This column by ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight was published October 3, 2011 in The Washington Times.
North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue spoke for many politicians on Tuesday when she suggested suspending congressional elections for two years to give the politicians a free hand without voter input.
“You want people who don’t worry about the next election,” Mrs. Perdue, a Democrat elected in 2008, said to a Rotary Club gathering. Although a tape of the speech reveals that she made the statement in a serious manner, she later insisted she had been joking.
But the insularity of elected officials is no joke, and Americans who are looking for ways to increase accountability are turning to the right of recall.
Arrogant politicians take note: There is more to fear than scheduled elections.
Exhibit A is the campaign under way right now in El Paso, Texas.
Mayor John Cook and two City Council members will be on a May 2012 recall election ballot, courtesy of petition collectors from a pro-family group outraged over the reversal of a referendum limiting city-employee marital benefits to married couples and their families.
On Nov. 2, El Paso voters approved 55 percent to 45 percent a measure that said, “The city of El Paso endorses traditional family values by making health benefits available only to city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children.”
In January, a U.S. district judge suspended enforcement of the law pending a court challenge. In June, the City Council deadlocked on a measure to restore the benefits, and Mr. Cook broke the 4-4 tie, restoring benefits to homosexual couples and unmarried male-female couples.
Shortly thereafter, a group called El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values began a recall petition against Mr. Cook and two of the council members who had voted in favor of the measure. Two others had finished their terms and so were not recall targets. On Sept. 22, the city clerk verified the signatures for all three recall elections in May in the border city of 650,000.
San Antonio, a city of 1.3 million, whose City Council voted on Sept. 15 to grant marital benefits to unmarried partners after hours of testimony by people opposing it, may be the next major Texas city to see a recall campaign. Tom Brown, pastor of the Word of Life Church, who spearheaded the El Paso recall petitions, explains why they resonated with voters: “We’re sending the message: ‘Don’t mess with our vote,’ ” he said in a telephone interview. “This council was arrogant and overturned a legal vote on the domestic benefits ordinance. We don’t want tax dollars going to unmarried partners.”
Elsewhere around the country, recalls are being launched for a variety of reasons. In Oakridge, Ore., a recall election was held on Sept. 20, with residents voting to retain the mayor and three City Council members who had come under fire for not dismissing the city administrator over a financial crisis. The Lane County paper, the Columbian, noted that the recall effort began even before it was revealed that “the town blew through $1.2 million in cash reserves over a two-year period” and that the recall was “a way for people in the town to vent.”
In Michigan, Paul Scott, a black Republican Grand Blanc state legislator, has been targeted for recall by the Michigan Education Association. It wants him out because he voted for cuts in education spending and reforms that make it easier to fire bad teachers. Mr. Scott said he plans to go door to door to keep his seat in the Nov. 8 election.
The irony of a liberal teachers union targeting a black man for recall because he is trying to restore fiscal sanity is a great teaching moment. So was this summer’s Wisconsin recall campaign, in which unions spent millions unseating just two of six Republican state senators and failing to put Democrats in power. This left intact Gov. Scott Walker’s fiscal reforms, which curtailed bargaining rights for public-employee unions and ended state collections of union dues – an essential component of union political power. The recall effort cost liberals in Wisconsin big bucks, with little to show for it, while giving the public a chance to reassert conservative values.
Elsewhere, recalls are happening mostly on the local level. In Miami-Dade County, Fla., residents in March voted by a 9-1 margin to oust Mayor Carlos Alvarez over soaring property taxes and sweetheart increases in public-employee union benefits.
Three school board members in Hitchcock County, Neb., likely will face recall elections on Nov. 8 over their role in a bond issue. In Oregon, four cities are engaged in recall campaigns. In Omaha, Mayor Jim Suttle barely survived a recall vote in January. And so it goes all over the country.
Recall is a two-edged sword and should not be attempted lightly, but it is a vital tool for accountability. The process can unseat the unworthy but also must inspire the support of brave politicians who are on the receiving end of organized leftist recall efforts.
As El Paso’s Tom Brown observed, “You have to have a legitimate reason for it. One of the worst things that a public official can do is throw out a vote of the people. If they do that, they’re asking for a recall.”