Something has changed in California politics as the political class gets serious about this fall’s statewide election: Despite what has lately amounted to single-party rule in America’s most populous state, there’s a new insecurity in the air.
That’s because of two successful recall moves against incumbent officials in the June primary, the defeats of Palo Alto Judge Aaron Persky and Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman of Orange County.
Suddenly politicians and judges have been served notice that their constituents are watching, something they find easy to forget while doing everyday business in the state Capitol, county courthouses and city halls all around the state.
In Persky’s case, recall was predictable from the moment he handed down an extremely lenient six-month jail sentence to former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, convicted of digitally penetrating a drunken, unconscious woman. The sentence led to fury from all sides of the political spectrum, and now all judges are newly aware that they don’t hold office by some sort of fiat, but serve at the pleasure of the people, who can express displeasure by knocking them out of office.
In Perksy’s case, the vote wasn’t even close.
Newman’s recall was different. Like most Democrats, he voted last year in favor of the 12-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase that now faces its own possible cancellation via a November ballot measure.
While the campaign against Newman repeatedly accused him of helping impose the gas tax, not merely a relatively small increase in it, any kind of tax increase was bound to stick in the craw of his constituents, who had sent Republicans to Sacramento for many years before Newman narrowly won election in 2016. It did, and those constituents dumped him unceremoniously.
“I think that the threat (of recall) is sort of by itself sufficient to change the legislative conversation,” Newman told a reporter afterward.
Maybe so, but the threat of recalls has been around since 1913. In those 105 years, only six have succeeded, the most spectacular the 2003 dumping of then-Gov. Gray Davis and his replacement by movie muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger.
That track record caused most of the political class to disregard the recall threat and proceed almost however they liked, making backroom deals like those that spurred sponsors this summer to pull back three proposed initiatives that had already won enough public support to qualify for a November yes-or-no vote.
But now those same people are at least looking to see if anyone’s gaining on them. The same is true for pols wanting to move up: The June results put them on notice that promotions would depend on performance. The best example of this was Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside, who hoped to finish in the primary’s top two in the 49th Congressional District race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Darrell Issa.
But Chavez voted frequently with Democrats during his Sacramento tenure and Democrats wanting to turn Republican voters against Chavez made sure they knew he sometimes voted with Democrats. Their ads claimed Chavez ran for the Legislature claiming he wouldn’t vote for new taxes. “On spending your money and costing you more, Rocky Chavez’ broken promises will knock you out,” said their ad.
That was backed up with specific Chavez votes. Always before a solid vote-getter, Chavez finished well out of the running in June, leaving the 49th as a seat Democrats realistically hope to flip.
To politicians, all this seems bad, undesirable. But not to voters. It’s almost as if a window has been opened and constituents now are seeing for the first time what the folks they vote for do in office.
Similarly, legal professionals and most law professors around the state and nation opposed the Persky recall on grounds that judges should have complete independence. Not so, said voters in usually liberal Santa Clara County. They said judicial independence is fine, but only if it produces sentences that seem reasonable.
All of which has contributed to a new aura in the state’s politics and courtrooms, one that sees the elected for the first time in many years worrying about how they are perceived by their electors.
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Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.