By Steven Greenhut | If voters had second thoughts about bouncing California state Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) from office in a high-profile recall election held during the June 5 primary, his self-centered stem winder on the Senate floor should disabuse them of any such regrets. I was left humming the chorus from a 1980s rock song: “Don’t go away mad, but just go away.” It wasn’t the classiest way to end a short and undistinguished legislative career, but at least it’s over.
“It saddens me colleagues, Republican colleagues, that despite all your nice sotto voce words, not a single one of you had the integrity, the decency or the courage to stand up and say … this is wrong, this is an abuse of the recall process,” Newman said, comparing the recall to a “crazy dream.” He complained that some colleagues sat “idly by” while others “actively abetted” the recall. “Getting someone recalled, getting someone thrown out of their job, getting somebody like me who only wanted to serve, expelled—it’s pretty personal.”
His words were highfalutin—the Italian phrase for “under the voice” was fairly sophisticated for a Senate floor speech—but his arguments fall apart upon examination. For starters, there isn’t anything wrong or abusive about recalling a politician because of his vote. The recall process, like the initiative and referendum processes, have long been a part of the California Constitution, dating back to Progressive Era reforms advocated by Gov. Hiram Johnson.
The state Constitution’s recall provision places procedural limits on how to recall elected officials, but it places no limits on the rationale for doing so. As the California Secretary of State’s Office explains in its guide to recalling sitting politicians, “Recall is the power of the voters to remove elected officials before their terms expire. It has been a fundamental part of our governmental system since 1911 and has been used by voters to express their dissatisfaction with their elected representatives.”
Voters clearly were dissatisfied with Newman, judging by the margin that removed him from office. Activists on both sides of the fracas figured it would be close. But the final tally had voters from Senate District 29, encompassing parts of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, rebuking Newman by a nearly 59 percent to 41 percent. They also overwhelmingly chose Republican Ling Ling Chang of Diamond Bar to replace him.
Despite claims by the Democratic majority, which went all in to save a seat that gave them a Senate supermajority, there was nothing deceptive or unclear about the purpose of the recall. Newman cast a deciding vote in favor of a much-maligned and dramatic increase in gasoline taxes and the vehicle-license fee. “Recall is the ultimate device of accountability between elections,” said Carl DeMaio, the former San Diego councilman and radio host who led the effort. It was the “perfect weapon” to use in this case, he added, because the tax increases went into effect in April and voters were able to quickly communicate dissatisfaction with his vote.
Obviously, many other senators—including termed-out Republican Anthony Cannella from the Central Valley—voted in favor of the tax hike. But DeMaio and other recall backers were clear that they were implementing the “gazelle strategy.” Lions can’t take out the entire herd of gazelles, but they could pick off the weakest one. “This is a win for those in California who have lost hope,” DeMaio noted. His forces are now focused on qualifying a measure for the November ballot that would directly repeal the taxes that Newman helped pass.
The fictional Chicago character Mr. Dooley would say, from the comfort of an Irish pub, that “Sure, politics ain’t beanbag. Tis a man’s game, an’ women, childer, cripples an’ prohybitionists’d do well to keep out iv it.” Ignore the offensive and politically incorrect language, given that Dooley was the creation of writer Finley Peter Dunne in 1895. But the phrase was meant to say that political battles are really painful, unlike a harmless game of beanbag.
I’d be more sympathetic to the bruises that Newman endured had his Democratic cohorts not played such electoral hardball to help him. They passed a law that stretched out the time frame for a recall election by months in an obvious effort to rig the rules after the fact to benefit Newman. This law, which is being challenged in the courts, forces all recall votes onto regularly scheduled ballots and undermines this constitutional check and balance.
Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) defended the law because he didn’t think the recall’s focus on stopping the gas tax was “transparent and honest.” But it’s a crass form of politics to tinker with election rules because you don’t like the arguments the other side is making.At least Democratic failed efforts to protect this seat remind us that Newman’s parting words were little more than post-election blather.
This column first appeared in the Orange County Register and subsequently on the Reason magazine website .