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Political Analysis: Recall Elections


The effort to recall Oceanside City Councilman Jerry Kern failed decisively last week. KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner examines the success and failure of recent recall elections in San Diego and across California.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Last week, voters in Oceanside resoundingly thumped an attempt to recall City Councilman Jerry Kern. He won support from 63% of the people who cast ballots. The recall election reportedly cost the City of Oceanside about a half a million dollars. Are recall elections a good idea? When can a politician be recalled? And does the outcome justify the effort? KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner is here to explore a bit of the history of recall elections in California and especially here in San Diego. Welcome, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Well, welcome to you, Maureen. I loved listening to that first hour. It was great.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Well, first off, as I started off, tell us a little bit more about this recent recall attempt in Oceanside. Who started this movement to recall Jerry Kern?

PENNER: Well, I’m going to tell you that in a moment but I want to digress and I want to say that this is exciting. Recalls are exciting. The initiative, the referendum, the direct primary, and the recall election, they were major electoral reforms that were advocated by the leaders of the progressive movement in this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is the people speaking.


PENNER: And so that’s the reason recalls are great. Well, the people in Oceanside did speak. First of all, the unions had organized and they financed the recall effort, and they hoped to tip the balance of power on the Oceanside City Council. And when a new contract for Oceanside firefighters – Right now, the balance of power is like this; pro-growth and development has three council members, Councilmember Kern, Chavez and Feller. And then those who are considered pro-union, there are two of them, Wood and Sanchez. And so if Kern were recalled and they brought in a pro-union person to take his place, that would tip the balance, but they lost.

CAVANAUGH: And one of the crazy things I think that might occur to people is that Kern is up for reelection only next year. So why did they have a recall election now?

PENNER: Well, that’s true and it really does have to do with the timing for – that was crucial for labor. Oceanside’s contracts with its firefighters and police officers associations expire this month, actually. And the unions fervently hoped to install a friendly voice, a man named Chuck Lowery, a liberal, who lost his 2008 council bid. The stakes were even higher because Councilman Rocky Chavez has been tapped by Governor Schwarzenegger to leave city hall this month for a new position as the State Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs. So what you have here is his empty seat. So his seat could be filled by the remaining council members, and labor hoped to leverage Lowery’s vote, if Lowery replaced Kern, to pick up Chavez’s seat as well, handing the unions virtual control over the city.

CAVANAUGH: Well, okay, now that makes more sense. So what is the criteria, if there is any, for a recall? Does a politician have to do something bad or unethical?

PENNER: Well, as I said, recall is the power of the voters to remove elected officials before their terms expire. And it’s been a fundamental part of our government for a long time but it does differ in different states. For example, in Minnesota, you have to have serious malfeasance or nonfeasance during the term of office, or conviction during the term of office of a serious crime. But California’s constitution is different; it doesn’t specify that elected officials can only be recalled for illegal acts. By law, the proponents simply have to state the reason for recall and that could presumably be simply that the official is doing a poor job. So the recall provision is not limited to the demonstrably corrupt or the impeachable. California’s recall provision makes it possible to remove politicians who are deemed dishonest, incapable, incompetent, unrepresentative, unresponsive, unsatisfactory, wasteful, you have it.

CAVANAUGH: And are recalls often, then, politically motivated?

PENNER: Well, candidates are elected for a wide variety of reasons, I’m going to start with that, including very often reasons that bear very little relationship to their ability to perform their public duties. The premise of the recall is that if people can be elected for non-job related reasons, they can also be removed for a variety of reasons. Truly, there’s no denying that the recall is a relatively crude instrument that could be used abusively and has been in the past, however, evidence from California suggests that voters are able to see through most unsubstantiated, partisan recall campaigns. And, interestingly enough, some studies have shown that the recall has been proven ideologically neutral, that liberal groups attempt to recall conservative politicians about as often as conservative groups go after liberals. You know what it does? It provides kind of a safety valve for intense grassroots sentiment. The Jefferson premise, Thomas Jefferson’s premise is that occasional popular protest, properly vented, can improve the quality of government.

CAVANAUGH: And is the fundamental difference between impeachments and recalls the fact that the voters are involved in recalls?

PENNER: No, there’s a bigger difference than that. Impeachment is a formal process in which an elected official is accused of unlawful activity and that may or may not lead to removal from office. That’s the first of two stages. Impeachment doesn’t necessarily result in removal from office. Look at Bill Clinton.


PENNER: It’s only a legal statement of charges. It’s like an indictment in criminal law. An official who is impeached faces a second legislative vote which determines conviction; it could either be by the same body or by a different body. In the case of Bill Clinton, we had the House and we had the Senate. And that will determine conviction or failure to convict, and that requires, in some cases, in some states, a supermajority to convict.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner about recall elections. And I’m wondering, Gloria, how many recalls have there been in San Diego County in recent years?

PENNER: Well, I checked with the Registrar of Voters and only 30 local elected officials have been recalled since 1979. Another 16 officials, including city council, school board, and water board members and others, were retained in the recall elections. Now, on the city council level, there have been a total of eight attempts. This was the third council recall election in Oceanside since 1981. That year, Bill Bell and Ray Burgess were recalled. In 1991, Melba Bishop was – there was a recall attempt but she remained on the council. And since 1981, the only other city council recall elections in the county occurred in San Marcos in 1981 when three council members retained their seat. And in San Diego in 1991, when 5th District Councilman Linda Bernhardt was ousted.

CAVANAUGH: And I think that maybe people remember the high profile recall that happened out in Potrero just in 2007. It was all about whether or not to build a Blackwater facility out there.

PENNER: That’s right, and Blackwater eventually decided not to stay in Potrero but that decision came after a storm of public protest that culminated in a special recall election that replaced county officials who supported Blackwater’s bid. It was a recall election of the five planning group members who voted for the training camp. There was one day in October of 2007 when more than 200—in this little town of Potrero—anti-Blackwater and anti-war protestors marched to the gate of the proposed site. And, you know, the residents came out decidedly against Blackwater and in that recall they not only made a decision, they also really made a statement about their community.

CAVANAUGH: I think, of course, it’s got to be the biggest recall in California, that we can remember in California, it was the recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003. On what grounds – I mean, what was the reason given that he was recalled from office?

PENNER: Well, there was no crime, there was no malfeasance, the campaign against Gray Davis was launched by an organization called the People’s Advocate. It was an anti-tax organization headed by Ted Costa. He was the official proponent of the recall effort. The main charge against Gray Davis was that he had mismanaged the California economy. He created a budget deficit, they said, of over $30 billion. Right now it doesn’t feel very big, does it? And the need for large tax increases. Republican party activists supported the recall and there were other political parties that came in, the Libertarian Party, the American Independent Party, but the recall campaign was sort of – it was sort of limping along and then along came Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, our own Darrell Issa from San Diego. And he launched his own recall effort. He called it Rescue California. And he had a lot of money into it, about $1.6 million, and also he brought in some expert political strategists. They collected the signatures for the recall petition. They organized it on a professional basis. And the next thing you know, the recall took off.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I remember at the time it was speculated that Congressman Issa actually wanted to run for governor but he didn’t end up doing that. And why not?

PENNER: Well, he did come to national prominence as a result of funding that recall. And, you’re right, at that time he made the contribution it was believed that he intended to place himself on the ballot to replace Gray Davis. If you remember that ballot, it was huge. There were about 135 names of people…


PENNER: …who wanted to replace him, a wide variety of names, including one actor and he did get in.


PENNER: So once Arnold Schwarzenegger entered that race two days before the filing deadline, a tearful Darrell Issa announced he would not run. He later said that his mission had been accomplished since Gray Davis was recalled and he wanted to continue representing his district in Congress and work towards the middle (sic) peace. He did endorse Schwarzenegger, however, at one point in the campaign he actually suggested that people should vote against recalling Davis, against it, because he was worried that Schwarzenegger and fellow Republican Tom McClintock would split the votes and who would become the new governor, Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, who actually became lieutenant governor.

CAVANAUGH: Now do we know how much the Gray Davis recall cost California?

PENNER: We did. We did. I went down county by county, added it all up, it was added up for me, of course, but I took a good look at it and I would say between $55 million and $60 million dollars. That’s the cost to each county. San Diego County spent $3,774,955.00 on it. I wonder how the $55.00 got in there? And then there was the $11 million that the state had to spend to print and distribute the voter information pamphlet. It was expensive, and people are wondering whether it was worth it.

CAVANAUGH: Now, bringing it all back to this most recent election in Oceanside, can we learn anything from the results of what happened up in Oceanside about the popularity or the efficacy of recall elections?

PENNER: Well, we can learn a couple of things and I would say the first thing is that egregious behavior will encourage a successful recall, if somebody really has done some bad stuff. Enormous amounts of money might do it. That $1.6 million that Darrell Issa put into it really helped. But considering the odds, it’s a waste of time, effort and money. I’m sure that a half million dollars in cash-strapped Oceanside that they spent on the recall could’ve been used for a much-needed purpose but, you know, that’s democracy. It’s not always efficient but it’s ours.

CAVANAUGH: Democracy in action. Gloria, thank you so much for this.

PENNER: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Gloria Penner, KPBS political correspondent, host of KPBS Radio’s Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week on KPBS Television. You can check out her blog, Political Fix, at And you can post your comments online at Coming up, tips on holiday etiquette as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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