Putting democracy up for sale

SAN FRANCISCO — SAN FRANCISCO - In his grave just outside San Francisco, not far from a Pacific beach, Hiram Johnson must be spinning.

A founder of modern California, Johnson served the state as a U.S. senator for nearly three decades. But it was as governor that he left his greatest mark, starting a chain of events, almost a century ago, that has sunk the Golden State into what may be the worst crisis in its history.


Johnson crusaded against the excessive power of big business - specifically, the Southern Pacific Railroad, which controlled the state's government - and succeeded in gaining voters the right to remove corrupt officials through recall elections. This fall, using the tool that Johnson gave them, the citizens of America's most populous state, with an economy larger than that of all but a handful of nations, will decide whether to fire Gov. Gray Davis, whom they re-elected only nine months ago.

California's special election is a novelty. (The only other governor to face a recall vote was North Dakota's Lynn Frazier, in 1921; he was removed from office but the next year won election to the Senate, where he served until 1940.) The state's vote figures to be the most entertaining campaign of the year, with or without actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a candidate. It will, as someone said, be nasty, brutish and short, with an ending that has yet to be dreamed up.


What seems obvious already is that the spectacle unfolding on the West Coast isn't exactly what Johnson and his fellow Progressive reformers had in mind when they put the recall power into voters' hands.

Teddy Roosevelt, addressing the 1912 Progressive Party convention, argued forcefully for direct democracy - the right of citizens to enact laws through ballot initiatives, overrule unpopular actions of the state legislature through referenda and, when necessary, hold recall elections - "to correct the misdeeds or failures of the public servants when it has become evident that these misdeeds and failures cannot be corrected in ordinary and normal fashion."

But "to use such measures as the initiative, referendum, and recall indiscriminately and promiscuously on all kinds of occasions would undoubtedly cause disaster," warned TR, the Progressive nominee for president that year. His running mate on the "Bull Moose" ticket: Gov. Hiram Johnson of California.

Progressivism helped propel America into the modern era by crusading to give women the right to vote, provide government regulation of business, and promote minimum wage and labor standards, direct election of senators and other social reforms. But their idea of using direct democracy to curb what Roosevelt famously called the "malefactors of great wealth" was turned upside down - by the power of great wealth.

A thriving industry has grown up around the ballot initiative and referendum process (allowed in about half the states; Maryland has referendum only). By paying professional signature-gatherers, sometimes imported from other states, at the rate of $1 a signature, it has become remarkably easy for wealthy interests and individuals to purchase a place on the ballot for their pet issues.

Certainly, the California recall would not be happening if the public was not profoundly unhappy with Davis' performance and angry about a stalemate in the state capital over a staggering $38 billion budget deficit. California's severe fiscal problems, by far the worst in the nation, have been aggravated by a number of factors. Those factors include ballot initiatives approved by state voters over the past 25 years that hamper government's ability to raise revenues, dictate how a significant portion of the budget must be spent and impose strict term limits on members of the legislature, who thus have even less incentive to govern responsibly.

Strategists on both sides of the California recall fight agree, though, that without a large cash infusion from a Republican millionaire, the recall would never have succeeded. Darrell Issa, a Southern California congressman who made a fortune selling car alarms, put $1.7 million of his own money into the successful effort to gather about 900,000 signatures - and declared that he was a candidate to replace the Democratic governor.

Issa, however, may end up as only a supporting actor in the recall epic. A number of better-known Republican stars are preparing to make their appearance: wealthy investor Bill Simon Jr., who lost to Davis by 5 percentage points last November; former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, defeated in last year's Republican primary after Davis pumped more than $7 million into a negative ad campaign against him; and state Sen. Tom McClintock, who narrowly lost a statewide race for controller last fall.


Getting on the ballot couldn't be much easier - all it takes is $3,500 and the signatures of 65 registered voters. More than 250 people, most of them political unknowns, have already initiated the filing process. The deadline is Saturday.

At its heart, the recall effort is a brazen attempt by Republicans to achieve something they have been unable to accomplish through the normal election process since 1994: win a statewide vote for governor, senator or president. In last fall's election, Democrats swept every statewide office on the ballot. They also maintain control of both houses of the state legislature, by wide margins.

Davis' message to voters of his Democratic state is that tossing him out of office risks turning the governor's office over to a right-wing Republican. "I'm in this to the end," he said the other day, after being asked if he might quit so some other Democrat could replace him.

But his survival is clearly in serious doubt, with polls showing a majority of voters favor dumping him. Davis' best chance of hanging on is to keep all credible Democratic alternatives off the ballot and somehow to motivate enough Democrats to vote against removing him.

Party unity is cracking, however. Last week, three Democratic House members from California publicly urged Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the state's most popular politician, to enter the race.

The 70-year-old senator has said no, thus far, to running, but she hasn't completely closed the door. Though she is publicly backing Davis, he opposed her, unsuccessfully, in a bitter 1992 Senate primary that featured attack ads by Davis comparing her to Leona Helmsley, the corrupt hotel magnate.


Feinstein says her experience with a recall makes her even less inclined to become a candidate. As mayor of San Francisco in 1983, she had to fight to save her job in a recall election. (The effort to remove her was fueled, in part, by anger among homosexuals over her veto of a pioneering ordinance that would have extended fringe benefits to domestic partners of gay city employees.)

There are already predictions that the drive to oust the governor will become the latest political trend from California, prompting recalls in other states, much as Proposition 13, the anti-tax ballot initiative of 1978, set off a national tax-limitation wave. But a rash of recalls seems unlikely, given the unique circumstances behind California's crisis and the fact that recalls are legal in only 18 states. (Maryland is not one of them.)

At the same time, elected officials from President Bush on down are tracking developments in California with the same morbid fascination the public reserves for watching bachelors get dumped on reality TV. Even if other politicians don't have immediate recall worries, the cautionary tale of Gray Davis could make them just that much more careful about how they do their jobs.

As for Hiram Johnson, who departed this world on the same day the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, one can only speculate about his reaction to the recall of one of his successors, particularly a recall financed by a wealthy politician with a direct stake in the outcome.

His biographer thinks it would all be "very, very upsetting" to Johnson. His "sense was that rarely, if at all, would this process go forward," said Richard C. Lower, author of A Bloc of One: The Political Career of Hiram W. Johnson (1993).

Johnson believed that the mere existence of the recall power "would keep the political people on their toes," said Lower. Assuming that the special election doesn't lead to even more chaos in California - admittedly an extremely big "if" - the Davis recall might turn out to be the exception that proves the Progressives' idea hasn't outlived its usefulness after all.