The Great Death-Defying California Recall
by Susan Shelley
Political accountability arrived early in California,
surprising the governor with his hair still in curlers and his hand still
in your pocket.
"I may be old-fashioned," Gray Davis told a crowd
at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West Los Angeles, "But I come from the
school where once an election is cast and someone is chosen to be the leader,
everyone gets behind that leader and does the people's business for the next
four years and then you have an opportunity to choose another leader."
The governor's plea for respect and deference was
answered by polls reporting that nearly sixty percent of the state's voters
were ready to recall him and forty-two percent wished he would just
Time magazine puzzled over why Californians
would spend $60 million to recall a governor "who has not committed any
malfeasance and whose major sin was hiding from them the seriousness of the
problems ahead when he was running for re-election."
It's a measure of the ethical rot in politics today
that Time magazine has to ask that question. Here is the answer.
Elections are a sham unless the voters are free to
make an informed choice.
A free choice means the voters have a meaningful
alternative and may vote for it without fear of retaliation. A dictator who
holds an election with one name on the ballot is not entitled to claim that
he is the elected leader of his country.
An informed choice means the voters have access to
information about the true state of affairs in their government and that
candidates say truthfully what they plan to do if elected. A governor who
runs for re-election by deliberately withholding facts from the voters, while
hiding an imminent tax increase up his sleeve, is not entitled to claim that
the voters have granted him consent to govern for the next four years.
Lies corrode the foundation of representative government.
Elections based on lies cannot be held up as the legitimate expression of
the will of the voters.
Sleepy Californians awakened just two months after
the November election to the news that their state government was unexpectedly
$35 billion in deficit. Suddenly there were cuts in school and health programs,
hikes in tuition and fees, a tripling of the car tax. There was talk of another
increase in the sales tax and of finding a way to raise property taxes.
Enraged voters of all political parties took advantage
of an obscure provision in the state constitution and signed recall petitions
with a speed and intensity that flummoxed longtime experts.
"I don't like this," Gray Davis told NBC's Today show.
It's "bad for democracy."
Apparently, at the old-fashioned school where the
governor studied democracy, he learned that it is the right of an elected
official to say what he has to say to get by the next election, then do what
he wants to do, then hide the truth from the voters and say what he has to
say to get by the next election.
He's not the only politician to graduate from that
The California recall election may turn out to be
the first in a series of continuing education seminars for public officials
all across the country. It's certainly a useful reminder that political power
belongs not to the people who hold it, but to the people who grant it.
August 16, 2003
© Copyright 2003
by Susan Shelley
Quotes from Gray Davis at the Simon Wiesenthal
Center and on the Today show: Sacramento Bee, August 12, 2003
("Davis calls recall an 'insult' in visit to Jewish center" by Laura
Quote from Time magazine: August 18,
2003 issue ("All that's missing is the popcorn" by Karen Tumulty and Terry
Poll numbers: The Field Poll, released Thursday,
August 14, 2003, as reported in the Sacramento Bee on August 15 ("Davis'
support plunges" by Gary Delsohn).