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The upcoming California gubernatorial recall election (the first ever) has been described as a "circus," a "farce," "wacky" and "show business." More reflective observations have described it as a recall qualified by Republican multimillionaires to set up other Republican multimillionaires as candidates to replace the incumbent, Gray Davis.
Certainly, this is not the kind of direct democracy to hold incumbents accountable between elections that California Gov. Hiram Johnson had in mind in 1911 when he proudly worked to have the state’s Constitution embrace the initiative, referendum and recall processes. He saw these tools as instruments for an aroused volunteer citizenry, not as mechanisms for wealthy corporate interests or political parties that pay signature-gathering firms to get their agendas on the ballot.
Nonetheless, the people of California, regardless of their philosophical, partisan or peevish reservations about the Oct. 7 election, can snatch several opportunities from the jaws of a potential debacle.
First, for two months, Californians can engage in vigorous discussion with one another about the main problems and best solutions affecting their state present and future. The election is headline news! Send small talk for a holiday. It is time for some serious reading, thinking and acting about the governance of California. Result: a more engaged citizenry.
Second, Californians can sharpen their political strategy skills, much as sports fans delve so profoundly into the strategies between teams, managers and players. For example, how will the backroom handlers of Arnold Schwarzenegger figure out how to shield their candidate’s lack of knowledge about public policies and state governance by presenting him garnished with positive imagery, photo ops, generalities, slogans and smiles? How, in response, are the Davis forces and his Republican competitors going to diminish Schwarzenegger’s front-runner status? Result: a public with a honed awareness of the strategies in play, giving voters better defenses against adept manipulations by the political consulting pros.
Third, it is an excellent time for people and groups with grievances, successful projects and good ideas to be heard. What are the best ways to deal with energy, public revenues, housing, employment, the environment, transportation, health and other necessities of the state? California is full of wonderful success stories that need visibility. Knowledgeable scholars, civic groups and sustainable businesses need to come forward. If you demand substance–and the print and electronic media, including public airwaves, are open to such information instead of succumbing to personality politics in a circus-like atmosphere–unprecedented depth could be reached in this election.
Fourth, this recall period offers an excellent opportunity to develop measures of performance expected of your governor. Refined and more expansive expectation levels by voters can change the tone, quality and emphasis of the candidates’ electoral campaigns or expose their vacuousness. Low expectation levels allow politicians to inflate their campaign’s emotional content and escape a fuller accountability when they are in office. Moreover, nothing feeds voter cynicism and withdrawal more than their own low expectation of themselves–that they do not count, that they do not matter. So why vote? A greater civic self-respect would result in higher voter turnout.
Fifth, one massive obstacle remains unchallenged by the voters. That is big money in elections, corrupting everything it touches. If this recall campaign does nothing but sensitize Californians to indignant action against the commercialization of their public election campaigns ("everything is for sale"), it will be a historic contribution to the state’s future well-being.
Davis has tried to make an issue out of the $66 million or so that the state will spend to run the election. But what should be front and center in evaluating Davis’ tenure is his notorious, relentless and specific cash-register politics since his first day in office.
As consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield pointed out last week in a detailed statement supporting the recall of Davis, Californians have been forced to pay billions of dollars in higher electricity prices, utility company bailouts, HMO price-gouging of patients and many other impositions because Davis asked for and received torrents of dollars from these very corporate interests for his campaign war chest. Public funding of public elections is the best public investment, given the seedy alternatives.
Californians can now turn themselves into more skilled and demanding voters for this and future elections, if they choose to make the best out of the October recall instead of burlesquing the event.
The whole world is watching.