The Josh Newman recall drive is one of those petty, self-serving political exercises that feed the public’s cynicism.
All of those involved – save, perhaps, Newman himself – should be ashamed of themselves for wasting the public’s time and money.
To recap: Democrat Newman very narrowly won an Orange County-centered state Senate seat last year, one that had been in Republican hands for as long as anyone can remember. After besting the Democratic Party’s preferred candidate in the June primary election, he edged a Republican assemblywoman, Ling Ling Chang, in the November runoff.
Newman’s win embarrassed Republicans and restored the two-thirds Democratic “supermajority” in the Senate. And after Newman voted to raise gasoline taxes for highway maintenance, the GOP launched a drive to recall him, assuming that a special election’s ultra-low voter turnout would make it difficult for Newman to survive.
His vote for the unpopular gas tax was the recall signature drive’s misleading rationale, alleging that he was the decisive factor in approval, even though it was the vote of one Republican senator that actually did the deed. Newman was singled out only because his win last year sealed the Democratic supermajority and his district’s conservative leanings would make him vulnerable.
In brief, Newman did nothing to warrant being recalled, but the Legislature’s majority Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown soon compounded the Republicans’ political malpractice.
They enacted some changes in political law to kneecap the recall petition signature drive and/or push a recall election into the regular 2018 election cycle, when voter turnout would be higher.
The Democrats also petitioned the Fair Political Practices Commission to change a long-standing rule that would limit the ability of Newman’s fellow officeholders to pump his recall defense fund full of money, citing an opinion from the Legislature’s own lawyer than the rule wrongly interpreted state law.
Even though the FPPC staff and its chairwoman, Jodi Remke, were leery about changing a rule to affect one pending election, the commission voted 3-1 in July to adopt the legislative lawyer’s version.
Later, however, The Sacramento Bee revealed that a lawyer for the Senate Democrats, Richard Rios, had communicated secretly with FPPC Commissioner Brian Hatch, a former firefighters union lobbyist. Their emails, released via a Public Records Act demand, implied that they were colluding to force a rule change over Remke’s opposition.
Thursday, after polite but pointed exchanges among commissioners and lawyers for the contending parties, the FPPC voted 3-1 to finalize the revised rule, thus allowing virtually unlimited financing for Newman’s defense – unless the courts intervene. Remke, in opposing the action, said it was “the wrong time and the wrong venue.”
Newman may need that extra money soon because earlier in the week, state Appellate Court Justice Vance Raye set aside the Legislature’s pro-Newman election law changes, pending a full hearing some months hence. If Raye’s order is not withdrawn or overturned, it likely means that the recall election will be held later this year, with a low turnout, since proponents have submitted enough signatures.
However, the Legislature also returns to the Capitol this week for the last month of the 2017 session and it’s entirely possible that Brown and his fellow Democrats will gin up some new scheme to tilt the election Newman’s way.
This is a hot mess of short-sighted political gamesmanship. A baseless recall and self-interested changes in political law undermine the integrity of the electoral system, making California seem more like a banana republic than its self-proclaimed status as global exemplar.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org