Friday, March 13, 2009

Remembering the Recall: What Didn't Change

On October 5, 2003, Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria C. Duffy wrote the following article for the San Francisco Chronicle. The topic was the state's special election to recall Governor Grey Davis. Her comments about the structural problems inherent in the state's governance system regardless of the governor, have proven prescient.

Recall symptomatic of political ills/Recall the system
By Gloria C. Duffy

Those who back the recall election in California do so with understandable
frustration at the magnitude of unsolved problems our state faces. But the
risk is high that if we simply change the occupant of the governor's
office, it will be a change without a difference for the challenges we

Our basic problem in California is our inability to address effectively
the serious issues confronting us -- the budget crisis, transportation,
immigration, housing, environmental protection, job creation, the energy
crisis, health care and the deterioration of our educational system and
our parks -- because our decision-making is hamstrung by a statewide
system. Changing the way any elected governor or other state officials
operate is highly unlikely until we address the flaws in our system. Most
seriously, campaign financing is out of control in California. The last
governor's race cost $130 million. Only candidates who are personally
wealthy or spend most of their time raising money can achieve statewide
office in California. An elected official makes decisions about thousands
of issues every year, virtually all of which touch the interests of groups
that are past or prospective contributors. This requires public officials
to walk extremely narrow lines between legitimate decisions and ethically
questionable ones, and to shun hard decisions that might affect a certain
sector -- say the utilities or unions -- because they know they will need
to raise money from them in the future.

Through redistricting, Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature
have created safe legislative districts that favor incumbents. This has
excluded would-be challengers to inadequate representatives and formed
strangely shaped districts that have little in common other than voters
who habitually make the same party choice. Term limits for legislators
were well intentioned, but they have resulted in elected officials who
have little time to accomplish goals or obtain seniority and are always
positioning themselves for the next office, to the detriment of doing
their legislative job effectively. The joke going around is that a
first-term assembly member is a freshman, a second-termer is a speaker,
and a third-termer is senator-elect.

The initiative process, created by Progressive reformers a century ago,
was meant to be the citizens' method of direct legislation. But it has
turned into a huge money operation, where many initiatives are backed and
opposed by special-interest groups who pay large amounts of money to
professional signature collectors to gather the support necessary, and
engage in often misleading advertising about what the initiative is and
what its impact will be. The voters are left trying to guess what it's all

The primary system promotes those who are at the extremes of both parties
-- liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans can most successfully
navigate the state primaries because interest groups at the extremes
support candidates in the primaries. When those elected collide in the
state Legislature, not much gets done because there is little overlapping
framework of common philosophy or desire to cooperate. The requirement of
a two-thirds majority in the California legislature to pass a state budget
also makes efficient decision-making very difficult. Many states require a
simple majority.

Largely because of voters' cynicism about their ability to have any impact
on this system, we experience extremely low voter participation in
California, around 30 percent in recent elections, which magnifies all
these problems by essentially removing the citizenry from the governing
process. An inattentive citizenry, uninvolved in the governance process,
gives rise to a system and elected officials who do not serve their needs
-- witness the popularity of the recall.

Abuses by political consultants and lobbyists are rampant. Richie Ross,
the king of negative campaigning, is reputed to refuse to work for
candidates unless they endorse all the other candidates for whom he is
working. As reported recently by The Chronicle, Ross combines campaign
consulting with lobbying, allowing him to get a candidate elected and then
have that person's ear to lobby for his clients. As the wheeler-dealer
behind Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's campaign, Ross engineered the donations
from Indian casinos, which he also represents as a lobbyist. And one
wonders whose strategy it was to put this money into anti-Prop. 54 ads,
enabling Bustamante not to return most of the contributions after a judge
ruled them illegal?

In sum, in California we have a system of governance that is not fair, not
accessible to citizens, not clean and in which the public has thus lost
confidence. This is a problem that won't be solved by a recall election.

One hundred years ago, Progressive reformers in California organized to
help citizens take back state government from what they perceived to be
corrupt officials. Led by Gov. Hiram Johnson, they instituted the
initiative process and the recall, as well as other wide-reaching reforms
of state and local institutions. The Commonwealth Club is proud to have
been a vehicle for debate and pursuit of these reforms. It is time for a
new reform agenda in California, removed from the personalities and
short-term debates of the current recall episode. The reforms of the early
20th century need to be re- examined for their current effect, and many
new issues, such as the impact of private money on statewide elections,
must be addressed. California's problems are not unique, but they are a
bellwether for those in other states and on the national scene. If we
address these issues here, California will once again provide its
leadership to the nation as a whole.

Gloria C. Duffy is CEO of the Commonwealth Club of California.


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