Illinois voters fed up with the string of scandals that landed their previous two governors in jail will get a chance this November to approve changes that would let the public oust governors before their terms are up. Interestingly, one of the proposal’s chief proponents is the state’s current incumbent, Democrat Pat Quinn.
“The very best way to ensure the governor does the right thing all the time is to have in our constitution the power of recall with respect to the office of governor,” Quinn said last fall, as the General Assembly voted to put the measure on the 2010 ballot. Quinn, who came to office following the removal of predecessor Rod Blagojevich, said recall is “the ultimate ethics measure.”
But even though the measure is widely expected to pass — and probably by overwhelming majorities — skeptics question whether the new recall power will really improve the job performance of Illinois governors.
“This law could make gutless politicians even more gutless,” argues state Senator Mike Jacobs, a Democrat who once nearly came to blows with Blagojevich. With all of Illinois’ recent troubles, voters will support any idea that gets rid of politicians, Jacobs says. “Voters want to take everyone out except themselves. They don’t want to be culpable, even though they elected (Blagojevich) twice. But we’re all culpable.”
Illinois would become the 19th state to give its voters the power to recall a governor. The idea took off during the Progressive Era early in the 20th century, with Oregon leading the way in 1908, followed shortly by California and other, mostly Western states. Minnesota was the most recent, approving the measure in 1996 following a string of unrelated but embarrassing scandals involving state legislators.
But the power is rarely used. In fact, only two governors have ever been recalled: North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921 and California’s Gray Davis in 2003.
Jack Franks, a Democratic state representative in Illinois and a frequent Blagojevich critic, sponsored the recall measure that voters will decide upon in November. To him, the fact that recall has been used so rarely shows that it is “an extraordinary remedy for extraordinary circumstances.”
Of course, Blagojevich’s arrest, impeachment and removal is the biggest reason voters will get to decide whether to institute recall in Illinois. Last month, Blagojevich was convicted of a felony for lying to the FBI, and a retrial on 23 other corruption-related offenses is expected to start in January.
Blagojevich himself swept into the governor’s mansion in 2002 on a platform of “reform and renewal,” vowing to clean up the culture of corruption that eventually landed his own predecessor, Republican George Ryan, in a federal prison for steering state business to friends who provided him with gifts and political favors.
Quinn, a longtime agitator for populist causes, says he’s supported recall power for Illinoisans for more than 30 years. He raised the issue as lieutenant governor in 2008, while Blagojevich was still governor, but the proposal stalled in the state Senate, which then was controlled by a Blagojevich ally. The landscape changed a year later, after the Senate, under new leadership, unanimously removed Blagojevich from office. A scramble to pass ethics-related legislation ensued, and one of Quinn’s biggest victories in the negotiation was approval of the ballot question to allow for the recall of the governor.
The recall provision is narrowly tailored and complicated. A recall movement can start only with the support of 10 senators and 20 representatives in the 177-member legislature, with a proportion coming from each party. Then comes the statewide petition drive. The number of signatures needed depends on the turnout in the last governor’s election, but based on the turnout from 2006, some 750,000 names would be required.
The governor would be the only elected official who could be recalled. Legislators, other statewide officers and local officials could not be deposed at the ballot box. That limitation has angered some of the original recall proponents. “Lawmakers tried to look reformist by proposing a pathetic little amendment ... to allow only the recall of governors,” the Chicago Tribune editorial board complained. “They granted themselves and other politicians a pass.”
Veteran lawmaker Bill Black, a Republican in the House of Representatives, blames Democrats for writing “the most convoluted recall provision that any state has ever put before the voters.” He supports the high threshold for signatures, because he says it ensures that officials are removed only for a pattern of misconduct, not just an unpopular decision on one issue. But he questions why, in a state infamous for political corruption, recall should be limited to the governor. And he criticizes the provision that gives lawmakers a measure of initial control over recall drives. “The public demanded a horse,” Black says. “What the Democrats finally let us vote on is a strangely shaped camel.”
The recall question will be at the top of Illinois ballots in November, but the fight to get it there generated far more headlines than has the subsequent debate over whether it should pass.
There has been no organized opposition to speak of. Franks, the sponsor, says he hasn’t raised a dollar to press for its passage. Good government groups are focusing on other issues. Even Quinn, the most visible champion of recall, has scarcely mentioned it during his reelection campaign, in which he’s trying to fend off a challenge from Republican state Senator Bill Brady.
What discussion is occurring centers on whether recall would make governors more accountable to the public or less likely to make tough decisions.
Franks says the state’s experience with Blagojevich shows why recall is needed. The former governor fought with the General Assembly incessantly, even though it was controlled by fellow Democrats. State government nearly ground to a halt, lurching from crisis to crisis. Insults and lawsuits flew, deficits piled up and the state’s top leaders stopped talking to each other. Meanwhile, many of the governor’s closest allies were being subpoenaed, arrested, indicted and convicted.
Even so, Franks says, lawmakers shied away from impeaching Blagojevich until his arrest in December 2008. Prosecutors ordered the arrest to prevent Blagojevich from selling an appointment to the U.S. Senate. “But for the U.S. attorney,” Franks says, “the former governor would still be the governor today.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean recall would have sped up the process, argues state Senator Kwame Raoul, a Democrat who says he “held his nose” while voting for the amendment. “Part of the reason we have a term of four years is that chief executives are expected to take bold action when necessary, even when it may not be popular in the moment,” Raoul says. He worries that monied interests would finance a recall drive based on unpopular decisions rather than corruption. When Californians ousted Davis in 2003, the effort to remove him was spearheaded by wealthy U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa. “It wasn’t the people rising up,” Raoul says.
But Illinois’ troubled gubernatorial history — four of the eight governors before Quinn were convicted of felonies — makes it likely that this year’s recall amendment will pass.
“No state,” Franks says, “needs this more than Illinois.”