GOP abuse of the time-honored progressive process is wearing thin...
By Ernest A. Canning on 7/9/2021, 11:00am PT  

The idiom, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions", comes to mind when considering both the transformation of California's Republican Party and the Golden State's gubernatorial Recall process since first established by voters on Oct. 10, 1911. Both transformations point to the need for California to either significantly reform or eliminate gubernatorial Recalls altogether.

Our state's Recall process was the brainchild of Hiram Johnson, an immensely popular Republican governor who switched to the Progressive Party after taking office. His progressive bona fides were already on display during his Jan. 13, 1911 Inaugural Address when he declared: "The first duty that is mine to perform, is to eliminate every private interest from the government, and to make the public service of the State responsive solely to the people."

Later that year, in a letter to former President Theodore Roosevelt, Johnson expressed his dismay over then Republican President William Howard Taft's lack of humanity and Taft's belief that government exists only to benefit big business. Johnson expressed admiration for the Progressive Party candidate, Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, but sought to persuade TR to run against Taft because Johnson believed La Follette would lose. (In 1912, the Progressive Party nominated TR as its Presidential candidate and Johnson as its VP candidate).

As envisioned by Johnson, California's Recall procedures would serve as a form of bottom-up direct democracy that would act as a check against the corrupt influence of corporate wealth and power then being exerted in the Golden State by the Southern Pacific Railroad.

California's gubernatorial Recall, however, has failed to live up to Governor Johnson's lofty expectations. "Since 1911," according to Ballotpedia, "there have been 55 attempts to recall a sitting California governor. The only successful campaign was in 2003 when voters recalled then-Gov. Gray Davis". The Davis Recall was a purely partisan affair made possible only because the wealthy right-wing Republican Congressman, Darrell Issa, invested $1.7 million of his own money to fund a GOP engineered, professional signature gathering campaign. That was coupled, politically, with a disinformation campaign regarding power outages in the Golden State that had been engineered by the infamous, corrupt and now defunct Texas-based energy company, Enron.

This year's gubernatorial Recall against California's Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom is being wielded as an anti-democracy cudgel by an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party --- a Party which morphed into an instrument of the very corporate wealth and power Gov. Johnson hoped the Recall would serve to defeat. The Newsom Recall was initiated because the unpopular CA GOP realizes its only prospect for winning a statewide election at this time lies in what it hopes is a low-turnout election; albeit, a special election that will cost California taxpayers an estimated $400 million.

Last week, California's Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a Democrat, set the date for the Newsom Recall Election for Sept. 14, 2021. Per a recently released UC Berkeley poll and a May 25 Public Policy Institute poll, it appears likely that a significant majority will cast a "No" vote. Nonetheless, given the abuse of the process by state Republicans, CA Democrats, who hold a super-majority in the State legislature, would do well to place a proposition on the November 2022 general election ballot to reform or even eliminate the gubernatorial Recall process altogether...

GOP Recall abuse, by the numbers

By 2020, there were nearly 5 million more registered voters in California than there were in 2004, just months after the Gray Davis Recall, according to the CA Secretary of State. The percentage of eligible voters who are registered (87.87%) is now the highest it's been in the past 80 years.

Between 2004 and 2020, the percentage of registered CA voters who are Democrats grew from 43% to 46.1%. No Party Preference voters, who accounted for only 17.7% in 2004, accounted for 24% in 2020. Republicans, who accounted for 34.7% of registered voters in 2004, dropped to a meager 24.2% by 2020. Those numbers don't include the "tens of thousands" who promptly abandoned the national Republican Party in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol Insurrection.

Republicans have not won a statewide election in California since 2006. The gap between the two Parties in statewide contests has expanded along with the increase in the number of registered voters.

In the 2018 general election, Newsom defeated Republican John Cox by nearly 3 million votes (61.9% to 38.1%). During the 2020 Golden State Presidential Election, Joe Biden leveed a 29.2 point knockout --- a margin of more than 5 million votes --- over a disgraced former President, who the former Republicans in the Lincoln Project refer to as "Don the Con".

Per a May 11, 2021 UC Berkeley poll, 49% of Californians already oppose the Recall while only 36% support it. It is anticipated that the gap between those opposing and supporting the Recall will grow. Only 46% of registered California voters expressed a high level of interest in the Recall --- and that number, according to the poll, "skewed toward the state's GOP voters."

Two weeks later, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released a poll, which revealed that "nearly six in ten likely voters say they would vote to keep Governor Newsom in a recall election."

Perhaps the most telling statistic set forth by the U.C. Berkeley poll is that less than one in four registered California voters support any of the four* major Republicans who've lined-up as replacement candidates in the event the vote on a Recall succeeds. The current front-runner to replace Newsom is Cox, the Governor's 2018 opponent. He is supported by just 22% of voters. Caitlyn Jenner, the transgendered former Olympic gold medal winner, garnered a meager 6% support in the recent polling. A transgender leader from the LGBTQ community said she was "horrified" and would take a "hard pass" on the Trump-supporting Jenner.

*The 2020 Recall is likely to include a repeat of the circus atmosphere surrounding the 2003 Recall. To date, some 56 individuals have filed Statements of Intention to run as replacement candidates in the event the Newsom Recall succeeds, according to the CA Secretary of State.

Recommended Reforms

• Replacement by Lt. Governor

The partisan incentive behind the Davis and Newsom Recalls could be eliminated by revising the California Constitution so as to provide for the automatic elevation of the Lt. Governor to Governor in the event that a gubernatorial Recall succeeds. Among other things, that would prevent a repeat of the 2003 "circus" in which the incumbent governor was not afforded the opportunity to debate any of the more than 400 candidates who had lined up on the ballot to replace him.

• Eliminate paid signature gathering

It may have been possible, though enormously difficult, for grassroots organizers to gather up the slightly more than 46,000 signatures that would have been needed to Recall Gov. Johnson in 1911.

By 2003, collecting a sufficient number of signatures --- by then more than 900,000 --- was a task only significant money could buy. Hence, the top-down, political decision by mega-millionaire Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) to fork over $1.7 million to paid signature gatherers for the Davis Recall. This initial expenditure was but a fraction of the $88 million Republicans spent during the ensuing campaign to unseat the then-incumbent Democratic Governor.

As the size of the electorate expanded, so too did the number of signatures needed to place a gubernatorial Recall referendum before voters. In the Spring of 2021, Republicans delivered more than 1.6 million valid signatures on a Petition to Recall Governor Newsom.

One way to eliminate this wealth driven corruption of what was supposed to be an exercise in bottom-up direct democracy would be to ban the use of paid signature gatherers.

• Limit reasons for Recalls

A core problem arises because the Golden State Constitution does not confine the process to gubernatorial misconduct. Under Art. II, §14 of the Golden State Constitution, a "Recall...is initiated by delivering to the Secretary of State a petition alleging the reasons for the recall." However, the "sufficiency of the reason is not reviewable."

The Newsom Recall petition challenges the governor's handling of the COVID pandemic --- this, despite the fact that California's rate of COVID infections, as of May, had become the lowest in the nation.

The petition challenges Newsom's handling of homelessness. That purely political claim stands in stark contrast to the record set forth in a recent 110-page federal court decision. The governor's handling of that crisis, in the view of a veteran jurist, has been exemplary.

The petition criticized Newsom's role in water rationing. As the Pulitzer Prize winning Los Angeles Times journalist, Michael Hiltzik, explained to Brad Friedman during a 2018 interview, that long-standing complaint is part of a power grab by wealthy farm owners in California's Republican-controlled Central Valley. Despite federal laws mandating the free flow of water in rivers and streams to support fish, fisheries and wildlife, the powerful AG interests insist that rivers and streams be diverted to their farms to grow water-intensive crops.

Why retain gubernatorial Recalls at all?

It's tempting, in the face of the GOP's abuse of the process, to do away with California's gubernatorial Recall altogether. Nonetheless, there are valid reasons for retaining it.

California is one of only 20 states that provide voters with a mechanism for the mid-term removal of the top Executive office holder. New York is one of the 30 states that do not have a gubernatorial Recall.

No doubt, at this moment, many New Yorkers, irrespective of Party affiliation, wish they could utilize a gubernatorial Recall as a means to remove the Empire State's current chief Executive. Gov. Andrew Cuomo stands accused not only of multiple counts of sexual harassment but also of corruption relating to the under-reporting of COVID cases tied to nursing homes.

Politically, a ballot measure that contained needed reforms to the Recall process would likely fare better than outright repeal, which would be open to a GOP claim that CA Democrats were seeking to strip away a right currently guaranteed by the California Constitution. Ultimately, as one popular politician from the 1990s once noted, it might be better to mend it, not end it.

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Ernest A. Canning is a retired attorney, author, and Vietnam Veteran (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968). He previously served as a Senior Advisor to Veterans For Bernie. Canning has been a member of the California state bar since 1977. In addition to a juris doctor, he has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science. Follow him on twitter: @cann4ing