Viewpoints: Why California’s recall election mattered

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am

As we approach the 10th anniversary of California’s gubernatorial recall election, many political observers seem either disappointed or relieved that our state government has not been more dramatically reshaped as a result of that historic event. The apocalyptic predictions of a never-ending series of recalls and counter-recalls did not come to pass. Battalions of Teutonic bodybuilders-turned-candidates have not emerged from the soundstages and health clubs of Southern California to seek elective office. And the state Capitol is still the scene of far too much of the type of partisan finger-pointing, name-calling and responsibility-dodging that fueled the recall in the first place.

All of which makes it extremely tempting for defenders of the status quo to dismiss the recall election as nothing more than a statewide temper tantrum that resulted in no significant change to California’s political landscape. Once the porn stars and other quasi-celebrities returned to their pre-political lives, once the East Coast media decided that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration would not be nearly as enticing as his campaign rallies, what remained was the hard and slow grind of governing. But because California’s elected leaders continue to work today to confront the state’s various public policy challenges, the facile explanation for the absence of magical solutions is that the recall election must have failed.

But even if change did not occur in as exciting and glamorous a fashion as Schwarzenegger’s media showcases may have suggested, a quieter and more subtle revolution is fundamentally altering the trajectory of California politics in the form of a series of campaign and government reforms which could not have occurred without the spark of that recall election 10 years ago.

In a made-for-television moment shortly before the election, Schwarzenegger stood on the steps of the Capitol and brandished a broom in his hands, promising to “clean house” and to “kick some serious butt” if elected. Had he talked about the need for fairly-drawn legislative districts and government transparency, it’s safe to say that the crowd’s frenzied reaction would have been much more subdued. But upon taking office, far from the television lights and photo opportunities, he began pushing for a range of reforms that have begun to transform a broken political system.

It’s inevitable that strong partisans on both sides of the aisle will disagree as to Schwarzenegger’s public policy accomplishments. Many of those who praise his work on climate change legislation stood in the way of his goals for K-12 education. Others who laud him for his economic development and public safety priorities were less enthusiastic about his efforts toward health care reform. Such is the fate for a radical centrist working to govern in a hyper-partisan political environment. But a strong case can be made that the most valuable of Schwarzenegger’s achievements – the structural changes to state government and politics – could have not been realized by a more conventional politician.

Someone having spent a lifetime in politics would not have understood the need for broader disclosure of campaign contributions. A career officeholder might not have appreciated the benefits of increased public access to government meetings and records. Most notably, a prisoner of politics-as-usual could not have led the fight for more competitive elections through redistricting reform and the top-two primary.

The predictable partisan voices, those who benefited most from the old system, fought hard against Schwarzenegger’s efforts on the new redistricting and primary rules. But the combination of these two essential changes has been to reorient legislators from a single-minded focus on the ideological extremes within their own parties to a broader awareness of the priorities of larger swaths of the electorate. Because it has become much more difficult for candidates to rely solely on their party bases to win election, they have begun to look for opportunities for bi-partisan cooperation. It will require several more election cycles before the full impact of these reforms can be realized, but the sight this year of Democrats voting to streamline environmental regulations and Republicans supporting pro-immigrant legislation are the first steps toward a day in which our elected officials are even more responsive to the voters who elected them.

On the 10th anniversary of the recall campaign that brought Schwarzenegger to office, it’s clear that this extremely atypical citizen-bodybuilder-turned-candidate deserves credit for using his time in office to substantively improve a broken system of state governance. The recall did make a difference – one that Californians will experience in future years every time they cast ballots in truly competitive election campaigns.


Dan Schnur is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

Read more articles by Dan Schnur



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