March 28, 2008
EFFORTS TO RECALL LEGISLATORS SHOW MIXED RESULTS NATIONWIDE
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
The recall fight against Republican state Sen. Jeff Denham, ostensibly launched because he voted against the state budget last year, could provide the recall's primary backer, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, with a nice bonus: two-thirds Democratic control in the Senate, enough to overturn a gubernatorial veto. This wouldn't be the first time a recall based on naked political gain was undertaken.
A look at the sparse history of recalls nationwide is replete with examples of political payback and attempts to steal a critical seat from a rival party. But do such recalls succeed? And is there political advantage in launching a recall rather than waiting for a regularly scheduled election?
While everyone knows Gray Davis' removal in 2003 was the state's first gubernatorial recall and only the second such action in the nation, few people are aware that recalls of state lawmakers are nearly as rare. There have been only seven California state legislative recalls since the device was adopted back in 1911, and only a handful more in the other 17 states that allow recalls of state legislators. However, over the past 25 years, three recalls have switched control over a state legislature.
On two of those occasions, in Wisconsin and Michigan, the recall was not completely based on purely partisan issues. In 1983, Michigan voters swept out two Democratic senators who voted for a large tax increase, resulting in GOP control over the chamber. Similarly, when Wisconsin state Sen. George Petak was booted out in 1996 for switching his vote to support a tax to build a baseball stadium, the Democrats gained control.
California's experience was based purely on partisan political calculation. For example, in 1994-95, after Republicans won a razor-thin 41-39 majority in the Assembly, their first majority in 25 years, California saw three successive recall elections. The Republicans were looking to elect a new speaker to finally topple their Democratic nemesis, Speaker Willie Brown. However, one Republican switched, foiling their plans. Infuriated Republicans immediately filed several recall attempts. One was successful, against the renegade Republican Paul Horcher. Another recall attempt was against Democrat Michael Machado, who promised to be "an independent voice," and was unsuccessful. After a Republican replaced Horcher, Brown maneuvered to elect embittered Republican back-bencher Doris Allen to the speakership and had himself named to the newly created position of speaker emeritus. Unsurprisingly, Allen was also recalled, allowing the Republicans to finally gain the speaker's chair.
These battles show that a recall usually has its best chance of success when there is a single issue to rally around, such as taxes in Wisconsin and Michigan, or when voters feel politicians betrayed their party, as in the Horcher and Allen cases in California.
Denham, a Republican from Modesto, represents a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans. Last summer, he voted with his fellow Republicans against the budget, resulting in a long stalemate in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
His budget vote will probably not be seen as a betrayal by voters, who after all elected a Republican, not a Democrat. But as Democratic Party leaders undoubtedly know, it may be easier to grab a seat through the recall instead of a regularly scheduled general election.
That's because, typically, voter turnout is dramatically lower during in a recall. The voters have to be both aware of the special election and care enough to come out to vote. Those who turn out are often highly motivated by animus to the elected official. The Denham recall vote will likely take place in conjunction with the June 3 primary, which will have higher turnout than most recall elections, but far lower than the turnout in November.
Surveys have shown that once a recall gets on the ballot, the odds are better than 50 percent that the official will be bounced. A well-financed party organization, like the Senate Democrats, can use a recall to sweep a candidate out of office.
There was good reason for Democratic Senate leaders to launch a recall of Denham. They may have a better chance of capturing the seat now than in November. Blatant political gain is no encumbrance to a successful recall. But we will find out soon enough whether the leadership overreached in using a budgetary fight to target Denham.
JOSHUA SPIVAK is a public relations executive and attorney in Berkeley and a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.