Protect the recall power from politicians

It is the richest of ironies that those who identify as progressives today bear no resemblance to the true progressives of the early 1900s, including California Gov. Hiram Johnson. In fact, so-called “progressives” today seek to tear down Johnson’s legacy of clean government and fighting special interests. This includes efforts to weaken the powers of direct democracy, which Johnson recognized as an indispensable tool to bypass an indolent, unresponsive, and corrupt political system.

The latest assault on direct democracy is brought to us by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Silicon Valley, and Senator Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, who are upset that California citizens launched a recall against Gov. Gavin Newsom. The fact that the recall failed — which one would assume would satisfy Newsom’s allies — is of little consequence to these politicians.

Berman and Glazer would be well-served by leaving their offices in the Capitol for an hour or two and wandering over to the California Museum to see the exhibit on Newsom’s predecessor by more than a century. This is what they would learn about Gov. Hiram Johnson: “Whether serving as an attorney, a California governor, or a United States senator, Hiram Warren Johnson placed principles solidly above politics. His progressive vision of a better society became the stepping-off point for California’s journey through the 20th century.”

Hiram Johnson’s biography includes the fact that in his first case as a prosecutor he secured a conviction in a prominent graft and bribery case, which established him as an anti-corruption champion. Less than two years after becoming the leader of the Progressive movement, he was elected governor in 1910 promising to confront special interests — especially the all-powerful railroads — and return political power back to the people. These progressive reforms led to a major revision of the state’s constitution in 1911.

The reforms advanced under Johnson’s leadership included the rights of direct democracy: initiative, referendum and recall which remain a powerful check against political elites and special interests who care little for the average taxpaying citizens of California.

In announcing last week their intention to weaken the power of recall, Berman and Glazer use the cost of the election as an excuse. According to Berman, “Californians are very frustrated that we just spent $276 million on this recall election that, from the looks of it, certified what voters said three years ago and what voters could have said next year.” It is doubtful that many voters are frustrated by such cost in a state that just wasted an estimated $30 billion dollars on fraudulent claims to the California Employment Development Department.

Moreover, the rejection of the recall can hardly be characterized as a ringing endorsement of Newsom’s policies when, rather than running on his own record, his campaign was focused on a rejection of former President Donald Trump, who remains wildly unpopular in California even though he no longer holds public office.

The original Progressive movement was designed to break the stranglehold that Southern Pacific Company had on the state capital. Today the names of the special interests may have changed but they remain as powerful as the railroads ever were. Public sector unions, high-tech billionaires and Hollywood corporate interests provided the lion’s share of more than $100 million in campaign contributions to ensure Newsom’s victory. But these are the same sort of powerful interests that Hiram Johnson recognized could skew the balance of power in their own favor to the detriment of the middle class.

In any event, in their attempt to weaken or eliminate the power of recall, these politicians will run into strong headwinds. First, although Californians are sometimes frustrated with the number and complexity of initiatives, the tools of direct democracy remain consistently popular. A Public Policy Institute of California poll in 2020 revealed that 60% of Californians are satisfied with the process. Second, it is possible to believe that this recall effort was ill-advised while also desiring to retain this tool in the arsenal of weapons to check concentrated political power. Third, while Berman and Glazer say they want this effort to be bipartisan, let’s be serious. For years, Democrats have been manipulating election rules governing direct democracy in an effort to game the system.

Voters are aware that political elites abhor direct democracy because it allows the great unwashed and unsophisticated to deal with matters such as taxation, victims’ rights, insurance and, most importantly, political reform. These are issues over which politicians strongly desire to exercise a legislative monopoly.

President Theodore Roosevelt, in his “Charter of Democracy” speech to the 1912 Ohio constitutional convention, stated: “I believe in the Initiative and Referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative.”

In California, the political left has successfully consolidated political power through legislation, executive action and a leftist judiciary to such an extent that that the rights advanced by Hiram Johnson and Teddy Roosevelt are more important now than they were 100 years ago. There is nothing that needs to be altered in our current right of recall.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.