California puts recall in the air

(Published August 25, 2003)


On Oct. 7, California voters will decide if Gov. Gray Davis is kicked out of office. If voters send Davis packing, it will be only the second time in 80 years that a governor has been recalled. The last occurred in North Dakota in the early 1920s against Gov. Lynn Joseph Fraiser for gross malfeasance and corruption in office.

Now, those longshot odds should calm the fears of elected officials in some 18 states and the District, which also allow recall initiatives. One could easily feel pretty cocky arguing that the California situation is an aberration. But if I were Mayor Anthony A. Williams, I would pay close attention to the election results.

According to a growing coalition of quiet but disgruntled citizens, not a small group of malcontents, Williams could be the next elected official to feel the recall wrath of angry citizens. And a few veteran political activists could garner the necessary signatures to force a vote on a recall initiative in the District. While the California situation seems complicated and reaffirms the state’s "kooky" moniker, the District’s recall law is less complicated and makes it much easier to organize in the District than in California.

Recall supporters in California turned in 1.65 million signatures to place the recall initiative on the ballot, with the bulk of the signatures coming from three southern counties. Two of the three, Orange and San Diego, are staunchly conservative, Republican areas of the state.

The Davis camp characterizes the recall effort as a right-wing Republican effort to wrest control of the governor’s mansion from Davis, who they argue won it fair and square. But many Californians – especially registered Democrats – are furious at Davis because the governor purportedly committed the cardinal sin of hiding the depths of the state’s fiscal crisis. Ironically, it sounds just like the kind of criticism Mayor Williams has endured, too, during the past year.

The District recall talk has been more than just idle chat. One of the recall proponents said there have been half a dozen meetings this summer, including two before the Davis recall effort was even news.

According to a Board of Elections official, there have been only four or five people angry enough with Williams since he became mayor in 1999 to make inquiries about the requirements for recalling the mayor. He characterized the majority of them as "not serious," though he said he believes one of the individuals was serious at the time and was surprised when that person dropped his effort.

D.C. law reacquires recall supporters to submit to the Board of Elections a list of reasons why citizens want to recall the mayor. The board then votes to approve the reasons or reject them. If approved, recall supporters need to obtain roughly 25,000 signatures of registered D.C. voters who support the recall effort.

If sufficient valid signatures were gathered, there would be a straight up or down vote on recalling the mayor – without the circus of a concurrent election to select a replacement, as is the case in California’s current recall effort. If approved, the mayor would be kicked out of office and the chairman of the D.C. City Council would temporarily become "acting mayor" until an election could be held to select a new mayor.

Recall supporters said they expect the mayor’s camp to begin a whispering campaign, invoking former mayor Marion Barry’s name as the next mayor if Williams is kicked out of office. But recall supporters call the Barry factor "bogus" because there are more than enough qualified people waiting in the wings to fill the mayor’s seat. Among possible replacements they name are council members Adrian Fenty, Carol Schwartz and Kevin Chavous or former U.S. attorney Eric Holder.

The District recall supporters say their group includes a mix of citizens – those who are critics of Williams on his handling of crime and education, early reformers who supported the Williams candidacy but have become disillusioned by the corruption in his administration, and those people who disliked Williams from the beginning. They have been working this summer on the document of particulars to submit to the elections board. At this point, the document’s theme, they say, is that Williams should be thrown out for an "intolerable level of graft and corruption" and the mayor’s "failure to fully fund the police, education and libraries and his disastrous approach to health care for the poor."

Davis and Williams, both Democrats, are now in the position of being deeply unpopular with Democratic voters and both have no loyal political base to work tirelessly to save them.

Rob Ritchie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, says he is not surprised by the Williams recall talk because "there is real discontent with Williams," though he doubts the discontent "has reached a citywide threshold."

While Ritchie says he expects a surge of "copycat recall efforts" this fall, he says Williams could take some comfort in the effort to recall Diane Feinstein. When Sen. Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco, disgruntled voters obtained a sufficient number of signatures to put a recall initiative on the ballot. In the end, roughly 15 percent voted to recall her and 85 percent said no.

"The level of malfeasance just wasn’t sufficient," Ritchie says. "Voters may support the right to have placed an issue before the voters, but it just doesn’t mean those same voters will go along with it."

If I were Williams, I wouldn’t rest too easy. Just think how embarrassing a recall effort would be in early January, with the District promoting national attention of its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Williams already matched Barry for making the District a national laughingstock last summer when comedians had a field day over forged celebrities’ signatures showing up on his re-election petitions, which came up short and kept his name off the Democratic primary ballot.

Of course, if I were Williams, I wouldn’t have gone to Hawaii during the dog days of August. I would be trying to engage citizens at picnics and pools about what their vision is for the city – and this time really listen to what citizens have to say. Then, just maybe, the recall talk would die.


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Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator