10 Years After California's Recall, Lessons Learned

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Now that San Diego Mayor Bob Filner plans to call it quits this Friday, “America’s Finest City” will hold a special election (sometime before the end of November) to determine his successor.

Rest assured, that election will be “special” in name only. Most of the Democratic and Republican names being bandied about fall into one of two categories: current officeholders or past officeholders. Barring the unforeseen, San Diegans won’t have the choice of a political outsider to help rejuvenate a city whose current leadership is uninspiring, to put it mildly.

In this regard, Filner may have done his constituents a disservice. Had he stayed on and opted to ride out the storm, the alternative was a citywide recall vote and a shot at a much more colorful ballot. All it would have required was 101,000 signatures, or an average of about 2,600 a day – a realistic target given the disgustingness alleged by Filner’s 18 accusers.

Ironically, San Diegan’s avoidance of a recall comes on the 10th anniversary of the mother of all such votes – California’s 2003 affair that gave the world Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The key dates in that process: the petition drive began on Feb. 3; signatures were turned in on July 23, with the election date set the following day; Schwarzenegger sent the contest into a tizzy with his surprise “Tonight Show” announcement on Aug. 6; the actual vote was Oct. 7 – 55% of the electorate voting to recall then-Gov. Gray Davis; on the second question, naming a replacement, 48.6% going with the movie strongman over the other 134 candidates on the ballot.

Surely you recall California’s recall misfits: pre-HuffPo Arianna Huffington, whose answers to California’s woes ran in one of two directions – slam Bush or slam Arnold; the porn starlet who wanted to tax breast implants; the pint-sized ex-child actor whose previous government experiencewas ruling a planet on “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”; and, of course, the watermelon-smashing comedian who wanted to use military helicopters to clear highway accidents.

As they like to say: only in California.

Ten years after the series of event that triggered Schwarzenegger’s quick ascent to the top job in California politics, there’s the question as to the recall election’s lasting effects. My choices:

Window Open, Window Closed. At the time of his first inaugural (Nov. 17, 2003) Arnold Schwarzenegger was the most feared man in Sacramento. He’d run laps around the recall field and would soon make good on campaign promises (repealing the tripling of the state’s vehicle license fee; forcing along worker’s compensation reform). Given his charisma and campaign savvy, Democrats feared a grand fight with Governator over his vow to “blow up the boxes” – i.e., streamline government. However, that fight didn’t come right away. And Schwarzenegger missed a window of opportunity to muscle the Legislature into an ambitious fix to the state’s budget woes. A year later, in the November 2004 election, Schwarzenegger failed to get Republican legislative candidates elected to office. So much for Democrats fearing him. A year after that, he was routed in a special election that pitted his Republican ideas (spending cap, teacher tenure) against California’s liberal special interests (plus Warren Beatty). Schwarzenegger would leave office failing to achieve any significant reform of the state’s ongoing fiscal problems. A decade after the recall, the Golden State is still a shaky landscape of hidden obligations, a “wall of debt” and ever growing spending programs dependent upon unreliable revenue streams. Schwarzenegger’s not entirely to blame, but his was the only real chance to do something dramatically different.

The Oracle of Omaha. There was no missing Warren Buffett in the 2012 presidential election. The billionaire investor raised money for the Obama campaign; he was the President’s security blanket in justifying higher taxes on high-income earners – aka, “The Buffett Rule”. It wasn’t the first time Buffett was a campaign storyline. A decade earlier, in the California recall, Buffett was speaking his mind on taxes – much to Schwarzenegger’s chagrin. Though he was an economic council co-chair on Arnold’s campaign (the other co-chair: Hoover’s own George Shultz), Buffett went off the reservation by telling reporters that California’s property taxes were too low. Schwarzenegger tried to laugh off the controversy by saying he hold Buffett that he’d have to do 500 push-ups the next time he waded into property taxes and the political third rail that is California’s Proposition 13. A decade later, Buffett’s still driving conservatives crazy when it comes to tax fairness.

End of the Pete Wilson Era. Wilson, arguably San Diego’s last stellar mayor, left that job after defeating Jerry Brown in California’s 1982 U.S. Senate race. He was re-elected in 1988, then won two gubernatorial contests in 1990 and 1994. Schwarzenegger’s recall campaign and early administration loosely resembled a third Wilson term. Bob White, Wilson’s longtime chief of staff, kept an eye on the recall machinery. Patricia Clarey, a Wilson deputy chief of staff, became Arnold’s first chief of staff. Sean Walsh, Wilson’s spokesman, served in the same capacity during the recall. Joe Rodota, a Wilson cabinet secretary, ran the recall policy shop informally known as “Schwarzenegger University”. As he evolved as a governor, trading in his more traditional Republican roots for a “post-partisanship” coif, Schwarzenegger turned his back on the Wilson world of policy and campaign advice. Should a Republican get elected governor in this decade, it will be with a different brain trust – yet another challenge for the state GOP, in addition to finding an appealing candidate and building a reliable campaign apparatus.

The Republican Effect. The recall drew the nation’s spotlight; it failed to cast California Republicans in a better light. In 2002, Republicans accounted for 35% of California’s registered voters, 9% less than Democrats. In 2012, the GOP total was only 29.3%, while the Democratic portion was only 0.3% less than a decade earlier – a difference of nearly 15%. Other than Schwarzenegger, only one Republican has won statewide office in California since the recall – Steve Poizner, elected Insurance Commissioner in 2006.  Rather than giving the party new life, the recall soon gave way to a public spat between the restyled Schwarzenegger and tradition-bound conservatives – a rift that Arnold himself acknowledges. A decade after the recall, California’s GOP finds itself where it was before the political earthquake: looking at a long road to a comeback.

The Democratic Effect. What if the recall never had occurred and Gray Davis completed his second term in 2006? My guess: the same two principles still face off in the 2006 governor’s race: Schwarzenegger and State Treasurer Phil Angelides (assuming Arnold survives the conservative primary gauntlet – something he avoided in the 60-day recall run). As the state hasn’t chucked a first-term government since 1942, the 2006 winner likely would have been re-elected in 2010 and termed-out next year. Would Meg Whitman have chosen 2014 to run? As for the Democrats in play, Jerry Brown likely gets passed over for a younger Democrat – say, Gavin Newsom. Instead, Newsom and a younger generation of aspiring Democrats have to bide their time until the next big opening in 2016 or 2018. By changing the natural order in Sacramento, the recall affected the natural progression of the state’s Democratic power structure – its leader getting older, not younger.

In 2003, Californians put their trust in a charismatic figure long on biography but short on policy accomplishments – a figure that didn’t live up to the hype. Five years later, in a national election, along came another charismatic figure more biographical than substantive. Again, there was a failure to deliver the goods.

Such is the California recall’s gift to an American electorate always looking for short cuts and candidates too good to be true: beware of hype – and hope.

Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen