Recall turns 100 with a vengeance

Michael Magliari is a Professor of history, Chico State University, and co-author of John Bidwell and California: Life and Writings of a Pioneer 1841-1900.

As a taxpayer, citizen and hardboiled Democrat, I am adamantly opposed to the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. However, as a historian who loves to celebrate the anniversaries of famous events, I think the recall campaign is just swell. In fact, I can’t imagine a more spectacular way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the recall in California than by throwing a $67 million birthday bash for the so-called “People’s Tribunal.”

An innovation of Swiss democracy, the recall was embraced by populist and progressive reformers in America during the 1890s. They hoped to free American politics from the corrupting influence of corporate wealth by granting more power to the people. Convinced that “the real cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy,” these reformers pushed for the enactment of women’s suffrage, the direct election of U.S. senators, the initiative and referendum and, of course, the recall.

Led by Dr. John Randolph Haynes, progressives in Southern California secured passage of the very first recall law in America when they successfully amended the Los Angeles city charter in 1903. Eager Angelinos quickly put the law to work and targeted City Councilman James Davenport, a corrupt politician who, in 1904, became the first elected official in American history to be removed from office via recall.

Since then, the recall has claimed several hundred officeholders in California and terrified many more. Because of the difficulties in qualifying a recall for the ballot, most of these victims have been local officials, usually school board trustees and city council members, along with the occasional county supervisor or irrigation district director.

Nevertheless, thanks to our crusading Progressive-era governor, the great Hiram W. Johnson, no local or state official is entirely safe. Indeed, when Johnson rammed through the statewide recall amendment in 1911, he made sure that the law applied to all, including state and local judges. This made California’s recall law one of the most radical in the nation.

Though most dangerous to small fry, the recall has snagged a few larger fish, including Los Angeles Mayors A.C. Harper (1909) and Frank Shaw (1938). A few state legislators have also gotten the recall hook, most notably Doris Allen (1995) of Orange County, the first female Assembly speaker.

Still, the recall has never netted a fish the size of Gray Davis. Simply landing him on the ballot was a history-making event in itself, since no previous California governor has ever had to face an early date with the masses. Regardless of whether voters opt to make even more history on Oct. 7, no one will be able to deny that California has marked the centennial of the recall with one helluva birthday party. With 135 replacement candidates running, it’s a veritable orgy.