Recalling a Historical Mistake

Why voters should defeat the move to recall Gov. Davis -- and then work to eliminate the recall and initiative provisions from state law

"Hiram Johnson would have enjoyed the French Revolution, if accident had made him radical at that time. He would have been stirred by the rising of the people; he would have given tongue to their grievances in a voice keyed to lash them to greater fury," according to the chapter.

Johnson mightn't have been concerned about the misuse of his modern political legacy -- the "people's revolt" mechanisms of referendum, initiative, and recall -- in the least.

"In the Russian Revolution," according to Mirrors, "he would have fled when the true believers in change arrived. He is the orator of emeutes (riots), who is fascinated by a multitude in a passion. Johnson is not a revolutionary."

Despite being remembered in California as a great reformer, Hiram Johnson was, in real life, a revolting demagogue. California would do well to banish his legacy for good, but I can't imagine we ever will.


The heartland political maxim that says "Whither California, there goes the pitiable rest of the nation" resonated through the Moscone Center last week as small-time politicos, aides, and lobbyists schmoozed amid echoes of the recall election announcement. The states these people represent had accompanied California down disastrous roads before, particularly in regard to California's 1978 tax revolt, which turned the then-dormant initiative process into a widely used political fad here -- and then far beyond.

Here, the 1978 ballot Proposition 13, which limited municipal governments in their ability to raise property taxes, eviscerated representative government by making commonplace the idea of budgeting by proposition. It gave an immeasurable boost to the power of political fund-raisers by effectively replacing legislative debate with television spots. Much of the initiative-spawned law that has followed Proposition 13 has continued in a similar vein of inhibiting state and local legislators from making decisions.

Prop. 13 limited local officials in regard to the traditional and central role of setting property taxes, severely restricting communities' ability to fund schools, libraries, dog pounds, and other such amenities. The state stepped in to rescue municipalities, and subsequent initiatives locked 40 percent of California's General Fund into support for education. A mom-and-apple-pie proposition on its face, the education earmark further chipped away at legislators' ability to respond to crises. Meanwhile, a recent revolution created via initiative -- legislative term limits -- has created an amateur, transient Legislature incapable of informed deliberation. These perennial ingénues -- limited in the state Assembly to three six-year terms, in the Senate to two four-year terms -- engage in endless, and often meaningless, quibbles, because, often, they are too inexperienced to know the difference between vital and marginal legislation.

With most of the state's revenue already earmarked for particular purposes, legislators oversee only a fraction of the state budget; California's ship of state hardly has a steering wheel. And ordinary governance, in which representatives act as decision-makers and voters keep them -- or toss them out -- on this basis, becomes a charade. Meanwhile, California's unusual rule requiring a two-thirds legislative majority to approve a budget gives the most extreme and ignorant among the freshman set veto power over the rest.

Thanks to the "reforms" of initiative and referendum, voters, too, are far less powerful than they ought to be. The state's initiative-based political culture has created yearly elections that offer yards-long ballots and inch-thick instruction books. It's increasingly difficult to vote informed, or to vote for politicians who produce positive results. So in too many elections, most residents just don't bother to vote at all.


Last week's Moscone Center legislators' conference was held in ordinary, trade-show format, with an important difference: The exhibition concourse -- where electronics peddlers and food vendors would ordinarily set up stands -- was filled with booths staffed by lobbyists. Hundreds of politicians and their aides attended symposiums during the morning, lunched at noon, and gathered trinkets from the Outdoor Advertising Association and Pfizer Inc. during the afternoon. This sort of political geography -- where the influencers and the influential are right out in public, so the peddling can be observed firsthand -- is hardly unique to the Moscone Center, or even to California politics. But full-service, cash-and-carry politics has achieved its greatest expression in California, thanks, in part, to the legacy of an early-century rabble-rouser who left an outsize mark on the state.

It's time to erase Hiram Johnson's legacy, and change the state constitution to eliminate provisions for recall, referendum, and ballot initiatives. Then, perhaps the next time Ghanaians come to California curious about how to properly run a democratic political system, they may have an opportunity to learn something.

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