Incensed by a new law mandating full vaccination for schoolchildren, some Sacramento-area voters are attempting to boot from office Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, the pediatrician who authored Senate Bill 277 months after winning a bruising campaign in 2014.
If history is any guide, the odds are against them. But that doesn’t mean Pan shouldn’t take it seriously, those familiar with that history say.
Given the passion that fueled SB 277’s opposition, with bill detractors traveling from across the state to jam hearings, “we’re not taking anything for granted,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a consultant for the pro-Pan campaign that has already rumbled to life.
“Recalls that can seem frivolous at first blush can go on to gain steam and become real threats,” Kapolczynski said.
Failed recall attempts clutter the annals of California’s political history. In the last century, nine attempts to recall elected officials garnered enough signatures to land on the ballot. Five succeeded.
Number of California recalls attempted since 1913
Most did not make it that far: 149 recalls have fallen short of enough signatures to make the ballot, including efforts to unseat every governor reaching back to Gov. Pat Brown.
To knock Pan from office, proponents will need to collect 35,926 signatures from registered voters in his district by the end of December, then convince a majority of voters that there is sufficient cause to depose a man they elevated to the state Senate mere months ago.
“It’s a hard sell,” said Mary-Beth Moylan, a McGeorge School of Law professor who specializes in initiatives. “It may be that there are lots of people across the state that are upset about the vaccine bill, but it’s a fairly narrow complaint.”
The most recent successful California recall was likely the most famous. In 2003, when voters unseated Gov. Gray Davis and installed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his place, Schwarzenegger adviser Rob Stutzman said they were reacting to a confluence of factors – notably an inflated vehicle registration fee and an energy crisis – that soured the general mood of the electorate.
“It’s what political pollsters will call the wrong track: People were across the board upset, not confident, and downright angry,” Stutzman said. “If this was six years ago and the housing market was falling and unemployment was going up, I think any politician that ended up on a ballot under a recall of any party would end up being the cathartic piñata.”
But Pan’s current term coincides with a growing economy and robust budget surpluses. He will also benefit from the fact that campaign finance limits don’t apply to recall campaigns.
“Usually a legislator at least beats back a recall, and the interesting dynamic is they can raise unlimited money,” Stutzman said. “It’s as much of an opportunity as a threat,” since Pan “gets a huge megaphone to talk about everything he has done, the things voters like.”
Number of recalls qualified for California ballot
Recall proponents are essentially advancing a single-issue campaign, pinning their hopes on the issues of parental autonomy and individual rights resonating with voters. The intensity of SB 277 hearings could be a source of optimism; counteracting it are polls showing a broad majority of Californians support vaccination.
Elections also come with a hefty price tag, from the cost of signature-gatherers to the need to buy advertisements. The Pan recall could hinge on opponents’ ability to raise money on an issue that has attracted such celebrities as Jim Carrey and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
None have chipped in so far. “We’ve gotten donations from different corners of the country,” but “a lot of it has been drawn from grass-roots moms and dads,” said Aaron Mills, a Pan recall organizer from Sacramento. “Sen. Pan will probably have a distinct advantage moneywise.”
Critics of SB 277 raised money to buy advertisements and hire lobbyists during the legislative fight. But the Pan recall will be competing with a parallel effort to nullify the law via a referendum, which could divert crucial donations.
“That’s statewide. There’s a lot more money in that,” said Katherine Duran, an Elk Grove resident helping to lead the anti-Pan effort. “I’d say most of the effort is going toward the referendum, but we do have people donating daily.”
In the case of former Sen. David Roberti’s 1994 battle, the single-issue tactic did not work.
With the blessing of national gun rights organizations, Roberti’s detractors assailed his support for gun control measures like one outlawing magazines holding more than 15 bullets. It did not convince voters, who backed Roberti by a 60-40 margin, but it did require the former senator to raise more than $200,000 to fend off the attempt.
“You can’t underestimate the intensity of people who are single-issue. They may not represent the majority, but the intensity can be astounding,” Roberti said. “It certainly is enough to qualify, and it’s enough to give the subject of the recall a full case of political migraine.”
More recently, now-Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, survived a 2008 recall effort championed by then-Democratic Senate leader Don Perata after Denham refused to vote for the majority’s budget. Voters handily rejected what Denham supporters called a cynical ploy to boost Senate Democrats’ vote margin.
“People got it,” said Wayne Johnson, who managed Denham’s campaign. “When you do something as part of a political vendetta or because you disagree with someone’s vote, that’s what regular elections are for. Recalls are for something extraordinary.”
Even Perata disavows the campaign, saying in an email that it was “ill advised” and “wasn’t very smart.” Still, he said, the political calculus made more sense there than for the Pan recall, in which a Democrat would almost certainly win the vacant seat and leave the party’s majority unchanged.
“At least a Democrat could’ve won the Denham seat,” Perata said. “Pan’s seat is a stone-Democratic district.”
Number of California recalls that succeeded
And unlike the last lawmakers to be successfully recalled, Pan has the full support of his party. Most Democrats, including leaders in both houses, voted for the bill. California Democratic Party official Shawnda Westly deemed it likely that Pan will “have the support of the California Democratic Party” if the recall advances. The legislation was consistent with Pan’s central image as a public health advocate.
Contrast that with former Assembly members Paul Horcher and Doris Allen. They infuriated Republicans in 1995 by siding with Democrats in speakership fights (Allen was a Republican; Horcher had switched to become an independent). Branded as partisan turncoats, both were recalled amid accusation of betraying voters.
“It was a person who sold out her principles,” said Dave Gilliard, a campaign consultant who ran the campaign against Allen with the backing of the California Republican Party apparatus. “I don’t think you can make that accusation against Pan.”
Still, Pan’s ability to muster the party faithful will do little to diminish the fervor of those who want him gone.
“Most people won’t be paying attention, but the only ones who will are the ones for whom this is a life-and-death issue,” said former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who is championing the referendum. “I think Pan’s in a very dangerous position.”