The Davis Recall - An Assault on California's Political Class

by Tony Quinn
July 1, 2003
The recall of Gov. Gray Davis is about far more than Gov. Davis. It is an assault on the whole political class in California by an electorate in a very bad mood. Voters have concluded that the electoral process has become a private affair of incumbents, their campaign consultants, and the various interest groups that fund these endeavors, and they don’t like it one bit.

That’s clear from a number of factors, including recent surveys that show the California legislature even more unpopular than Gov. Davis.

Much as Davis wants to make the recall election a left verses right battle – which he might win – in fact, California voters have not gone off into right-wing gaga land. They have focused a general disgust with politicians on the governor who is, after all the personification of the political class.

Californians are upset because they do not believe they have any choice in their politics. The refrain that still echoes from the 2002 gubernatorial election is how lousy the choice was. The people expressed their anger by staying home. The 2002 turnout percentage was the lowest for a governor’s race in California history.

Why should people vote when there are so few meaningful elections? California has 53 members of Congress, the largest delegation in the nation’s history. In the last election, just one seat – that of scandal ridden Rep. Gary Condit – was seriously contested. Only one of the 20 State Senate districts up for election had a serious contest. In the San Francisco Bay Area, only the eastern Contra Costa Assembly seat had a serious November race. Throughout the state there were just a handful of hot general election contests.

We have so few competitive seats because the Sacramento politicians gerrymandered the legislative and congressional districts in 2001 to make them safe for all incumbents. There are almost no contests and thus little reason for people to bother going to the polls. This gerrymander was bipartisan with Democrats and Republicans Berlin Walling California into safe Democratic districts and safe Republican ones.

Redistricting is invariably the political class taking care of its own. In this case Democrats and Republicans got together to cut the voters out, and then worked together to defend their handwork against several legal assaults.

Legislative and congressional elections are decided in the primary, and since it is now in March rather than June as was traditional, fewer voters participate in the primary. The 2002 election was the historic low for primary participation.

In 1998 and 2000, the primary was opened to all voters, but then thanks to a court decision in a case brought by the two political parties, it was closed to all but party registrants for 2002 and beyond. Again the political class did what it could to reduce choice and participation in the primary – the only election that counts. And like gerrymandering, opposition to opening the primary process was bipartisan with both parties working together to kill a reform passed by 60 percent of Californians.

There is a universal frustration with the closed political process from surprisingly diverse groups. Business leaders complain that they cannot get a fair hearing in Sacramento because labor has a stranglehold on the politicians; consumer groups complain that the politicians are in the pocket to moneyed interests. They are both right.

Interestingly, their frustration is the same as that of the public at large; a feeling that democracy is missing from California’s democracy. Gray Davis represents a tip of the iceberg, he is the visible manifestation of a much deeper malaise among voters that has now turned to deep cynicism about the whole political process.

The danger to Davis is in the non-ideological nature of this cynicism. As the drive to qualify the recall hit critical mass, organizers found that 39 percent of petition signers were Democrats. Statewide surveys shows that the recall is driven by practical concerns; more than 60 percent in the Los Angeles Times survey said it was proper to recall a governor because he had not well managed the state. By 74 to 16 percent, voters disapprove of Davis’ handling of the state’s fiscal crisis.

Voters once overlooked their lack of say in politics; participation in elections has been declining for many years. But now it is hitting them in the pocketbook where it hurts. Voters understand the fiscal crisis – either taxes will go up (and they have since the car tax increase is $4 billion hit), or vital services must be cut.

So now the perceived misdeeds of the political class really matter. Davis is vulnerable in this first ever recall of a governor not because of some rightward thrust among California’s electorate but because the recall gives voters a rare opportunity to vent a frustration that goes much deeper than unease with an unpopular governor.

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