Recall: Another Weird California Tradition

Recall: Another Weird California Tradition


After five cross-country moves, I’ve voted in many California elections. But this is the first time for me to experience an election to recall the state’s governor. The last time, in 2003, I watched from New Jersey as Californians voted to oust Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, who was succeeded by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. “What gives with your sometime state?” friends asked. “Beats me,” I’m sure I responded. This time, I put the question to a California native who told me the state’s recall tradition reflects its residents’ strong adherence to populism.

Other observers have called it crazy, nonsensical, undemocratic, even unconstitutional. Also unnecessary and a waste of taxpayers’ money. This year’s effort is expected to cost $276 million.

The California Secretary of State’s website informed me that there have been 179 recall attempts of state officials since 1913. “Eleven recall efforts collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and of those, the elected official was recalled in six instances. One recall effort is currently qualified for the ballot to be held on September 14, 2021.”

Even before receiving my vote-by-mail ballot sent to all registered voters, I was confused about how it all worked. First of all, unless an incumbent is found guilty of a crime and needs to be removed from office immediately, — or dies or just quits — even then, what’s the lieutenant governor for if not to step into the top spot when needed? That was part of the appeal to me for Newsom’s election last time. I figured he’d had some on-the-job training or at least knew what to expect.

And, why go to all this trouble to replace a governor whose term will end in a little more than a year? And who are all these 46 candidates I heard were lining up just to fill out the recalled governor’s term? And how did they make it onto the ballot in the first place? If you think all of this is complicated, wait till you hear the answer to that. They must obtain signatures from a percentage of votes cast in the last election for the office, which obviously is a figure that changes from election to election. This time it was 12 percent, which for the current recall, it was about 1.5 million signatures.

I got those figures from an online piece by longtime Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton who examined the argument made by UC Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky “about possible legal flaws in California’s 110-year-old recall system,” [one in particular means] “it’s possible that Newsom could be recalled…by a bare majority of votes…he could receive 49.9 percent of the vote and still be dumped…Then…his successor could be elected among the large field by a small plurality of, say, only 25 percent.”

Skelton concludes, “So, Newsom could receive nearly twice as many votes as the winner but still lose.” Huh?

The arrival of my ballot only added to the confusion. I puzzled over the rules as I examined its two separate sections. The top section required merely a yes or no vote on whether the current governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, should be removed from office. If my vote was to be no, I was home free. If I voted yes, then which of the 46 listed candidates would I prefer? And to complicate matters more, there was a space at the bottom for writing in a candidate. I was glad to go online at LA and see I was not the only one confused. Some people wondered whether in order to assure the governor’s remaining in office, they should write in his name. I had pondered that until I found these words somewhere on the ballot instruction: “Do not vote for more than one person.” So that would rule out writing in Newsom’s name after, in effect, checking the no recall box. According to LA Times’ Skelton, it would invalidate the ballot.

Since returning to live in California, once more, I have surprised myself by becoming a fan of mail-in ballots. As I wrote in Time for Vote By Mail, my conversion came about during the coronavirus pandemic when Milwaukee voters were forced to stand in freezing cold rain for hours to vote because of reduced facilities, one of many shenanigans perpetrated in recent past elections throughout city areas, especially, to make voting difficult. This has been done, as Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia has explained benignly, because “Some people don’t want some people to vote.”

So, after puzzling over the confusing recall ballot and signing up for tracking service – if it’s important enough for packages from Amazon, it’s certainly worth the same for my vote – I walked over to the nearest drop-box as I had the last time and began checking until the email message that assured me “Your ballot has been collected and your vote recorded.” Good. One less thing to worry about.

Political columnist Skelton continues to join others fretting about the state’s recall system. A more recent column was headed, “California recall system must be reformed. It’s bad for taxpayers and, some say, democracy.”

Me & My MSNBC Friends

It’s always a comfort when something you have an affinity for — and which friends and family members imply you are addicted to — shows up as a page one feature in The New York Times Sunday Review section. Case in point: “The Age of the MSNBC Mom” by Kat Stoeffel.

Observing life these days in the home of her retired, empty-nester parents, Stoeffel notes that MSNBC reporters and commentators seem to have become an ubiquitous presence, whether speaking or muted on one TV screen or another, or by being increasingly referenced in mother-daughter conversations. Her mother, Maggie Stoeffel, has become an MSNBC mom: “a liberal woman whose retirement years coincide with the rise of Donald Trump and who seeks solace, companionship and righteous indignation in cable news.”  Her father, whom she describes as “a Republican-turned-independent, absorbed in his iPad pretends to be out of earshot.”

Like Maggie Stoeffel, MSNBC is not my only source of news. I start the day with NPR and, while the coffee brews, retrieve three daily newspapers to read (excessive, I know, but I’m a former journalist). After that, a news/politics junkie like me could spend the entire day with MSNBC and in fact, during my hospitalization a year ago, I complained loudly about the unfairness of providing TV that broadcast Fox News and not MSNBC.  But back in the land of the healthy, life intervenes and other things must be done. Nevertheless, I do tune in a lot.

As women in the past sometimes formed attachments to the characters in their daily soap operas, I consider the MSNBC anchors and their guests almost as friends. I notice when one changes a hairstyle or improves her makeup. But most important, are their words — intelligent, informed, frequently witty.  And they care fervently about our country and the direction it’s headed in. They are people I’d like to invite to dinner if I still gave dinner parties.

Since I live on the West Coast, I am able to eat lunch while watching the program of the delightful and continually astonished Nicolle Wallace, a Republican and alumna of the George W. Bush White House. She frequently invites as a guest her former colleague, GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s presidential campaign and who has the further distinction of being the person who prevented Sarah Palin from forcing herself onto the stage when McCain delivered his concession speech. These days Schmidt’s anger about our current governmental situation is righteous, and his articulate rants about the danger to our democracy are suitable for framing.

After lunch, even though I’d love to continue watching Chuck Todd, Ari Melber, Chris Matthews et al, I try to hold off  until the 5 o’clock wine hour when I’m joined by Chris Hayes whose work I remember from The Nation magazine. Then I fix dinner with the brilliant Rachel Maddow, a onetime Rhodes Scholar, and eat dinner with Lawrence O’Donnell whose knowledge of the workings of Congress stems from his years as an aide to the late Daniel Patrick Monahan. And finally, wrapping it all up is “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams.” Except that here when it ends it’s 9 p.m., still plenty of time for reading.

When a friend questioned how I could stand all of this news and politics. I emailed back: “Not to preach, but to stay informed for the sake of our democracy. (Oh, I guess that is preaching. Sorry.)”



How did the person many called the best qualified ever to run for president get defeated by the person many called the least qualified ever to run for president?

How did the candidate whose campaign was waged with class and integrity lose to one whose campaign was laced with insults and lies?

How did the FBI director get away unscathed with injecting – in violation of FBI rules – an ambiguous statement about an ongoing investigation just 11 days before Election Day only to amend it 48 hours before balloting with the equivalent of “never mind.”

And finally, how did the candidate with the most popular votes lose to the one with the fewest?

hillary-clintonI don’t know the answers to the first three questions, but I do know the answer to the last one: the Electoral College. According to the Los Angeles Times, in November 2012 Donald Trump himself tweeted, “The Electoral College is a disaster for democracy.” For once I agree with him. So did Hillary Clinton. In November 2000, according to The New York Times, the then newly elected senator from New York said, “I believe strongly that in a democracy we should respect the will of the people, and to me that means to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president.”

The New York paper also noted the irony that “after months of railing against what he called a ‘rigged’ election, (Mr. Trump) has become the unlikely beneficiary of an electoral system that enables a candidate to win the race without winning over the most voters.”

We are the only country in the world with such a cockamamie system, yet another legacy of our history of slavery that continues to bedevil us. The LA Times explains that the system “is part of an agreement between states, including Southern states that had more slaves than free men who were eligible to vote.” Fearing that the more heavily populated Northern states would dominate those in the South, the framers of the Constitution came up with “a compromise that divided power based on counting the ‘whole number of free persons’ in the state as well as ‘three-fifth of all other persons.’”

The paper goes on to state, “Thanks to this infamous deal, the Southern states were bolstered and given more seats in the House of Representatives as well as more ‘electors’ who selected the president…The Civil War ended slavery and the three-fifths deal, but the electoral system survived as the method for choosing the president, in part because the Constitution is very hard to change…”

There may be another way, however. A petition making the internet rounds describes The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), an agreement among several states and the District of Columbia to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It doesn’t kick in until states and territories whose electoral votes reach a combined total of 270 signed on. So far, 10 states and the District of Columbia with a combined electoral vote total of 165 have joined this effort.

In the meantime, what do we do? Take comfort in the graciousness of Mrs. Clinton’s concession speech? In the equally gracious way President Obama welcomed to the White House the man who demeaned and tried de-legitimizing for more than eight years? Take pride in showing the world the way a democracy does it?

Or, perhaps, take heart in David Brooks’ laugh-inducing conclusion to today’s column: “After all, the guy will probably resign or be impeached within a year. The future is closer than you think.”


Maybe Everyone Needs to Lighten Up

Madeline AlbrightWhen former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” it was humor, albeit  sardonic humor. It was an expression that was common during the Women’s Movement, and like a lot of sardonic humor, it carried much truth with it.

Not, for heaven’s sake, that anyone really meant to condemn a person to eternal damnation, if they even believed such a thing. It was just an extreme way to say, “We really all ought to be sticking together here in these times.”

Lord knows, there were plenty of examples of those who deserved that reminder. In corporations, women who’d managed to claw their way up to a managerial position previously denied to their gender would sometimes become jealous of their unique status and loathe to allow any other woman to share their exalted status. The backbiting and in-fighting could become quite fierce.

At a newspaper where I worked there was one longtime woman reporter in the city room where “real news” coverage took place, while any other women reporters hired were relegated to the society or women’s news sections. The word around the shop was that any time the city editor tried to move a second woman into his department, the first woman made daily life so miserable for the newcomer that she would soon quit in disgust. When I confronted the editor, he told me the reason he didn’t like to hire women was because when he yelled at them they cried. I said, “You might find that some women would yell back.”

(And to myself I said, “I’d rather die than let you see me cry.” Besides, being from New Jersey, I had a repertoire of words I could employ before any tears got shed. I would have liked to have had an opportunity to try, but we moved away before I could convince the editor to give me a shot.)

As an older person, I understand why women my age are frustrated by the fact that younger women view all those battles as so much ancient history. I’m sure I was just as guilty at discounting the contributions of my predecessors. We were young and invincible and our way was the only way. In time, today’s millennials will be where we are today, but I hope by then they’ll have learned to recognize humor when they hear it.

Albright issued an apology for the context in which her remark was issued in a very thoughtful op-ed piece in The New York Times.

Appreciating Obama

ObamaA liberal could learn to love ostensibly conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks. In the face of the craziness that is the current Republican primary season, I have found his columns much less skip-worthy than previously. Today’s, for example, is titled “I Miss Barack Obama.” Whoa!

Admitting there are many of the president’s policy decisions with which he disagrees and aspects of the presidency that have disappointed him, Brooks nevertheless gives Obama and his administration considerable credit for their class act.

“Over the course of this campaign,” he writes, “it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board. Many of the traits of character and leadership Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply.”

The first and most important, he says, is “basic integrity. The administration has been “remarkably scandal-free” unlike previous administrations on both sides in which scandals have occupied time and effort that could have been more productively spent on governing. “(Obama) and his wife,” Brooks notes, “have not only displayed superior integrity themselves, they have mostly attracted and hired people with high personal standards.”

A second trait Brooks admires in the president is his “sense of basic humanity,” pointing to Obama’s visit to a mosque where he “looked into people’s eyes and gave a wonderful speech reasserting (Muslim Americans’) place as Americans. He’s exuded this basic care and respect for others time and time again,” he writes.

The third Obama trait Brooks cites is “a soundness in his decision-making process.” Having spoken over the years to many members of the administration who may have been disappointed when the president didn’t take their advice, he said, “But those disappointed staffers almost always felt that their views had been considered in depth.”

The fourth trait is “grace under pressure.” Even though he feels that “overconfidence is one of Obama’s great flaws,” Brooks says, “a president has to maintain equipoise under enormous pressure. Obama has done that, especially amid the financial crisis.”

And finally, Brooks adds, is “a resilient sense of optimism. To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.

“People are motivated to make wise choices more by hope and opportunity than by fear, cynicism, hatred and despair. Unlike any current candidates, Obama has not appealed to those passions.”

The columnist concludes, “Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.”


Supreme Irony

Supreme Court 1Be careful what you wish for.

With the U.S. Congress practically catatonic these days and few laws being passed, people have tended to push their interests to the Supreme Court for decision-making. In the flurry of decisions announced in the last weeks of the just-ended term, this thought kept entering my mind: The Supreme Court giveth and the Supreme Court taketh away. Whether you considered a particular ruling a “giveth” or a “taketh-away” depended on your ideological bent.

In general, commentators seemed to feel that more decisions leaned toward pleasing those with a liberal bent. And yet those people were unhappy with the rulings that pleased those with a conservative bent.

That’s life in a sharply polarized society, and all that’s left for those who may have been unhappy about the way things went is – as the old Brooklyn Dodgers used to say in the years when they were unable to win a World Series – “Wait till next year!” Or in the case of the Supreme Court, next term, which begins the first Monday in October.

Supreme Court 2