California's recall fever harks back to Progressive Era

In the Golden State, the initiative process has long been used to launch populist causes.

The only-in-California spectacle of a recall campaign in which everyone but Wink Martindale is running would be impossible without the extraordinary powers of ordinary citizens in the Golden State. Here, where the recall was pioneered and the ballot initiative was perfected, angry voters don't just sit around and stew between elections. They pick up the phone and a clipboard.

It turns out that extreme democracy is as Californian as aromatherapy. "It's a society of individuals who believe that their voice matters," says M. Dane Waters, president of the nonpartisan Initiative & Referendum Institute in Leesburg, Va.

The seeds of this love affair with the ballot box were planted nearly a century ago, when the son of a dedicated railroad lawyer committed political patricide by taking on the most powerful industry in the state. Hiram Johnson, a progressive Republican, "ran for governor on the promise that he would smash the Southern Pacific machine, and he did so," says former San Diego-area congressman Lionel Van Deerlin.

In 1911, Johnson convinced voters to allow recalls of state officials, initiatives put forth by the people, and referendums placed on the ballot by legislators. "The idea is that it's harder to buy half the people in the state than half the legislature," says Jeffrey Lewis, assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Even now, the echoes of the 1910s still linger. "If you think about Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign, when he talked about special interests and how he'll clean house, that's a very progressive-sounding agenda," says Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor at the University of Southern California. "That's what direct democracy was designed to do. It would take government back from the special interests."

California's location helped boost the populist cause. It's no coincidence that all but four of the 18 states that allow recalls of governors are in the Midwest or West. "Leaders of the South were concerned that if direct democracy took hold, it would empower African-Americans. In New England and around New York, there was concern that the large immigrant population could take advantage of the initiative process," says Mr. Waters. "But out West, you didn't have these concerns."

After 1911, it didn't take long for the "initiative industrial complex" to create itself, says Daniel Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. As early as 1914, archives show that initiative campaigns paid people to gather signatures, he says.

The topics of ballot measures have run the gamut from cable television (banned in 1964 at the behest of theater owners) to senior-citizen subsidies (rejected twice in the 1930s). Voters supported the death penalty and rejected school busing in 1972, lowered property taxes by passing Proposition 13 in 1978, and supported curbs on affirmative action and services for illegal immigrants in the 1990s. But voters rejected a ban on gay teachers in 1978 and quarantines of AIDS patients in 1986 and 1988.

"I've contended that because of the unique California political climate, I can go out and qualify an initiative that would require everybody else to shoot themselves in the left foot," says political consultant Jack Orr. "Voters will say, 'I'll sign it, but ... I don't have to vote for it.' "

Recalls are a different matter, at least at the gubernatorial level. Only 32 have been launched, and the Davis effort is the first to reach the ballot. "It's not as if we go through this every time we go into a fever of anger about something," says Tom Hayden, a former state senator.

Outside statewide offices, however, recalls are anything but uncommon. Los Angeles, a founding father of the municipal recall, became the first US city to fire its mayor in 1938 after after a scandal over the bombing of a private investigator by a police captain. More recently, Sen. Dianne Feinstein had to beat back a recall vote during her tenure as mayor of San Francisco.

Within the past 12 years, Californian voters have kicked out three school-board members who supported the teaching of "creation science," an assemblyman who switched parties, and a city councilwoman who became snared in a redistricting battle, among others.

"The recall, just like the initiative process, is seen as this safety valve," says Professor Smith. "It's a kind of precautionary measure that can allow the people to speak even when it's not their proper time to speak [during regular elections]."

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