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A man holds up a sign at a rally against the recall at Culver City High School on September 4, 2021.(Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

California's Recall Reform, Now an Anti-Democratic Weapon Captured by the Right

Recall proponents recognize they can be more successful in the lower profile local elections, even in cities with liberal voting reputations like San Francisco where three School Board members are threatened, and a progressive city District Attorney is the next target after them.

Charles Idelson

Looking at the growing hijacking of California recalls by a loose array of the right—from Republican Party operatives to billionaires to proponents of privatizing schools to Trumpian militia groups—it almost defies historical memory to consider that the recall mechanism was adopted in California as an anti-corporate progressive reform.

Anti-democratic forces recognize they can more easily overcome a liberal to progressive electorate by throwing out elected officials through low turnout special recall elections.

In the late 1800s a broad movement took shape among workers, white and Black farmers, and allies in resistance to the unbridled, unregulated dominance of monopoly capitalists over the nation's economy and politics. Resurgent union militancy focused on the workplace, while reformers searched for populist political solutions.

In California the spotlight was on the political control and corruption of a powerful railroad monopoly. It took the California version of the national Progressive era movement to establish dramatic statewide change when Hiram Johnson and other anti-railroad activists won control of the state Republican Party.

In his inaugural address as Governor, Johnson asked "how best can we arm the people to protect themselves?" Their method, Johnson said, "adoption of the initiative, the referendum, and the recall." By a 3–1 margin, California voters in 1911 adopted all three, concurrently establishing women's suffrage, workers compensation, and other transformative changes. (Johnson, it should be noted, later served as a U.S. Senator during which time he was a proponent of the openly racist 1924 Immigration Act)

Similar Progressive era reforms were adopted nationally from direct election of Senators to limits on child labor to anti-trust laws and other corporate regulations.

A century later, that vision is in shambles. Aided in part by the rise of neo-liberalism policies and the disastrous 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision that shredded campaign finance rules and opened the floodgates to unlimited spending by the super rich and corporate interests through secretive "dark money" committees, the iron heel is largely in command of the political and electoral system.

Nationally, especially in Republican controlled states, the effects can be seen in the proliferation of voter suppression and other repressive laws.

In California, due to the growth of a diverse, multi-national population base and various political and cultural factors, Democrats dominate regular elections. But corporate lobbying still rules in Sacramento, and with ineffective limits on big money spending, corporations and their rightwing allies have largely captured the initiative and rarely used referendum process.

Seizing the use of recall elections is the latest ploy. In its first century after 1911, only five California elected officials were recalled, the most prominent Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 in part due to the presence of a famous celebrity, Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the ballot.

But with the right's frustration over how to win regular elections due to the state's demographic changes and political diversity, especially in the major cities, anti-democratic forces recognize they can more easily overcome a liberal to progressive electorate by throwing out elected officials through low turnout special recall elections where their enormous war chests can drown opposition.

An early successful model for the current recall wave was the 2018 recall of Democratic State Senator Josh Newman, funded by the state Republican Party, in a swing Southern California district.

Statewide their most prominent attempt was the push to recall Governor Newsom. It collapsed last September as labor and allies successfully exposed the far-right goals of the campaign and mobilized a high turnout.

But the pattern was further embellished. Big money donors, including wealthy investors and real estate tycoons, several tied to national Republican committees and former President Trump, funded the expensive signature campaign that qualified the recall for the ballot.

Recall billionaires target San Francisco

Recall proponents recognize they can be more successful in the lower profile local elections, even in cities with liberal voting reputations like San Francisco where three School Board members are threatened, and a progressive city District Attorney is the next target after them.

School board commissioners Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga are all scheduled to stand before voters in the next regular election in November. But exploiting the frustration of some parents, especially in wealthier neighborhoods, over the closure of schools during the pandemic, and divisions in the large Asian, especially Chinese, community, high roller Silicon Valley, charter school and real estate interests seized an opening to swoop in now. They poured some $2 million into a recall campaign that will be decided on February 15.

The biggest donor is a billionaire charter school supporter Arthur Rock who threw in nearly $400,000. Another big donor is venture capitalist David Sacks, who once wrote that diversity and multiculturalism on college campuses were hurting education, and last October hosted a San Francisco fundraiser for far-right Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' national ambitions.

Noting that the three commissioners are people of color (Black, Latinx and Pacific Islander), Latinx activists have pointed out that it was Black and Brown neighborhoods that were hit hardest by the pandemic and appreciated the support of the commissioners. "We had higher positivity rates, we had more people getting sick. You also have people with less access to resources, less access to housing, less access to unemployment benefits. Those were some of the things (they) were keeping in mind when they were cautious of reopening schools," educator Tara Ramos told El Tecolote.

I see this recall as an attack on our public schools, as institutions, as the ability to provide education for free," said community organizer Gabriel Medina. He linked it to similar privatization campaigns in schools nationwide by "venture capitalists and capital forces that want to be able to weaken our public schools and create room for themselves to create private and charter schools, where they can profit and invest."

Similar interests are funding the campaign against DA Chesa Boudin, headed for a June 7 vote.

A major donor is San Francisco hedge fund manager and charter school advocate William Oberndorf, who is also a big contributor to Mitch McConnell's political action committee. Venture capitalists and investment bankers have provided additional funds. School recall funder Sacks also contributed to an earlier Boudin recall effort.

The attack on Boudin mirrors similar right-wing obsession with liberal prosecutors in cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles and has garnered national attention from aligned media like Fox.

Boudin's transgression— working to end cash bail, curb the school to prison pipeline, sentencing reform, police accountability and restorative justice, all critical to tackling racial disparities in criminal justice and mass incarceration. "This is clearly about criminal justice reform," Boudin told the New York Times.

The Boudin recall effort also corresponds with the national Republican and right-wing strategy of making "crime" a cultural hook for pushing turnout in the 2022 midterm elections.

A militia backed recall in the north

Milking the recall has also been discovered by the most far right, insurrectionist crowd, including backing from members of a local armed militia in Shasta County on California's rural, northern border.

The push, heavily funded by the son of a Connecticut billionaire, successfully recalled the first of three recall targets on the board, county Board of Supervisors chair Leonard Moty, a mainstream Republican, former Redding police chief. He and two other board members were deemed not hostile enough to state pandemic safety measures.

Supporters told Moty they "didn't want to have their name out there because they are afraid." County employees not aiding the war on the board reportedly received death threats and had home addresses posted on line. Moty ally, Supervisor Mary Rickert said, "I'm a rancher. I'm not what I would consider liberal, not whatsoever." Nonetheless, she has received death threats.

"It's going to change the character of our county, much more alt-right," Moty told the San Francisco Chronicle, adding the new Board majority would be even supportive of "anarchists, extremists and white supremacists wanting to take over the county."

"We have to make politicians scared again," a local bar owner and militia member told a Los Angeles Times reporter. Or as another militia member told the Times, his group plans on "cleaning house." He thinks, the Times noted, the blueprint they've created has proved itself and could work anywhere."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Charles Idelson

Charles Idelson is the Communications Director for the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee.

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