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Recalling a Historical Mistake 

Why voters should defeat the move to recall Gov. Davis -- and then work to eliminate the recall and initiative provisions from state law

Wednesday, Jul 30 2003
Last Thursday evening, when the headlines were announcing that our first gubernatorial recall election would be held Oct. 7, I leaned toward a slim man in a perfect suit and asked to talk with his boss, the speaker of the Ghanaian Parliament. The aide demurred. I courteously implored. The Ghanaian Parliamentarian, an elderly man, appeared tired from days spent attending last week's National Conference of State Legislators, held at the new Moscone West convention hall. Burly and bored, he half-dozed at a table during the event's closing gala. Couldn't he speak with me, I asked again, just for a moment? But again, his aide refused.

"I'm afraid he wouldn't have any opinion on that," he said with a rigid expression that showed no sign of changing. "We've only been in California four days. We would not be competent to speak about politics here."

The Ghanaians may be more competent to discuss the California gubernatorial recall effort than they realize. The Ghana delegation attended the conference to learn about representative government, American style. And the place was lousy with Kentucky legislators, Maine government committee staffers, Virginia lobbyists, and other folk with strong, somewhat-informed opinions about the Gray Davis recall imbroglio. Still, I was most interested in mining the Ghanaian speaker's political knowledge, because the foreign official seemed likely to have more experience in recall than anything that flyover-state legislators had ever run into.

I'd like to have asked him about the Ghanaian police coup of 1966, the bloodless military coup of 1972, the palace coup of 1978, the violent military coup of 1979, the coup by enlisted soldiers of 1981, or the attempted officer coup and subsequent executions of 1982. I wanted to know the speaker's prediction of what life in California might be like after Darrell Issa's recall campaign had turned this state into the sort of perennially unstable faux republic for which sub-Saharan Africa has long been famed. But I had no luck.

"I'm sorry," the aide repeated. "He doesn't have any opinion."

It seemed that California and I would plunge, uncounseled, into a perilous chaos called recall, which mimics a popular revolution while it empowers political consultants and fund-raisers and silences the voters who are, supposedly, so aggrieved that they've been forced to rebel.

I don't think the recall measure's going to pass. The governor may have grim approval numbers. But even people who hate Gray Davis are murmuring about the chaotic state our political system is already in, how a recall would only make things worse, and how waiting three years for an honest-to-goodness replacement is by far the best option for all of us.

California's recall law, though initially billed as a progressive reform, was pushed into being by an opportunist 1911 governor. Ninety-two years later it's working against the general will of voters. It's allowing campaign consultants and small numbers of energized voters to tie up the state's governance and, perhaps, choose a governor the majority would not ordinarily back.

If Oct. 7 comes and goes with Davis still in office, the voters of California should remain in political mode; it would be a shame to use such collective political insight only to save a mediocre governor. After defeating the attempted Davis recall, we should undergo a gubernatorial recall of a more metaphysical sort and collectively reject the legacy of Hiram Johnson, the California governor (1911-1917) who championed the still-extant recall law, along with the equally destructive initiative and referendum statutes. These measures were intended as a way to battle the corrupting power of the railroads over local and state government, but they've destabilized California politics ever since adoption.

While describing the political mess California's in, politicians and pundits alike have invoked the legacy of Johnson, the state's patron saint of populism, who pushed the referendum, initiative, and recall reforms ratified by voters as constitutional amendments in 1911. But they have contended that the mess surrounding the effort to recall Gov. Davis represents a distortion of Johnson's original reformist intent.

"What has happened is a far cry from the grass-roots reforms envisioned by Gov. Hiram Johnson," the Los Angeles Times began an unsigned editorial.

"Good old Hiram had a good idea," said freshman S.F. Assemblyman Mark Leno when I caught up with him at a SOMA political grip 'n' grin last week. "But he didn't think it through."

Actually, Johnson was less a philosophically committed progressive reformer than an unprincipled opportunist. A San Francisco lawyer who stumbled into reform politics when he was assigned to replace an attorney who'd been shot dead while prosecuting Abe Ruef, a corrupt political kingpin, Johnson is best known for his six years as governor, when he fashioned himself as a progressive firebrand. But, it seems, any noisy cause would have suited him as well as progressivism. He showed his true colors in the U.S. Senate, where he served as a crank and complainer for 28 years. Rarely a constructive force on any subject, he is remembered mainly for objecting to ideas and programs. He opposed every president, of both parties, during his one-third-century career.

This founding father of our modern malaise was not a true revolutionary; far from it. Hiram Johnson was a man without grand philosophical ideals who loved the chaos and noise of revolution for their own sake. This essence was described in a biographical chapter on Johnson in Mirrors of Washington, a book of essays on national political figures published in 1921, just after Johnson had lost his bid for the Republican presidential nomination to Warren Harding.

"Hiram Johnson would have enjoyed the French Revolution, if accident had made him radical at that time. He would have been stirred by the rising of the people; he would have given tongue to their grievances in a voice keyed to lash them to greater fury," according to the chapter.

Johnson mightn't have been concerned about the misuse of his modern political legacy -- the "people's revolt" mechanisms of referendum, initiative, and recall -- in the least.

"In the Russian Revolution," according to Mirrors, "he would have fled when the true believers in change arrived. He is the orator of emeutes (riots), who is fascinated by a multitude in a passion. Johnson is not a revolutionary."

Despite being remembered in California as a great reformer, Hiram Johnson was, in real life, a revolting demagogue. California would do well to banish his legacy for good, but I can't imagine we ever will.

The heartland political maxim that says "Whither California, there goes the pitiable rest of the nation" resonated through the Moscone Center last week as small-time politicos, aides, and lobbyists schmoozed amid echoes of the recall election announcement. The states these people represent had accompanied California down disastrous roads before, particularly in regard to California's 1978 tax revolt, which turned the then-dormant initiative process into a widely used political fad here -- and then far beyond.

Here, the 1978 ballot Proposition 13, which limited municipal governments in their ability to raise property taxes, eviscerated representative government by making commonplace the idea of budgeting by proposition. It gave an immeasurable boost to the power of political fund-raisers by effectively replacing legislative debate with television spots. Much of the initiative-spawned law that has followed Proposition 13 has continued in a similar vein of inhibiting state and local legislators from making decisions.

Prop. 13 limited local officials in regard to the traditional and central role of setting property taxes, severely restricting communities' ability to fund schools, libraries, dog pounds, and other such amenities. The state stepped in to rescue municipalities, and subsequent initiatives locked 40 percent of California's General Fund into support for education. A mom-and-apple-pie proposition on its face, the education earmark further chipped away at legislators' ability to respond to crises. Meanwhile, a recent revolution created via initiative -- legislative term limits -- has created an amateur, transient Legislature incapable of informed deliberation. These perennial ingénues -- limited in the state Assembly to three six-year terms, in the Senate to two four-year terms -- engage in endless, and often meaningless, quibbles, because, often, they are too inexperienced to know the difference between vital and marginal legislation.

With most of the state's revenue already earmarked for particular purposes, legislators oversee only a fraction of the state budget; California's ship of state hardly has a steering wheel. And ordinary governance, in which representatives act as decision-makers and voters keep them -- or toss them out -- on this basis, becomes a charade. Meanwhile, California's unusual rule requiring a two-thirds legislative majority to approve a budget gives the most extreme and ignorant among the freshman set veto power over the rest.

Thanks to the "reforms" of initiative and referendum, voters, too, are far less powerful than they ought to be. The state's initiative-based political culture has created yearly elections that offer yards-long ballots and inch-thick instruction books. It's increasingly difficult to vote informed, or to vote for politicians who produce positive results. So in too many elections, most residents just don't bother to vote at all.

Last week's Moscone Center legislators' conference was held in ordinary, trade-show format, with an important difference: The exhibition concourse -- where electronics peddlers and food vendors would ordinarily set up stands -- was filled with booths staffed by lobbyists. Hundreds of politicians and their aides attended symposiums during the morning, lunched at noon, and gathered trinkets from the Outdoor Advertising Association and Pfizer Inc. during the afternoon. This sort of political geography -- where the influencers and the influential are right out in public, so the peddling can be observed firsthand -- is hardly unique to the Moscone Center, or even to California politics. But full-service, cash-and-carry politics has achieved its greatest expression in California, thanks, in part, to the legacy of an early-century rabble-rouser who left an outsize mark on the state.

It's time to erase Hiram Johnson's legacy, and change the state constitution to eliminate provisions for recall, referendum, and ballot initiatives. Then, perhaps the next time Ghanaians come to California curious about how to properly run a democratic political system, they may have an opportunity to learn something.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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