Ten years Ago Today — California’s First Recall Election
On October 7, 2003, California voters removed Gov. Gray Davis from office and replaced him with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It was the first time in 92 years enough signatures were gathered to call a special election under the state’s recall process, enacted by voters in 1911 ostensibly as a way to break the stranglehold of Southern Pacific Railroad and other business interests on the Capitol.
The historic significance of the election was masked behind an almost carnival- like atmosphere fueled by Schwarzenegger’s celebrity and exploitation of it – like declaring his candidacy on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno — and droves of international media eager to feed on it.
All it took to get on the ballot was a $3,500 fee and the signatures of 65 registered voters. Much to the delight of comedians and the media at large, that helped attract 135 candidates, among them a former child actor and a porn star.
“(It was) a mix of legitimate political contenders, publicity-seekers and some who just thought it would be fun to see their names on the ballot,” writes Rick Orlov in the Los Angeles Daily News.
Among the more mainstream contenders were Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, independent Arianna Huffington, Republican State Senator, now Rep. Tom McClintock and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth.
Davis’ ouster, less than one year into a second term, was a raucous “hasta la vista, baby” from voters, frustrated with gridlock and the seeming impotence of state politicians to deal with the state’s energy crisis.
Schwarzenegger’s swaggering, no-prisoners screen persona presented a sharp contrast to the staid and timid Davis — and an entertaining bazooka blast straight at the rotunda of the status quo.
“The spectacle … shook California from its usual political slumber and captivated an audience that watched from around the world,” writes Mark Barabak of the Los Angeles Times, in an October 7 assessment of the recall’s impact.
At least indirectly the recall led to a major sea change in California electoral politics – ending the ability of lawmakers to draw their own legislative district lines and a system in which the top-two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to a general election run-off.
Both changes – adopted by initiative – were supported by Schwarzenegger and opposed by the Legislature.
“None of this would have been possible without the recall,” writes Susan Kennedy, Schwarzenegger’s former chief of staff, in an October 6 San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece.
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