of his own money into the
As far as opponents of the recall are concerned, the Republicans
are simply attempting to redo an election that went badly
for them last time - not because there is any good reason
to do so, but because they can take advantage of Davis' unpopularity
during a budget crisis that is not entirely of his doing.
This is the first of two parts on the effort to recall Governor
Davis. In this article, the reasons for the recall given by
those who launched and financed the petition drive will be
examined. In the next article, we will look at some of the
announced and possible replacement candidates who may become
governor should Davis be recalled.
The Recall is one of three
reforms promoting direct democracy instituted in California
Hiram Johnson and the Progressive Republicans of the Lincoln-Roosevelt
League in 1911. The other two are the Initiative and the Referendum.
Under these direct democracy features, if the state legislature
does not act to pass necessary laws or remove corrupt and
incompetent officials, then the people may take matters into
their own hands. With enough signatures, a measure may be
put on the ballot to enact a law (Initiative), repeal an act
of the legislature (Referendum) or remove an official from
The problem in Johnson's time was the power that the railroads
held over state government. Southern Pacific charged high
shipping rates to cover the cost of bribing politicians. Johnson
campaigned for governor on a pledge to "kick Southern
Pacific out of politics." He did. Former President Theodore
Roosevelt praised California's reforms. The following year,
Governor Johnson ran as the Vice Presidential nominee with
Roosevelt on the Bull Moose ticket.
In order to recall a state officer, supporters first need
to gather signatures equaling 12 percent of the voters in
the election that put the officer in power. They have 160
days to gather the signatures. The recall movement against
Governor Davis officially began gathering signatures in March.
They would need to gather 900,000 signatures to qualify the
recall. Earlier in July, recall proponents turned in about
1.6 million signatures to the office of the Secretary of State.
On July 23, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley announced that
1.3 million signatures were validated. The next day, as directed
by the state constitution, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante
set a date for the recall election. Bustamante had some leeway
under the law and chose October 7, the last Tuesday in the
range of dates he could select. He also announced that the
election to replace Davis would be held the same day.
Under the state constitution, the sufficiency of the reasons
given for recalling an officer is not subject to review. This
guards against a recall target dragging out the process through
frivolous lawsuits. However, most voters feel there must be
some reason to recall a governor. A recall petition being
pushed by Republican partisans simply to remove a Democratic
governor would go nowhere. There is no doubt that Republicans
have pushed and financed the recall drive. The question is
whether they are acting as good citizens or as rank partisans.
The reasons given by the recall
supporters that were printed on their petition are (ellipsis
in the original):
Gross mismanagement of California finances by overspending
taxpayers' money, threatening public safety by cutting funds
to local governments, failing to account for the exorbitant
cost of the energy fiasco, and failing in general to deal
with the state's major problems until they get to the crisis
stage. California should not have to be known as the state
with poor schools, traffic jams, outrageous utility bills,
and huge debts...all caused by gross mismanagement.
Otherwise, recall proponents claim: that California has
the worst deficit in the United States; that California taxes
are going up; that the state is bankrupt; and that Davis hid
the real facts of the budget crisis from voters last November.
Are these good reasons to recall Governor Davis?
There seems to be something contradictory in stating that
Governor Davis is overspending taxpayers' money with one hand
and cutting funds to local governments with the other. It
is true that past governors, notably Ronald Reagan, would
place responsibility for state mandated programs on counties
and then not provide them with the funds to do so. This was
a fiscal gimmick that allowed the state budget to appear to
be balanced, as mandated by the state constitution, while
not raising taxes. And, of course, the state is currently
cutting funds to local government and everyone else. As the
recall proponents point out, the state is facing a $35 billion
budget shortfall; that is not going to be met by increased
On the other hand, it is true that California has the worst
deficit in the United States. That should surprise no one.
California is the one of the biggest states and has the world's
fifth largest economy. Currently, every state in the union
is facing a budget crisis. It stands to reason that California's
The reason for the nationwide problem is reduced revenues
from the federal government. The federal government has decreased
funding to the states in order to accommodate the reduced
revenue owing to tax cuts passed by Congress and proposed
by Mr. Bush and his team of economic advisors. Most of the
federal tax cuts benefit the rich; most of the decrease of
funding earmarked to the states either was a benefit to the
poor or was federal aid to broader social concerns such as
public education. This has put a squeeze on state and local
governments across America.
If Davis should be recalled for this, so should every other
governor in every state. Perhaps a better solution should
be that voters, rather than recalling their governors, should
take a good, hard look at their local congressman's voting
record and compare that to his opponent's ideas. Perhaps if
one's representative voted for Mr. Bush's irresponsible tax
cuts, one ought to seriously consider voting for that representative's
The charge that California is bankrupt is false. In spite
of budget problems, the state has not declared bankruptcy.
Not yet, anyway. As for the charge that California's taxes
are going up, they're probably right. In this kind of crisis,
taxes should go up and state spending should be cut. Any political
candidate who implies that the problem can be solved without
doing both is selling snake oil.
California's budget shortfall was made worse by the long-tem
energy contracts into which Governor Davis entered during
the energy shortage of 2001. Most of us know the story. California
decided in the nineties to deregulate its power. That was
a terrible idea for which there is plenty of blame to go around.
This created a dysfunctional market that was easily gamed
by unscrupulous energy providers like Enron. Power was diverted
away from California to other markets, creating an artificial
shortage in the winter of 2000/01. At the same time, power
plants run by private utility companies were taken off line
for maintenance - or so they said - further reducing the available
supply of power. Through the use of such tactics, prices skyrocketed.
Governor Davis stepped in and negotiated long-term contracts
with the energy suppliers at the same time he denounced them
as "pirates." This had the effect of stabilizing
prices, but it also locked California into power rates much
higher than the current market value.
California was in a no-win situation that winter. Davis
took a way out that provided energy for Californians and brought
prices down. While prices are lower now, it is doubtful that,
had Davis not negotiated long-term contracts, they would have
ceased to skyrocket.
Davis may also have been relying on eventually getting relief
from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Davis
appealed to FERC for relief, hoping to be able to renegotiate
the contracts. The argument he presented is that California
was negotiating under duress, since its negotiating partners
were none other than the very energy companies who gamed a
dysfunctional market. While California may have been entitled
to such relief, it would be foolish to expect it from a regulatory
commission appointed by Mr. Bush. In the Bush administration,
a regulatory commission appears to be expected to be a tool
of the industry it regulates. That is exactly how FERC
behaved. They ruled on the one hand that the market was
indeed dysfunctional but on the other that California was
entitled to only a fraction of the relief for which Davis
was asking, and denied the state the right to renegotiate
contracts. The energy companies were called naughty boys and
told they could keep their ill-gotten gains.
On the charge that Davis "fail(ed) . . . to deal with
the state's major problems until they get to the crisis stage",
Davis' critics may be able to draw blood by pointing back
to the energy crisis. As part of the California deregulation
plan, San Diego was used as a guinea pig. Price caps were
lifted in 1998. Throughout 2000, with deregulation
in place in San Diego, prices went through the roof. Many
critics of deregulation saw this, in the words of Ralph
Nader, as "the canary in the coal mine" of California's
energy deregulation plans. When San Diego power rates tripled,
Davis should have taken action to make sure that the problems
that San Diego experienced would not become the rule for statewide
deregulation. However, Davis did nothing and all Californians
soon became San Diegans in the energy game.
The failure to act when the alarms rang in San Diego was
a serious blunder on Davis' part. Is it worthy of recall?
Probably not by itself. However, it doesn't speak well of
his ability for planning and foresight. It makes it easy to
imagine that there is somebody in California who would be
a better governor.
The final charge against Davis made by the recall backers
is that he misled the public about the extent of California's
financial woes when he ran for governor last year. That charge
is almost beyond proof. We can be sure that Davis' picture
of California's financial health was much rosier than reality,
but did Davis have reason to know that last year? Again, this
might be a reason to mistrust Davis' judgment, but not to
accuse him of malfeasance.
We have examined today the reasons for recalling Governor
Davis given by the backers of the movement. The question for
the voters of the state of California is: are these sufficient
reasons? Almost all of these reasons are refuted, some more
decisively than others. Those that remain probably do not
constitute sufficient reason to recall a governor.
Davis is bound to be unpopular at the moment. If any other
person were governor of California now, he would probably
be just as unpopular. The state must make some painful decisions.
Taxes must be raised. Spending, even on programs deemed popular
or necessary, must be cut. Nobody could possibly be very happy
about this situation.
Recalling Governor Davis won't change that.
If one considers the reason to recall a governor to be malfeasance,
then it would seem that those pushing the recall of Governor
Davis have not made their case. Davis has made mistakes, but
so has every governor. The state is in financial crisis, but
so is every state. Has Davis willfully ruined the state? Nothing
suggests that he has.
This Californian plans to vote No on the recall on
October 7. Between now and then, if the recall proponents
wish to persuade this citizen to change his mind, they will
have to show some new evidence that is more convincing than
the Niger document of serious wrongdoing on Davis' part. Otherwise,
it would appear that either their motivation for recalling
Davis is dishonestly partisan, or that they just think a lower
bar for recalling a statewide official than should be necessary.