With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

When Have Recalls Succeeded in California?

In the 100 years since the recall was reintroduced to American politics, there have been thousands of recalls directed against local officials, ranging from mayors of Los Angeles to local school board members. In that time, there has been only a handful directed at state officials, nearly all against state legislators.

Different reasons have been suggested for this discrepancy. One California commission cited the fact that local officials are more likely to have an immediate effect on people's lives. Others cited partisanship: votes against local officials are less likely to have a partisan bent. Many local elections are nonpartisan and voters frequently subscribe to the words of Fiorello LaGuardia: "there is no Democrat or Republican way to pick up garbage." State officials, operating in the "laboratory of democracy," are more likely to have to vote on controversial policy and, not coincidentally, voters elect them along partisan lines. One political scientist said: "Signing a petition for recall is often more than repudiating a single state official - it is also a rejection of his or her party."

While the use of the recall has increased throughout the nation, California has had the most recalls of state officials of any state. Excepting the forthcoming Governor Gray Davis recall, in the ninety-two years since the state of California instituted the recall, seven state officials, all legislators, have faced recall votes, with four of the officials being tossed out of office. The first three recalls took place within the first three years after the recall was instituted in 1911; the final four within the last decade.

The first recall was uncomplicated. In January 1913, a successful recall was run against Senator Marshall Black, a progressive Republican from Santa Clara who was indicted (and later convicted) for embezzlement of funds. This recall is treated in the literature and the newspapers as a routine removal of a corrupt official.

A second recall, later in the same year, was somewhat more interesting, as it was not used against a corrupt politician. Rather, it was launched by an interest group against a senator due to his voting record. In what recall historians Fredrick Bird and Frances Ryan describe as a "test of the effectiveness of the recall against an unfaithful legislator" by the labor unions, Democratic Senator James Owen survived a recall vote by a comfortable margin. Owen had fought off a recall earlier in his career when he served as a councilman in Richmond.

The third recall, against progressive Democratic Senator Edwin E. Grant, was more complex than the other two. Here several motives were at work. The stated reason for the recall was failure to represent the views of the district. But the desire by a political machine to punish an errant senator is viewed as the real motivation, although another motive, a desire by a losing candidate to reverse an election, might have had a part as well.

In the 1912 senate election, Grant defeated incumbent Eddie Wolfe, one of the leaders of the San Francisco conservatives, by 95 votes. Not long afterwards, recall petitions began to circulate. According to progressive writers and newspapers, the recall was started due to Grant's opposition to "vice conditions" with his sponsoring of the Redlight Abatement Act. This earned him the enmity of the still-potent political machine in San Francisco. The petition circulated against Grant did not cite the Redlight Abatement Act, because, according to Bird and Ryan, "to recall a state senator for having opposed vice conditions did not seem possible even in San Francisco...." Rather it emphasized his votes on three bills, one of which would have prohibited the sale of liquor at the Panama-Pacific Exposition (votes in favor of prohibition could be considered an act of political suicide in "wet" San Francisco). In opposing the recall, Grant's supporters focused on whether the "forces of vice" would regain control, and also cited the cost of the "unnecessary expense" of the recall.

The Grant recall was clouded with controversy. Only on the third attempt, in 1914, was the recall finally able to get on the ballot. The man who declared his candidacy for the seat was former Senator Eddie Wolfe. Progressive reporter Franklin Hichborn claimed "some of those who were circulating petitions against Grant had stated the petition 'was to put Wolfe back in the Senate in place of Grant.'" This aspect of the recall, the reversal of an election verdict, is not discussed in depth in the writings on the Grant election. On October 8, 1914, by a 531 vote margin, Grant was recalled and Wolfe elected in his place. Progressives denounced the vote, but the Los Angeles Times, committed opponent to the progressive cause, rejoiced in Grant's defeat and wrongly predicted problems for the progressives and Governor Hiram Johnson in the upcoming election. Grant protested the election based on irregularities in the petitions, but the senate committee investigating the matter was treated with scorn by progressives. The recall of Grant and other uses of the direct democracy provisions by opponents of the progressives brought down calls for changes in the procedure. However, without specific guidelines on how to prevent these problems, the legislature stumbled to a solution. Eventually, the legislature settled for increasing the penalty for forging a name on a petition.

Grant's recall was the last one against a California state official for nearly 80 years. When the recall returned to the state political scene, it didn't take long before it worked its way back to center stage.

The fourth recall, in early 1994, did not garner tremendous attention. The supporters of the National Rifle Association launched a recall against Senator David Roberti, president pro tempore of the California senate, because of his leadership in enacting a semiautomatic assault weapons ban. Roberti, a Democrat who was being forced out of the senate due to term limits, and was running for state treasurer, triumphed by a wide margin. Commentators had a mixed impression of the recall's impact. Roberti had to spend $800,000 defending himself, and his campaign for state treasurer failed. However, others believe his campaign, where he was not the favorite, received a lift from the recall.

This Roberti recall was but a prelude for what the California Journal Weekly described as a "mania for recall elections." The impetus was a political earthquake: The election of 1994. The Republican Party scored across-the-board victories, the likes of which they had not seen in a generation. In addition to gaining control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954, the Republican Party retained the California governorship and succeeded in gaining a razor-thin 41-39 seat majority in the California assembly. The Republicans expected to elect the speaker, an enormously powerful position in the assembly, enabling them to topple their longtime Democratic nemesis, Speaker Willie Brown. However, due to the casting of one Republican vote for the Democratic candidate for speaker, the assembly was tied and eventually, through further political maneuvers, Willie Brown was reelected to the speakership

Republicans launched two recall drives, one against the Republican who voted for Brown, Paul Horcher, and the other against Democrat Michael Machado, who the Republicans claimed had promised to vote against Brown. The Horcher recall easily succeeded, while the recall against Machado failed by a wide margin. However, the Republicans troubles did not end there. In what the New York Times referred to as "a stunning display of political power," Brown succeeded in getting another Republican, Doris Allen, to switch, he had Allen elected speaker, and himself named speaker emeritus. Allen, not respected by either side, was quickly recalled and voted out of office. Before the recall of Allen took place, Allen gave up the speakership in favor of another Republican, Brian Setencich. The Republicans then managed to oust Setencich through parliamentary means and finally elect their new choice, Curt Pringle, as speaker.

From this limited evidence, it appears that the conditions that result in a successful recall are either a corrupt official, like Black, or some mix of partisan betrayal and a specific issue around which to rally the voters. The early recall of Owen and the recent recall of Roberti have shown that the recall would not be so easily available to interest groups as a means of control. Perhaps the Grant recall shows the last gasp of power of a turn of the century political machine. The last few recalls have seen the importance of political party loyalty fueled by voter indignation. As opposed to defeating a candidate in a general election, voters recall a candidate because they feel betrayed. By running as Republicans and then switching to support Brown, Allen and Horcher were seen as betraying the voters, who elected Republicans and reasonably expected their legislators to vote accordingly. On the other hand, in the unsuccessful recalls of both Machado and Roberti, they ran for office as Democrats, with their policy positions well known by election. With no great change, and no great betrayal, the voters rejected Machado and Roberti recalls. Whether the Davis recall will represent additional conditions for a successful recall or falls into this pattern will be up for speculation next week.