Million-Dollar Recall

July 31, 2003
By David S. Broder

Washington Post

California, the largest and most trend-setting of our 50 states, often epitomizes America. So it is not surprising that the multimillion-dollar fiasco of an Oct. 7 recall election on Gov. Gray Davis is the byproduct of almost everything that has gone wrong in our political system.

Partisan excess, rampant personal ambition, dereliction of leadership, media inattention, phony populism and, as usual, the influence of money all are part of this nearly unprecedented perversion of representative government. Whether Davis goes down or survives, American democracy will get a black eye.

Only once before — in North Dakota — has a governor been bounced from office in midterm by vote of the people. The recall process was part of the Progressive era “reforms” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, along with initiative and referendum. They were the handiwork of well-meaning idealists who hoped to break the hold that interest groups such as railroads and banks had on the state governments of their day. Little did they imagine that these tools would be used to cripple the very governments they were trying to purify.

The precipitating event for the recall effort against Davis was the budget crisis in California — a $38 billion gap between revenues and expenses. Virtually all states faced deficits, but in California, the problem of a slow economy and slumping tax revenues was exacerbated by two factors. A series of popular initiatives, stretching back 25 years to the famous Proposition 13, has put limits on the taxing power of the state and local communities, while other initiatives have mandated spending on schools, prisons and other projects. The net result: The governor and legislature have little room to maneuver in tough times.

Second, raw partisanship has rendered the legislature dysfunctional. Redistricting by long-dominant Democrats locked Republicans into minority status and virtually eliminated swing districts. With a two-thirds majority required to approve a state budget, recalcitrant Republicans kept the impasse going while petition signatures were being collected — until they compromised last weekend. Legislators facing strict term limits imposed by yet another initiative have few incentives to consider the long-term consequences for the state.

All this has taken place largely out of public view. Just last week, a study by the Council for Excellence in Government documented a 20-year decline in the volume of coverage of the national government. California is worse. As the late John Jacobs of the Sacramento Bee regularly pointed out, Sacramento goes mostly unreported by television stations around the state, which shun the expense of keeping correspondents and crews in the state capital. So it is easy for Californians to assume the worst about the people they put in office. Davis’s approval ratings are in the low 20s, the legislature’s, even worse.

This governor has plenty of shortcomings. His personality is chilly and his political calculations are so obvious that whatever core convictions he may possess tend to be obscured. He is unloved by Democrats and despised by Republicans. But he would not be facing removal were it not for the final corrupting factors — rampant personal ambition and money on all sides.

Davis himself has a well-earned reputation as an assiduous political fundraiser, collecting $70 million for his reelection campaign last year and using much of it on TV ads trashing his opponents. But the dirty little secret of the populist perversion of democracy is that its tools — initiative, referendum and recall — have been commandeered by people or groups with access to big money.

It was explained to me five years ago by Thomas Hiltachk, a Sacramento lawyer who has made a specialty of drafting initiatives. When I asked what would transpire if an average citizen walked in seeking help in getting an initiative on the ballot, Hiltachk said, “I always ask the million-dollar question, which is, ‘Where’s your million dollars?’ ”

That is the minimum usually needed to collect the hundreds of thousands of valid signatures to place an initiative on the ballot — or force a recall election. The effort to recall Davis was going nowhere until a wealthy businessman turned politician, Rep. Darrell Issa, came to Hiltachk, the recall movement’s counsel, with the right answer — $1.7 million in personal funds to finance the recall petition effort.

Now Issa is running for governor, but other wealthy or celebrated Republicans may also put their names on Part 2 of the Oct. 7 ballot, vying for the chance to become governor if a majority votes to recall Davis on the first part of the ballot.

California is the butt of jokes for subjecting itself to this expensive effort to punish the man it reelected less than a year ago. But the forces behind this perversion are prevalent throughout our politics. It is a warning signal not to be ignored.

Peter Schrag: Vote early, vote often — but vote on everything?

By Peter Schrag — Bee Columnist – (Published October 15, 2003)

If anyone believes that the recall of Gov. Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger marked some kind of pinnacle in California’s hyperdemocracy, let him think again.

Some two dozen initiatives and referendums are already in circulation; signatures for another initiative, aimed at the March 2004 ballot, have already been submitted and several more are being reviewed at the attorney general’s office prior to circulation.

Among them are measures permanently abolishing the car tax, overturning the controversial law granting illegal aliens the right to obtain California driver’s licenses, repealing the state’s new domestic partners law and blocking SB2, the bill that requires all but small employers either to provide health care for their workers or to pay into a state fund that will provide health care coverage.

More important, there’s a good chance that if the Legislature drags its feet on Schwarzenegger’s reform program, he’ll become the ringmaster for a wave of ballot measures all his own: a new measure imposing spending limits on the state budget and one shifting control of the decennial redistricting of Assembly, Senate and congressional seats from the Legislature to some kind of independent commission.

Schwarzenegger has already said that, if necessary, he wouldn’t hesitate to go over the heads of the Legislature and directly to the voters.

Also pending is the Voters Choice Open Primary Act, which would create a single primary in which members of all parties would run and where, if no candidate gets a majority, the two leading finishers would face off in the general election, even if both are from the same party.

That, in the view of its sponsors — and of many other people — would check the tendency of the parties to nominate candidates at the political extremes and bring more centrists to the ballot. If Schwarzenegger really sees himself as a force for moderate politics — and thus for a more effective, ideologically tempered Republican Party — the open primary act could be a tempting cause.

By its very nature, the initiative process has been a device to trump the Legislature. In practice, it has been an instrument of a statewide electorate that’s still disproportionately white, older, more affluent and more conservative than California’s majority-minority population.

And because legislative districts are equalized by population, not voters, the Legislature tends to look more like that population than the voters in statewide elections. In effect, the average California Democrat represents just as many people as the average Republican, but fewer voters.

The accumulating effects of 25 years of initiatives — from the tax limitations of Proposition 13 in 1978, to Proposition 98, the school spending formula passed in 1988, to term limits (1990), to the latter-day ballot-box budgeting that mandates spending on everything from parklands to roads to after-school day care — have so hamstrung both state and local governments that elected legislators, county supervisors and school board members have become the handmaidens, not the leaders, of policymaking in California.

Because of it they’ve become increasingly unable (and sometimes unwilling) to set priorities and respond to problems when they occur.

At the same time, the tangled rules and processes that initiatives have created make government almost incomprehensible to even the most diligent and well-informed citizens, and thus even more frustrating and less accountable to the voters.

Among the initiatives heading to the March 2004 ballot is a measure that would lower the votes needed to pass a state budget and raise taxes. Right now, a two-thirds vote is required in each house of the Legislature; the measure would reduce that to 55 percent. That would take away most of the veto power of political minorities and reduce and perhaps end the annual delays in passing a budget.

But even in the unlikely event that the measure passed, it won’t break California’s increasing reliance on the ballot box. The pending list of would-be initiatives, many of which won’t ever qualify for the ballot, includes a lot marginalia: measures regulating the confinement of pigs, pregnant pigs and veal calves; a measure eliminating fines for parking violations. But given the state’s increasing passion for quick-hit action at the ballot box, the string won’t end with pregnant pigs. The success of the recall, even if it doesn’t trigger other recalls, can only increase the pressure for more direct action.

There’s growing belief, both at the state and national level, that existing governmental structures are hopelessly dated, imposing the pace and political theory of the 18th century on the problems of the 21st. But however charmed some futurists are by the notion of some sort of instant electronic democracy, where people vote constantly on every conceivable question, the world is too complex, the need for expertise, deliberation and compromise too great, for good government to survive such a system.

Democracy may be in danger from domination by money, political venality and systemic dysfunction, but it’s in at least as much danger from solutions that quick-fixers have tried to impose. Representative democracy needs restoration, not replacement.

Top historian warns of flaws in California recall process

By Renee Koury
Mercury News

october 20, 2003

James Madison would have been very disappointed that Californians got together and kicked their governor out of office this month, a noted historian told a panel of deep thinkers at Stanford University on Saturday.

Since Madison is no longer around to explain the foundations of representative government vs. popular rule, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jack Rakove did.

“There is something deeply disturbing about what is going on in this state,” Rakove told the panel. Madison advocated the representative form of government to ensure one body makes decisions for the benefit of the overall society, rather than giving vocal factions direct powers to make change.

Yet, California’s initiative process, in which any group can put proposals on the ballot with enough signatures, and the little-used voter recall, allow that direct access to change.

“People have learned to manipulate the initiative process,” Rakove said. “The smaller the group, the more dangerous it is,” he said, noting that it takes relatively few to get recalls and initiatives on the ballot.

Rakove spoke on a panel with some of the nation’s brightest legal minds: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and three renowned Stanford law professors — Law School Dean Kathleen M. Sullivan, Internet expert Lawrence Lessig and voting rights expert Pamela Karlan.

Two centuries after the Constitution was drafted, the legal heavyweights spent Saturday morning mulling and agonizing over what the founding fathers intended and what forces influenced its evolution over the past 200 years. They agreed that political forces have as much to do with amendments and interpretations as do court rulings.

More than 500 alumni who gathered this weekend for a multi-generational reunion listened intently.

Kennedy said the high court has waited for a signal from legislators on how to rule on difficult cases involving issues such as abortion and the right to die.

“You might have a comatose woman, alive by one definition and dead by another, and the court says, `Wait, the political process will come in, and the court will have a little more time to decide.’ Meanwhile, do you let a person keep suffering because we as an institution aren’t ready to move?”

Karlan said that TV coverage of harassment of blacks in the South did more than the 15th Amendment to give African-Americans the right to vote.

“Black people didn’t really get to vote until many years after the 15th Amendment gave them the right,” Karlan said. “It took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to make it happen.”

The Constitution has long been used as a framework for other developing nations and may be a model, at least for comparison, for Iraq and Afghanistan as they reorganize their governments, panelists said. In particular, they look to the Bill of Rights.

“You find the other nations want freedoms for women, freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” Karlan said.