What the California Recall Showed

Against the Current, No. 107, November/December 2003

Barry Sheppard

SAN FRANCISCO — THE recall of Governor Gray Davis by a margin of 55 to 45%, and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace him, was a massive repudiation of Davis’ policies and those of his Democratic Party.

Voter turnout was far higher than in any California election in decades, reflecting deep anger at the status quo.

On the second part of the ballot, Schwarzenegger got 48%, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante finished a distant second with 32%, conservative Republican Tom McClintock came in third with 13%, and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo followed with 3%. There were another 131 candidates.

Schwarzenegger was very careful throughout the campaign to avoid taking positions on most issues, and no one knows what he will do as governor. His large vote and the majority vote for recall were more a vote against Davis and the Democrats than they were for something. Schwarzenegger projected a vaguely “moderate” image on issues such as abortion and gay rights, and the Republican hard right dislikes him.

Speaking on “Democracy Now,” a round table radio talk show, with three Democrats the day after the election, Camejo charged that the Democrats were in denial. “The majority of the people, 78%, oppose Davis,” Camejo said.

“The people’s judgment of Davis is he is a complete and total disaster. He gave the energy companies $43 billion [during the fake energy crisis contrived by those same companies in 2000-2001], just gave it away, to reward them for their criminal activity ….

“In California, the rich have the lowest tax rate, because that’s what the Democrats have done. The Democrats voted unequivocal support for George Bush on the war. They have demoralized . . . and weakened the progressive currents in California. And people are so fed up with them, that in desperation, they were fooled by Arnold Schwarzenegger…

“There is an utter crisis in California politically, and it’s a crisis of the Democratic Party misrepresenting the working people, misrepresenting the majority.”

The Choices

Davis, the Democrats and their traditional supporters in Black, Latino and women’s organizations, together with the trade union bureaucracy, campaigned for a “no” vote on the recall. The argument was that the Republicans had to be stopped, no matter how bad Davis was.

Fifty percent of union members voted for the recall — despite their unions’ support of the $20 million anti-recall campaign — as did 46% of Latinos and 51% of women. Only among Blacks did the recall lose massively — but even then, some 27% voted for it. (However, the recall carried all counties except the coastal ones along the northern two-thirds of the state.)

The vote for the recall by women was especially interesting in the face of credible accounts in the last days before the vote that Schwarzenegger has had a long history of what could be legally defined as sexual battery against women.

Davis was elected governor for a second term only one year ago, in a lackluster campaign with low voter turnout. His opponent was a conservative Republican who opposed abortion rights, equal rights for gays, and espoused other issues dear to the hearts of the Christian right.

Because the 2002 election was so lopsided, the “lesser evil” argument wasn’t persuasive, and Camejo received 5.3% as the Green Party candidate statewide, with a high of 16% in San Francisco. This time around, with the Democrats and their supporters going all out on a “lesser evil” campaign, despite greater media exposure, Camejo’s percentage declined.

Despite his 3% statewide vote, the Valley Times reported that a statewide exit poll found Camejo received 5% of the Black and Latino vote, 9% of the vote from 18-29 year olds, 8% of those registering independent and 6% among those who rarely or never voted before this election.

The drop in Camejo’s statewide vote was partially due to the fact that the Democrats painted the recall as a right-wing “coup.” Arriana Huffington, who had been running as a progressive independent, pulled out of the race to support Davis in the final days of the campaign — reversing what she had been saying throughout most of the campaign.

Nonetheless Camejo’s campaign broke important ground. He was on six televised debate s — the first time a third party was allowed in such debates in California’s history. The daily press was compelled to cover some of his program.

Millions heard his proposals to raise taxes on the rich to balance the budget, to reverse the cuts in education and other social services enacted by the Democrats and Republicans in the recent state budget, for universal health care, for treating drug addition as a public health problem not a criminal one, and other pro-working-class positions.

Rather than personal attacks on the other candidates, Camejo attempted to demystify the budget and undemocratic election laws. He outlined how California’s tax structure places an unfair burden on working people, with the top 1% paying only 7.2% in state and local taxes while the lowest 20% of non-elderly families pay an average of 11.3%. He also called for a living wage.

After one debate Camejo’s website went from having 1,000 visits a day to 10,000; after the last debate a poll of 3,000 viewers revealed that one-third of them thought Camejo had won the debate.

Camejo was able to speak up and down the state. In one meeting of about 200 at the University of California at Berkeley that I attended, he was repeatedly interrupted with applause for his sharp attacks on the Democrats and Republicans, the war and the Patriot Act, and received a standing ovation. The meeting was organized by the International Socialist Organization, and was endorsed by Solidarity and the Green Party.

Without a more democratic electoral system — starting with instant runoff voting, same-day registration and proportional representation — independent candidates will be seen as marginal.

The Coming Elections

The problems in California — the budget crisis, racism, cutbacks in social services, the jobless economic recovery — are national problems. In addition, the disaster in Iraq weighs on people’s minds. These are the problems that fueled the voter revolt in California, and loom as the 2004 presidential elections approach.

Unfortunately, many leftists and progressives are already joining the “anyone but Bush” bandwagon for the 2004 elections. A number signed a statement that implicitly suggests the need to defeat Bush at all costs. These include Noam Chomsky, Z magazine editor Michael Albert, Angela Davis and other leaders of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and writers David Bacon and Michael Moore.

Insofar as such figures — and there will be many more, including people calling themselves socialists — take the stand of “anyone but Bush,” they have put themselves in the position of being taken for granted by the Democrats.

Peter Camejo spent the last weeks and days of the campaign fiercely arguing against this “lesser evilism,” and for the Greens to remain independent as 2004 approaches. How well the Greens do this will be an important test.

ATC 107, November-December 2003