The recall campaign aimed at forcing Democrat Josh Newman out of the state Senate has become a hot mess that mirrors Washington’s toxic politics.
The Republicans who want to oust Newman from his Orange County-centered Senate district and the Capitol’s dominant Democrats who want to save his seat would destabilize California’s politics, with consequences that could reverberate for decades, in their pursuit of momentary political advantage.
Newman came out of nowhere last year to capture the Senate seat that had been in Republican hands for decades, overcoming both the anointed Democratic candidate and a Republican assemblywoman who had been tabbed by her party.
He won fair and square but by winning, he gave Democrats 27 seats – a two-thirds supermajority – in the Senate. And when he voted for an unpopular package of taxes and fees for transportation improvements, Republicans saw an opening and launched the recall.
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The recall drive is the Republican contribution to the bipartisan political malpractice. Officials should face recalls only when they’ve done something grossly wrong, not just because partisan opponents want their jobs. It’s evident, too, that petition circulators are making very misleading statements – promising the recall would overturn the transportation taxes, for example – as they ask voters to sign.
Newman is just one of 27 senators who voted for the taxes, and one was a Republican. But he was singled out because his narrow win in a traditionally Republican district made him the most vulnerable target.
Newman’s fellow Democrats, however, are contributing their share of overreach to the situation. Last week, they inserted into a budget “trailer bill” some changes in the law governing recall elections that would allow recall petition signers to recant and force an election on Newman to be consolidated with the November 2018 statewide election, rather than be a special election.
The low voter turnout of a special election would likely make the recall more likely, while the higher turnout of regular statewide election would help him retain his seat.
The measure, Senate Bill 96, was passed on party-line votes in both houses last Thursday with Democrats trying to portray it as a good government reform and Republicans complaining that it was making a last-minute change in election law to help one politician keep his seat.
It’s not the first time that Democrats have changed election law to change an outcome. They’ve done it a couple of times in recent years to affect pending ballot measures.
Changing the rules of the game to affect the final outcome is a dangerous practice that weakens self-government and breeds cynicism. It’s what banana republic despots do to maintain their power, and with each episode, it becomes more acceptable conduct.
However, misusing the recall for blatantly partisan purposes is equally damaging. It’s the political equivalent to the loathsome practice of filing frivolous lawsuits in hopes of forcing their targets to pay hush money.
Finally and most importantly, these corrosive and petty political games undermine California’s need for responsible and responsive policymaking – such as, ironically, the unpopular but necessary taxes to fix our dilapidated roadways.
Both parties should be ashamed of themselves.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/articles/author/dan-walters. Dan Walters: email@example.com