Overuse of recall becoming a bad trend for democracy

by Tom West

Editor/General Manager

Republicans are cheering and Democrats are glum this week after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall vote.

Fulfilling a campaign promise, Walker stripped away many collective bargaining rights of public employees — and really ticked off their unions when his legislation also made union dues optional.

I’m happy that Walker won, but not because of the specific issue involved. I’m in a tiny minority it seems, but my philosophy is that we have recall elections every two, four or six years, and that’s enough.

If voters don’t bother to turn out  at a general election, why should we then have a do-over several months later?

I believe voters get an ample chance to voice their collective voice every two years. The Founding Fathers thought that 2-4-6 year terms were about right, and I agree.

Unfortunately, in the hyper-political world in which we live, zealots on all sides think the recall is the way to repair the damage done by…?

Elected officials? No, voters.

If I ran the world (and I’m the first to admit it’s a good thing I don’t), the only reason an elected official would be recalled is for committing, as the U.S. Constitution says, “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

However, recall is being used increasingly in the United States because somebody became upset over policy differences.

As it was, two Walker supporters, state Sens. Randy Hoppe and Dan Kapanke, lost their jobs in the recall effort. A third, Sen. Van Wanggaard, appeared likely to lose if a recount holds up the vote totals.

While the public-employee issue was the triggering factor, extenuating circumstances led to both Hoppe’s and Kapanke’s defeats. Hoppe’s estranged wife actually signed the recall petition against him, and made public the fact that Hoppe was having an affair with a state employee. Kapanke used $32,000 in funds received from a lobbyist-funded charity to pay off personal debts. He also cost the state $38,000 by violating the state’s open meeting law.

Wikipedia reports that in 2011, 150 recall elections were held across the nation involving 52 city councils, 30 mayors, 17 school boards and 11 state legislators. Of the 150, 75 were recalled and another nine resigned rather than face voters again.

In almost every instance, the issue was a policy difference with the incumbents.

In Cornelius, Ore., the mayor and two city councilors were recalled because they fired the city manager.

In Killeen, Texas, five city councilors were recalled because they bought out the former city manager with $750,000 in tax dollars.

In Arizona, Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce got the boot for authoring the anti-illegal alien legislation that became a national issue.

Those are some of the highlights just from 2011.

However, Wisconsin has a little more recall history. In 2003, state Sen. Gary George, a Milwaukee Democrat, was tossed out because he opposed expansion of a casino in his district, which his opponents said cost the area jobs.

Only two state governors have been recalled, both over policy differences.

In 1921, North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier was ousted along with the state attorney general and the agriculture and labor commissioner.

The three formed the State Industrial Commission. Frazier was a liberal Republican, and two years previously, he had pushed through legislation creating a state-run bank and a state-run flour mill.

The Non-Partisan League, which endorsed Frazier, pushed those ideas as a way to counter what it perceived as too much power held by private enterprise. The economy then went sour, and Frazier and friends got the blame. (North Dakotans were quick to forgive, electing him a year later to the first of three terms in the U.S.  Senate.)

In 2003, California Democrat Gray Davis was recalled after the state suffered rolling electrical blackouts and huge budget deficits after the dot.com tech-bubble burst. “The Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Davis. Tellingly, Davis had been easily re-elected to a second term just the year before — but with the lowest voter turnout rate in state history.

I’m not arguing here that any of the people mentioned above deserved to be re-elected or their actions supported. What I’m saying is that when voters elect people to a given term, we need to give them a chance to lead, and not put them on such a short leash.

Both Democrats and Republicans are hoping for bold leadership to get us out of our economic mess, but the more we use recall, the more timid the politicians become.

Minnesota is one of 18 states that have a recall process, having approved it in 1996. The state Constitution says, “The grounds for recall of an officer other than judge are serious malfeasance or nonfeasance during the term of office in the performance of the duties of the office or conviction during  the term of office of a serious crime.”

A felony conviction is already an automatic disqualifier for public office. But malfeasance? Nonfeasance? You can look up their meaning in the dictionary, but my definition is that any of the above situations can be interpreted as such by someone. I predict it won’t be long before a recall vote comes to a precinct near you.

It shouldn’t be that way. If you don’t like the policies of elected officials, find someone you like and get them elected — in November, not each time your nose is out of joint.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at tom.west@mcrecord.com.

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