California’s crazy politics need a fix
There’s crazy stuff in American politics — like the myth of voter fraud… and the California vote to recall a governor who was elected in a landslide.
On Sept. 14 Californians will decide the fate of Gov. Gavin Newsom. If the recall is successful — the polling is tight — voters then choose a successor from a second-tier group of Republicans, none of whom could beat Newsom in a traditional one-on-one contest. This is the crazy California system.
Not only is the process flawed, so is the case against the incumbent: The claim is that he has mismanaged the COVID crisis, causing undue hardships for businesses and residents, presiding over economic and social decline.
To be sure, there are shortcomings, and Newsom has self-inflicted wounds. While imposing a mask mandate on Californians, He was caught mask-less at a fancy dinner in Napa. Homelessness and affordable housing are big problems; the state has been ravaged by forest fires and its economy hurt by a slowdown in immigration.
But California’s response to the pandemic should be more celebrated than criticized. Per capita, it has had fewer infections and fewer deaths than both Texas and Florida, the Republican poster-states.
It has not been at comparative costs to the economy. Matt Winkler, my former colleague at Bloomberg News, using their incomparable data, documented the California success story: Over the last year, household income has increased almost as much as Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania combined, while the Golden state has added 1.3 million non-farm jobs. The myth that California is bad for business is just that: a myth. Judging by the S&P 500 index, California companies are doing better than any others. Another measure — of small businesses — shows the state exceeding national averages.
Looking at all the data, including its fiscal situation and record on innovation, Winkler says the data suggests California “has no peers” — certainly not Texas or Florida — when it comes to economic dynamism.
Yet what’s conveyed about California, not just by conservatives but much of the media, is gloom and doom. In this larger-than-life state, visible deficiencies can overshadow successes.
This narrative is one reason the vote next month is a toss-up. While the polls are close, the intensity factor is all with the “antis,” the recallers. If that persists for the next five weeks, the recall will succeed.
The second question — with 46 candidates vying for the governor’s mansion — is a clown show.
The most featured are Caitlyn Jenner, the trans woman who is in Australia shooting a reality TV show; John Cox, who lost to Newsom by almost 3 million votes in 2018 and is campaigning this time with a Kodiak bear; Larry Elder, a Trump supporting talk radio host, and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (the last Republican San Diego mayor elected governor was Pete Wilson, whose anti-immigration stance has cost the party for a quarter century.)
Under the recall provision, the governor can’t be in the horse race for any succession. Newsom discouraged any Democrats from running — to keep the focus on defeating the recall.
There are some assets the incumbent brings to the closing weeks, staring with money. He has accumulated a war chest of $40 million or more, and under the rules, can raise and spend an unlimited amount while the aspirants face limits.
Also, with the pandemic, all registered voters will get a mail ballot. The Democrats still have to get their people to return them, but it simplifies the task.
They still have to counter the argument that even a loss isn’t a big deal: A Republican governor won’t get anything through an overwhelming Democratic legislature, and the party can retake the post in 2022.
That ignores a couple realities.
The governor has considerable executive powers in California: witness Newsom’s actions during the pandemic; moreover, in the following 15 months if anything should happen to Dianne Feinstein, the 88-year-old senior Senator from California, a Republican governor’s appointment would hand control of the U.S. Senate back over to Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Only two governors have been recalled: one in North Dakota in 1921 and California’s Gray Davis in 2003. In a deeply polarized environment, however, it’s more likely to be weaponized, especially with a system as wacky as California’s. There currently are recall efforts against the Los Angeles district attorney and three city counselors.
The recall measure was enacted in 1911 in the progressive era and was intended to remove corrupt officials. Instead, the provision has been corrupted. If there’s a case for removing a public official, impeachment, or in certain cases, indictment is an appropriate remedy.
Once California gets through the Sept. 14 travesty the enlightened and progressive step is to repeal that misguided 1911 law.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.
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