The silver lining of San Francisco’s ‘recall fever’

Recalls are an expensive but valuable amplifier for everyday people

You’ve probably heard the alerts and alarms. The country, it is said, is gripped by “recall fever.”

The result, critics insist, is that every kook with a cause — from school curriculum to election fraud — can put city and state officials on a ballot and force them to defend their office. The mantra is we have to stop this runaway tactic before it undermines democracy.

I don’t buy it.

In fact, I’d say, as San Francisco is proving with the school board and District Attorney Chesa Boudin, that recalls are not only effective, they are a valuable amplifier for everyday people.

Now first, we must acknowledge an unfortunate truth. Recall elections are way too expensive. The unsuccessful recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom reportedly cost $276 million. Even for a state with a projected budget surplus of over $75 billion, that’s a lot of money.

The San Francisco Unified School District Board recall is projected to run to about $8 million. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has proposed that, instead of the cash-strapped school district paying, The City should foot the bill.

It should. These aren’t a bunch of cranks with a cause. They are parents, residents and proud San Franciscans that are standing up — and in large numbers.

But, you say, with all these recalls, where will it end?

Well, for starters, in general, recalls have been remarkably unsuccessful.

Yes there are lots of recall attempts all over the country. And yes, they’ve increased recently. The website Ballotpedia tracked 29 school board recalls in the country in 2020. In 2021, the site has identified 82.

But it is one thing to announce a recall. It is much tougher to remove someone from office.

Even getting to an election is no slam dunk.

Of those 29 recalls Ballotpedia studied last year, just four made the ballot. And of the 64 school board members who were targeted, only five were recalled, a success rate of 7.8%.

Which brings us to another point — recalls are hard. We talk about how low the bar is to force an election, but the evidence shows it takes a ton of time, money and more money.

In San Francisco, the signature threshold to force the recall of three school board members or District Attorney Chesa Boudin was 50,000. Organizers felt they needed to get at least 70,000 signatures to cover fake or unverifiable signatures.

That’s a lot of people, especially when you consider there are only 504,000 registered voters in The City. On our block, there was a table with a volunteer collecting school board recall signatures every weekend for at least a month.

And a signature drive in San Francisco almost certainly means using paid signature collectors, who may get as much as $1 to $3 per signature. That gets expensive. You need financial backing.

Which brings us to another great truth about recall elections. If you get all the way to an election, you must have really pissed some people off.

Because, again, recalls are commonplace. In California, there have been 55 recall attempts to oust governors, six of which were directed at Gavin Newsom. And he’s still in his first term.

But none of those went anywhere until Newsom’s French Laundry moment, when he was seen dining, indoors at a swanky Wine Country restaurant, after telling people to stay in for the COVID lockdown.

People were furious at the hypocrisy, and Republicans and conservative corporate donors — no dummies — saw Newsom was in trouble and dumped in cash, over $4.7 million. After five failed attempts, opponents finally got Newsom to an election.

And, as we know, he prevailed in a landslide. Which is what history would have predicted. As NPR points out, only two gubernatorial recalls have ever been successful. One was Gray Davis in 2003 and the other was North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier in 1921.

In San Francisco, the three embattled school board members — Alison Collins, Faauuga Moliga and Gabriela López — consistently failed to read the room. They launched on quixotic, far-left quests while parents were frantic to get their kids back in school.

The board’s inaction, its lack of accountability and its tone deaf decision to rename schools during a pandemic galvanized the opposition. The capper was Collins’ frivolous $87 million lawsuit. Recall proponents didn’t get 70,000 signatures; they got over 80,000.

Meanwhile, part of the anger directed at D.A. Boudin is blowback from a city that does not feel safe from crime. Boudin is the law enforcement officer, so he gets blamed.

But he hasn’t helped himself with promises to “dismantle the war on drugs.” And his commitment to replace “incarceration” with “decarceration,” putting fewer people in jail, during an anxious time of robberies, car break-ins and assaults, fueled the recall effort.

Which brings up another outcome of a recall — it concentrates the issues. Last week, two prosecutors in the D.A.’s office, Brooke Jenkins and Don Du Bain, not only resigned, but are actively campaigning for the recall. According to NBCBayArea, they are among 51 attorneys who had quit or been fired since Boudin took office in January 2020.

It is all having an effect. On Oct. 22, recall organizers said they’d collected over 83,000 signatures, 30,000 more than needed.

Boudin has clearly been paying attention. At a virtual town hall in August, he made a point to cite his tough on crime numbers, 7,000 new criminal cases filed, including charges filed in 80% of burglaries.

We will see if that moves voters.

Newsom made the same pivot when it became clear that the recall was a real threat. He got out and about in the state and called in an A-list group of Democratic heavyweights — President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Senators Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, to name a few.

It had an effect. Newsom mobilized his supporters, reset his priorities and admitted the recall was “humbling.” Voters bought it and returned him to office handily.

So, to review: recalls are expensive, but actually getting to the ballot is much more difficult than you might think. And because the standard is high, when a group reaches it and forces a recall election, it gives credibility to their concerns and makes them feel they have agency and are not powerless.

And finally, a recall can actually be a good thing for an elected official. We know Newsom’s story.

But you may not have seen the results of last month’s recall election in Sonoma County. District Attorney Jill Ravitch was targeted by exactly the kind of wealthy, self-interested dolt that recall opponents fear.

Bill Gallagher, owner of Oakmont Senior Living, was sued by Ravitch’s office for allegedly abandoning more than 100 elderly residents in two rest homes in 2017, as the deadly Tubbs Fire approached.

Gallagher settled the suit, but was reportedly furious. The sole financier of the campaign, Gallagher poured some $1.7 million into TV, radio and social media ads, attacking Ravitch personally. With the barrage, he managed to get the recall to an election.

“This was one angry man who was held accountable,” Ravitch said. “And he had a temper tantrum.”

Yet his effort got crushed — 79.95% to 20.05% — allowing Ravitch to finish her term.

Which is something else a recall can provide: a vote of confidence.

Contact C.W. Nevius at Twitter: @cwnevius

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