July 10, 2003
Recall Tarnishes Golden State’s Shine
California has always been a land of hope and opportunity. From the Gold Rush forward, our state has been a magnet for visionaries, entrepreneurs and dreamers. Across the world, California has become a beacon of prosperity, known from Timbuktu to Tel Aviv for constantly challenging the status quo and pushing forward, a pathfinder into the future for other states and nations.
Now, the attempt to recall Gov. Gray Davis from office has tarnished the shine of the Golden State. The people of California are angry and frustrated with their government and their governor, but a recall, with all of its disastrous unintended consequences, is not the answer.
Already, the threat of recall has stalled budget negotiations, imperiled the state's credit rating and made California a keyword for dysfunctional government. Even worse, a successful recall could undermine the very foundations of democracy and plunge the state into political chaos.
A keystone protection against tyranny -- enshrined in Supreme Court decisions by Justice Felix Frankfurter -- is that the adherence to the results of our electoral process is essential, if representative government is to thrive and individual rights are to be protected.
We have reaped great benefits from this idea, once rare in the world: Officials who lose bids for reelection do not impose martial law; we do not take to the streets if our candidates lose, and even after close elections with endless Florida recounts, we close ranks and come together as a nation. We respect the shared institution of government and so ensure the stability and order that an always-fragile democracy needs to survive.
Whatever his faults, Davis indisputably won his bid for reelection and has committed no gross malfeasance to justify his removal. Individuals unhappy with that election's results seek to use the frustration of voters to call for round two of the November 2002 election and to ignore the validity of our process, in order to seize immediate political gains. By doing this, they seek to undermine the bedrock of the social contract that binds together our democratic society.
Allowing this recall to succeed would set a frightening precedent: that in California, the loud voices of a few, fueled by the dollars of even fewer, can drown out the considered choice of the many for no reason other than dissatisfaction with the results of an election not even a year old.
Furthermore, if the recall succeeds, a new governor could be elected with 10 percent or less of the vote. What are the implications for democracy if 10 percent of voters can replace a duly elected public official?
Keep in mind that in such a case, 90 percent of voters will have voted against the new governor and might very well immediately launch a new recall campaign. What then? Will California fall into a chaotic series of recall campaigns, in which we oust the governor with a replacement selected by 10 percent of the people every time voters feel the pain of a recession?
If recalling Davis is the wrong way to address the justified concerns of voters that our state is headed in the wrong direction, what is the proper response? There can be no doubt that California is a state with many challenges: the electrical crisis and a painful recession and challenges that are perpetually with us -- improving public education, guaranteeing equal opportunity for all Californians and maintaining a just and responsive government.
I believe that the same crises that have sparked the recall campaign present a very real opportunity for us to build a foundation for California's future. We have been presented with challenges that highlight the weaknesses of our government -- the disconnect between state and local governments, the tangled mess of government finances, the inability of local governments to address the problems of their communities -- and being confronted with its flaws, we can reform and repair our government.
I am working with leaders across the state to craft a solution to the structural problems that plague California in the hope that now in our hour of crisis, voters will realize that we must finally implement structural reforms to ensure that California will remain a land of hope and opportunity.
Recalling Davis undermines the heart of our democratic system. Working for real reform strengthens that system and moves us forward toward making California a better place to live. Our state is confronted by many serious problems, but reform -- not recall -- is the answer.
Bob Hertzberg is a former state Assembly speaker.