Frivolous recalls and their consequences
By Paul Gratz
In 1911, a collection of popular reforms, including the referendum, initiative, recall, workers compensation and women’s suffrage, came with the rise of the Progressives and direct democracy activism.
At the time, the recall would provide voters with a tool to boot-out corrupt, negligent, and dishonest officials controlled by Republican Party machines dominated by the Southern Pacific Railroad, “Robber Baron” businessmen, and other large landholders.
By the 1970s, however, deeppocket special interests realized that with unlimited campaign spending, mass media advertising and the paid signature gathering industry, recalls could be tailored to their political and financial needs, often in the guise of grassroots populist organization.
Ironically, a progressive reform for reducing the power of the wealthy was usurped by those same interests and used for very unprogressive purposes. The commercialization of direct democracy was not what the Progressives had in mind!
Recalls were rare until international attention focused on California in 2003, when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by the Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. The real estate, financial, insurance and gambling industries joined forces with anti-tax and anti-immigration groups to bankroll the recall and elect Schwarzenegger.
The successful recall and Republican victory generated a political earthquake which emboldened conservative special interests. Increasingly, progressive officials at the municipal level would be targeted with recalls or threats to recall.
National trade associations and lobbying groups representing apartment owners, property managers, and realtors now regularly use recalls in dozens of California cities. Connecting with so-called grassroots groups, they inject enormous amounts of out-of-area money, expertise and other resources to remove council members who support, for example: managed growth, renter protections, affordable housing, safe sheltering, neighborhood preservation and living wage ordinances.
The November 2018 election resulted in a Santa Cruz City Council with a progressive majority, breaking the decades-long grip held by entrenched council members who maintained developer- centric policies. The election signified a monumental political shift and was the pro-development, business-as-usual establishment’s worst nightmare.
Unwilling to accept the big change in City leadership, the old order struck back with a stop-at-nothing effort to undo the election and regain power.
Supported by Take Back Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz United with the assistance of social media power Nextdoor, initiated a wellfinanced twin recall campaign to oust Drew Glover and Chris Krohn. Marking the first time a recall would qualify for the City ballot.
By December, the pro-recall campaign had spent more than $100,000 -- made possible by large contributions received from regional developers and big moneyed interests (https://stopsantacruzrecalls. org/2020-01-29press-release/). The campaign relied on an aggressive cadre of paid signature gathers as well as running a massive advertising and outreach operation.
Santa Cruz United remains a conservative and secretive lobbying group, although it promulgates the myth that it just represents neighborhoods, small local businesses, mom-and-pop landlords and public safety advocates. The group’s true intentions are hidden behind a smokescreen of repetitive disinformation, false allegations of misconduct and vindictive personal attacks. In doing so, it promotes and encourages a climate of anger, confusion, mistrust, and division in the community.
Our elected City Council majority has a proven commitment to producing affordable housing, resetting the Corridors Zoning process, preserving neighborhoods and small business, increasing government transparency and accountability, standing- up to UCSC overgrowth, community-responsive planning for the downtown library’s future, and providing compassionate and effective help for those in distress and without a home.
The March 3 election is a pivotal event for our town. If the dishonest and corrosive recalls are not rejected, a frightening political precedent will be set, and deep animosity will divide our community for a long time.
Please vote “no” on the recalls and remember, you must also vote for Tim Fitzmaurice and Katherine Beiers as replacement candidates, should the recalls unfortunately succeed.
Paul Gratz is a Santa Cruz resident and retired health services planner and educator. He has extensive experience with ballot referendums and initiatives and petition signature gathering, including the passage of Measure P ‘Requiring voter approval for desalination projects’ in 2012