TOPICS > Politics

California Recall Chaos

August 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: We Californians have heard it all before – the finger pointing — the “are you guys nuts out there?” That’s the question that has long hung over the golden state, taking in every silly fad from hula hoops to hot tubs, every home-spawned guru from Aimee Semple McPherson to the maniacal Charlie Manson.

Every time something happens out here, from Manson to O.J. to Rodney King, I’ve had the same calls from out-of-state friends: What’s going on out there? Are you guys nuts? An earthquake will also generate calls of a more commiserative nature, but even then there’s the unstated or sometimes flat- out stated-implication that the natural disaster is a judgment on our unhinged homeland.

SPOKESPERSON: Sign the petition please to get rid of Gray Davis.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And now the calls are coming again because we are dead set on having a big-time recall vote of our duly-elected governor, Gray Davis. This is no small time office. This man heads the country’s most populous state and the planet’s fifth largest economy. On October 7, we Californians will have a chance to throw him out, after re-electing him for a second term less than a year, and put in his place– well, anybody, from an actor to a pundit to a student to a janitor, to a porn star — in short, a ballot free-for-all in which some political novice with a small fraction of the vote can end up leading this vast, complex state. So, what is going on here? Are we indeed nuts?

No question, this is an unpopular governor. No question, the state is ailing: The dot-com bust, the energy crisis, a projected deficit of $38 billion over the next two years. Even smog is making a comeback. There’s a tangle of woes that is being laid, fairly or not, at the governor’s door. But are we really prepared to recall him? Is this whole process the ultimate democratic exercise or precisely the reverse? Californians like their image as fad-following, freedom-loving risk-takers-in all things pleasurable or political. Way back in 1911 we actually added three so-called direct democracy measures to the state constitution.

The recall, the referendum, in which voters can strike down laws passed by the legislature and the initiative process, which allows voters to pass laws directly and over the past couple of decades, initiatives have abounded covering everything from property taxes to smoking to immigration to education to drugs.

Now comes the recall and the question is: Have we finally gone too far? Underneath that is a much more subtle question: Is there finally a difference between freedom, say, the freedom to gear up and get anything or for that matter, anybody you want on the ballot and democracy. Does democracy require a certain willed restraint and a respect for elections and elected bodies in order to flourish?

Is the whole initiative-slash- recall movement an unwillingness to play by the democratic rules? Or is it in fact what democracy is all about?

It is a strangely introspective moment out here. Beyond the noise of the recall din, you out there might not hear it. But it’s going on. And with it comes a sorrow that this big, vital, swaggering, sensual, complex golden state has hit the skids, has not stepped up to reckon with all the new realities: So many people, so many cars, so many needs. How are we going to do it? How are we going to pay for it? Resting on the laurels of our golden state past, we have not been willing to face the future in any real way. If our politicians have failed us, we have failed too. And the recall vote, however it turns out, is symptomatic of that failure. I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.