‘Throw the bums out’: a local trend

As the unemployment rate topped 25% and General Motors planned to cut more jobs in this long-struggling auto town, voters decided to focus their anger on one person: Mayor Donald J. Williamson.

More than 17,000 residents signed a petition demanding his recall, citing waste, corruption, mismanagement and sundry other complaints.

Williamson resigned 10 days before the vote.

“He made people so mad,” said Eric Mays, a retired GM worker who led an earlier effort to recall Williamson that failed. “He had to go.”


Fueled by the recession, voters nationwide are recalling local leaders, including mayors, school board members, county officials and sheriffs.

Although there is no official tally of recall efforts, the website Ballotpedia:Recall reports at least 52 local campaigns this year -- up from the 24 last year, it said.

At least 13 elected officials this year have resigned, decided not to run for reelection or been recalled, according to the website.

“There was so much anger toward big government and, right or wrong, we at the local level are the direct target of it,” said County Commissioner Kevin W. Stufflebean of Coos County, Ore., who successfully beat back a recall attempt this year.

In May, voters in Tuolumne County, Calif., recalled all five board members of the Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District, prompted by the firing of a popular teacher and by claims that it had failed to account for how it had spent $16 million in bond revenue. In Kimberly, Idaho, voters started a petition drive to recall the mayor and two council members after they backed a 50% increase in utility fees to fund infrastructure projects. The petition drive fell short, and law enforcement officials are investigating whether local officials tampered with the process.

A mayoral recall vote was set for this fall in Toledo, Ohio -- despite Mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s announcement July 12 that he wouldn’t seek reelection. But this week, the state’s highest court said the signatures should be thrown out because the recall petition form left out a key sentence. The news was a blow to the bipartisan group of business owners who organized the Take Back Toledo campaign, which says the mayor drove away business opportunities for the city, spent money on landscaping and built ornate “welcome” signs -- while laying off scores of city workers and cutting back on public services.

Recall organizers had gone forward despite the mayor’s announcement. “I didn’t think it was my decision to countermand what 45,000 people wanted to be done,” Tom Schlachter, a real estate developer and Take Back Toledo founder, told the Toledo Blade.

Recalling officials is considered a relatively drastic form of democracy. Instead of challenging an official’s stance on specific issues, such as tax hikes or land use, “voters are condemning all of their policies,” said Phyllis Myers, head of State Resource Strategies, a Washington-based consultant on state and local ballot measures.


“It’s rare that you have the public be that angry with an elected official,” Myers said.

The root of all this resentment is usually money.

Scores of recall efforts were launched during the Great Depression. More recently, in California’s successful recall of Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, voters were furious at the state’s mounting deficit and electricity crisis, which tripled some energy bills.

With the recession continuing to hurt city budgets, “these early recalls could be the beginning of a deluge of local political battles,” said Joe Mathews, a senior fellow at New America Foundation and former Los Angeles Times reporter.


Few municipalities have as much experience mobilizing the electorate around a City Hall recall as Flint. The city pushed to recall two mayors in seven years.

Williamson’s predecessor was recalled in 2002 over economic issues. But Williamson, now 75, soon became a divisive figure in the town that GM built. The multimillionaire was elected in 2003 after giving stump speeches about how he earned his fortune from making truck-bed liners -- despite a sixth-grade education and having serving prison time for several business scams. As mayor, he was combative with the local media and critics.

“He’d been pushing people and pushing people’s patience for a long time,” Mays said.

But the city’s deepening problems eventually seemed to boost mere distaste into a drive for voter revenge. Recall organizers rallied around Williamson’s habit of driving around town in city vehicles with police lights flashing, and his appointment of a father-son duo to run Flint’s police department while federal authorities were investigating the pair for alleged financial improprieties. Last year, residents learned the city had a deficit of more than $8 million, mostly due to lawsuits against the mayor.


Williamson, who did not return calls for comment, and his supporters scoffed at the recall effort, saying voters were recall-crazy: In addition to the mayor, a councilwoman faced a recall attempt, as did three board of education members in nearby Westwood Heights School District.

As the campaign reached its peak in February, Williamson unexpectedly announced his retirement, blaming health problems. Despite his health, Williamson recently reaffirmed plans to run for governor.

Some political observers note that there can be a payoff in these campaigns with voters feeling empowered for the first time in years.

In June, Don Plusquellic, who has been mayor of the struggling blue-collar town of Akron, Ohio, since 1987, overwhelmingly defeated a recall initiative, which cost the city $175,000. Among other things, the recall attempt focused on Plusquellic’s plans to lease the city’s sewer district to pay for college scholarships and on his proposed income-tax hike.


Days after the election results were released, dozens of people stopped by the county board of elections office and filed campaign paperwork for the September primary election. So far, 56 residents are vying for the 10 city council seats and three at-large positions.

“I’ve been involved in local politics for decades and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said attorney Warner Mendenhall, who spearheaded the mayoral recall effort. “People are energized. They’re ready for a fight.”

But more often than not, the months of campaigning leave behind a trail of bad feelings that underscore the personal nature of local politics.

The recall campaign in Coos County was sparked last year after the three-member board of commissioners cut the county’s 40-person roads department by 55%. The board had to reduce its $4-million budget by a quarter.


Times had been tough in the county, a rural area of 60,000 on Oregon’s northwest coast. Unemployment is at 14% and the timber industry has been hit hard by the real estate market’s collapse. “It wasn’t like I wanted to cut those jobs. But that didn’t matter,” said Stufflebean, who oversaw transportation issues for the board.

The news infuriated voters. Residents drove by Stufflebean’s home, taking pictures of him and his family and posting the images online along with nasty comments. His wife was yelled at while grocery shopping. His son, who attends high school with the children of some of the laid-off county road workers, tried to shrug off criticism about his father.

Stufflebean refused to change his position, and won the recall vote in May 55% to 45%.

The campaign against the recall drained his savings. He and his wife recently filed for bankruptcy.


“I’ve gotten called a lot of names,” said Stufflebean, a former city councilman who also used to work for the state’s human services department. “But this? For my family and myself, this was one of the most horrific experiences of our lives.”