Recall: The incredible expense of indulging whims of a political minority

Recall: The incredible expense of indulging whims of a political minority
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It looks like Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomVirginia's Youngkin gets the DeSantis treatment from media Equilibrium/Sustainability — Solar-powered cars on the EV horizon Newsom vows crackdown: Rail car looting like 'third world country' MORE, our governor here in California, is about to face a recall vote. That might sound like a plus for grass-roots democracy, a bottom-up people’s revolt against the power elite.

But it’s not.

The recall is yet one more example of how well-funded political minorities can thwart democracy, gum up government and undermine confidence.


Outsized factional power has been in the spotlight lately, aimed especially at the Electoral College and Senate filibuster — two maddening methods that make it easy for minorities to circumvent majorities. The recall process is fueled by that same inflated authority, taken to an absurd extreme. (This is California, after all.)

Look at the numbers: Newsom won the 2018 gubernatorial election with nearly 62 percent of the ballot, 7.7 million votes to 4.7 million for Republican John Cox. It was the biggest victory margin for a non-incumbent here since 1930.

But to trigger a recall, activists only have to collect valid signatures equal to 12 percent of votes cast in the 2018 governor’s race — about 1.5 million. That’s the second-lowest threshold for a gubernatorial recall in the nation, and gives an extremely small slice of the electorate a tempting opportunity to demand a do-over. To prompt a replay, organizers here just need to sign up about one-third of those comparatively few California voters who didn’t want Newsom in the first place.

The deadline for submitting signatures is this Wednesday. By late April, the secretary of state will announce whether enough of those signatures are valid and the recall is real. Right now, it doesn’t look good for the governor.

None of this is meant to overlook the fact that Gavin Newsom can be a hard person to root for. With his slicked-backed hair and well-practiced smile, he commonly comes across as your least favorite travelling salesman. His rapid-fire, jargon-filled speaking style often sounds better suited to QVC than Sacramento.

The governor also did himself no favors by attending a lobbyist’s fancy Napa Valley birthday party during a virus lockdown. That blunder turbo-charged the recall drive, magnifying frustrations many people felt toward Newsom’s complicated, ever-shifting system of tiers that controls much of our lives in the pandemic.

Still, despite these missteps, California has administered more than 11 million vaccine doses so far, and Newsom has kept the COVID death rate relatively low — behind 29 other states, including Texas and Florida.

A recall vote will distract California while it’s still coping with the virus. Sacramento could spend $81 million or more to run the special election — funds that could be used to help recovery efforts. And that vote will most likely happen in November, just one year before Newsom would stand for re-election anyway.

But the do-over will have its winners: political operatives, lobbyists and local media. Several big GOP donors have already given to the cause, creating an economic stimulus package for campaign consultants facing a dry 2021.

In a state of 40 million people and several major television markets, local media also has a lot to gain. Election advertising is a vital part of media profit margins, and many TV stations here are confronting a post-2020 spending hangover.


California’s 2003 recall election attracted 135 candidates, including a former child actor and a porn star. But several more credible contenders, like Ariana Huffington, had sizable piggy banks.  Voters eventually chose to replace Gov. Gray Davis with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but only after various campaigns spent a total of $88 million — close to $125 million today. That’s a nice boost for both consultants and local broadcasters.

The losers, of course, will be just about everyone else in California — people who simply want to get on with life, get vaccinated, and go back to work.

Former governor Davis — victim of the last recall election — labels this one an “expensive vanity project” that will send a lot of financial benefits to a handful of well-paid individuals. That’s a pretty good definition of what happens when too much power is held by those who represent too few people.

It’s a national problem, no doubt — but one Californians alone will most likely pay for this fall.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.