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.

UTI1716477_r420x282Davis, a Democrat, was the first California governor to be recalled although previous governors, including Jerry Brown and Ronald Reagan, were targeted.

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.1108-schwarzenegger_full_380

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.



  1. A bad time in the political history of California and a sad commentary. And, let’s not forget that the reason this foolishness was able to gain a foothold was the actions of, and the cash ponied by the current abomination in the US Congress — Darrell Issa. The recall was thuggery and Mr. Issa is a thug. You don’t have to scratch the surface very deeply to have that sad fact, as well as his pretty dismal background, revealed. And he continues to attempt to spread his slime each day he hangs out in Washington. The only salvation is that Mr. Issa will ultimately leave public office, to the great relief and benefit of the American people, and will fade away into obscurity. Hopefully before he does any more real and lasting damage.

    Comment by Sandy Carey — 10.08.2013 @ 12:02 pm

  2. Sandy
    You are soooo correct. Davis was doing an amazing job! HA!

    Comment by Michael T. Jarvis — 10.08.2013 @ 7:49 pm

  3. I guess this is intended to be sarcastic – nice try. The point here, Michael, is that in a reasonable and DEMOCRATIC world, you don’t take extreme actions just because your have differences with the office holder, you have the cash to take such actions, and you have a BS self-serving political agenda. It is very much like the crap that is going on right now in DC and unfortunately, it always seems to come from the Republican extremist side of the equation. Mr. Issa certainly falls into that category. Remember, in a functioning Republic, particularly in THIS one called America, there are standards and rules that apply to honest and equitable elective process. Those rules have consistently been kicked to the curb by the Republicans and we are in serious danger of losing the whole ball game – and the country along with it. The Gray Davis Republican engendered horror show was the tip of the current rapidly melting iceberg.

    Comment by Sandy Carey — 10.10.2013 @ 10:12 am

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