Opinion: How Schwarzenegger’s recall victory 20 years ago reverberates in California now
It’s 20 years ago this week since Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, after the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis. For much of the last two decades, the recall has been remembered mostly as a bizarre media circus, with 135 candidates, a hurried 60-day campaign, and a debate featuring Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington trading insults.
This is a shame, because that strange, cataclysmic event shifted California’s political priorities and offers important lessons that might provide some much-needed hope about our power to change the future.
In retrospect, the Davis recall looks like the first of three election earthquakes in the 21st century that shook up American politics. The other two are the elections of Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016.
For Americans, the recall election, with all its bombast, would preview how politics would grow louder, more populist, more direct. And for Californians, the recall was something more: the beginning of a new era in governance.
In three major policy areas, the recall brought big movements in policies to put California more in line with the preferences of its people.
Despite Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature, the California governor has broad powers.
None of those policies got the same TV coverage that was devoted to populist hot-buttons like Davis’ raising the “car tax,” or Schwarzenegger’s “groping” scandal. But the policies were all major proposals during Schwarzenegger’s recall campaign in 2003 and his subsequent reelection in 2006.
And these shifts in priorities are ongoing, having outlasted Schwarzenegger’s administration because they were embraced by his two gubernatorial successors, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, and by voters.
The first of these issues is children’s programs. Schwarzenegger repeatedly promised more spending on schools, children’s health, the after-school programs that had been the subject of his personal philanthropy and a ballot initiative he championed. Facing budget problems, he struggled to deliver on these promises in office. But he made some progress, and Brown and Newsom have done even better.
Today, per-pupil spending in California is more than twice what it was 20 years ago. With the help of Obamacare — which Schwarzenegger strongly supported — all California children, even undocumented immigrants, are eligible for health insurance. And California now spends so much on after-school programs — more than the other 49 states combined — that the Biden administration is trying to convince the rest of the country to adopt our approach.
The second area was the environment. During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger, assisted by some of his most progressive advisers, offered six major promises on environment and climate change. Through executive orders and legislative compromises, he achieved all six — including solar and alternative energy investment, building efficiency standards, landmark targets for reducing greenhouse gases, and reductions in the carbon intensity of fuel.
The third issue area was, appropriately, the power of people in democracy. Near his term’s end, Schwarzenegger convinced voters, after multiple failed attempts, to make two changes.
One was to eliminate partisan primary elections, replacing them with a “top two” system where the top two vote-getters in the first round of an election advance to the second-round election in November, regardless of party affiliation. The other was to end gerrymandering by the legislature and turn the job of drawing electoral districts over to a 14-member, bipartisan commission of citizens who do not have close ties to state government or political parties. This nonpartisan redistricting concept has spread to other states — from Colorado to Michigan — with Schwarzenegger’s continued advocacy. One-third of legislative districts in the U.S. are now drawn by such commissions.
These significant changes were possible in part because of the recall. Schwarzenegger, however, doesn’t much like reflecting on the recall, or the past in general. When I interviewed him at his L.A. home in September for a new book on the recall’s impact, he kept changing the subject to the future, specifically the need for the U.S. to build new infrastructure to meet our economic and environmental needs.
He suggested that President Biden’s infrastructure package, of $1.3 trillion over 10 years, was not nearly fast enough. “We need action now,” said Schwarzenegger. If he were president, Schwarzenegger told me, “there’d be $1.3 trillion in infrastructure every year.”
Only when I questioned whether such an investment was possible did he bring up the 2003 recall. The lesson of that event, he said, “is that anything is possible.”
Joe Mathews is author of “The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy” and of a new audiobook, “The California Recall: Its First 20 Years.” He is the California columnist and democracy editor of Zócalo Public Square.
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