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Due to Pandemic, Dozens of Governors and Mayors Face Recall Efforts

Recalls against governors in states including Arizona, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin appear to be going nowhere. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, however, is turning to the state supreme court to block an attempt.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan faces a recall complaint that charges her with engaging in “chemical warfare” against residents. (Ellen M. Banner/Seattle Times/TNS)
Tony Evers has run into opposition ever since winning election as governor of Wisconsin. Shortly after his victory in 2018, the GOP-controlled Legislature met in lame-duck session to strip him and other new Democratic executive branch officials of some of their powers. This year, legislators successfully argued before the state supreme court that Evers lacked the power to postpone the April primary election or shut down businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the governor’s ability to act unilaterally to address public health emergencies has been severely curtailed, that isn’t enough to satisfy all his critics. Last week, a Wisconsin woman named Misty R. Polewczysnki filed paperwork seeking to recall Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, calling the governor “unfit for office” and accusing him of tolerating violence during the recent unrest in Kenosha.

“The unconstitutional mandates and lockdowns have cost citizens their businesses, homes, jobs and livelihood,” Polewsczynski wrote in her official complaint.

If Evers’ opponents have routinely sought to undermine him, he’s not alone in facing the prospect of a recall. No fewer than 10 other governors have faced recall efforts since the 2018 elections. Several now face fresh challenges, primarily aimed at Democrats, although Republicans Doug Ducey of Arizona and Brad Little of Idaho have also found themselves targeted. All told, about three-dozen pandemic-related recalls have been launched at the state and local levels.

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council voted to pay legal bills for Kshama Sawant, one of its own members facing a potential recall. In Washington state, officials can only be recalled for violating their oaths of office or malfeasance. A superior court held a hearing on Wednesday to determine whether the allegations against Sawant have merit.

A superior court judge has already allowed a recall against Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to proceed. The mayor is appealing that ruling to the state supreme court, arguing that the complaint against her regarding policing and protests was rooted in policy differences, not any criminal action on her part. “You have to have violated a statutory requirement,” says Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at Wagner College. “A judge has said the recall against the Seattle mayor can proceed. That itself is a very big hurdle to have gotten over.”

The hurdles have been too high, thus far, for those aiming at governors. Governors habitually seek to dismiss most recall attempts as distractions. For Michigan Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, recall efforts are almost a habit. Twenty have been launched against her this year (so far).

“The governor is focused on the job he was elected to do,” says Meghin Delaney, communications director for Nevada Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who faces as many as four separate recall campaigns. “Right now, that includes leading the state through an unprecedented global pandemic."

Governors might be right not to worry too much about the current wave of recalls. The efforts against Little and Oregon Democrat Kate Brown have already failed. It will be difficult for organizers to obtain the numbers of signatures needed, with the pandemic limiting in-person contact. In Wisconsin, the recall effort against Madison Mayor Satya-Rhodes Conway failed last week, with her opponents collecting only 53 signatures out of the more than 36,000 required.

Still, governors, mayors and other elected officials are left facing the fact that some voters are no longer content to wait until the next regularly scheduled election to try to remove them from office, especially during a time of widespread fear, anger and discontent.

“They feel, ‘How can we go after the people we don’t like?’” says Spivak, who edits the Recall Elections Blog. “The pandemic makes it sort of a perfect moment.”

Recalls Become More Partisan

Only two governors have been successfully recalled in American history: Republican Lynn Frazier of North Dakota in 1921 and Democrat Gray Davis of California in 2003. The defeat of Davis led to the election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. It also had what political scientists like to call a demonstration effect, increasing the number of recall attempts against lower-level officials.

Recalls sometimes backfire. The man Evers defeated two years ago, Republican Scott Walker, survived a recall election in 2012. The effort backfired. Not only did Walker go on to win re-election two years later, but the expensive recall raised Walker’s national profile, making him a darling of conservative donors and a plausible though wholly unsuccessful candidate for president.

A 1983 recall against Democrat Dianne Feinstein when she was mayor of San Francisco similarly increased her stature, leading to her nearly 30-year career in the U.S. Senate. Even Frazier was elected to the Senate the year after his recall as governor.

Although most recalls are run by citizen-activists, parties have become more willing to engage. When two Democratic state senators were recalled in 2013, the Colorado Republican Party lent tacit support but did not lead the effort. That changed last year, when state party officials themselves ran mostly abortive efforts to remove Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and a number of legislators.

The unsuccessful effort to remove Kate Brown was spearheaded by the Oregon Republican Party, which initially decried her environmental policy but found that “the governor’s handling of the coronavirus situation… energized the campaign,” in the words of party spokesman Kevin Hoar

The effort — the third set of recall petitions circulated against Brown this year — fell short of the number of required signatures last month. The fear that another member of the same party will inherit the office, such as the lieutenant governor, is one reason why statewide recalls are less successful than local ones, Spivak says.

Aside from partisan gamesmanship, contemporary recalls are also driven by policy disputes, not just malfeasance. Last year, Alaska GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy faced a serious recall attempt due to widespread unhappiness with his proposals for deep cuts to higher education, K-12 schools and the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. (Technically, Dunleavy is still under threat, as Alaska law does not impose the same time limits on signature gathering as other states, which often set a 60-day or 180-day deadline.)

“The recall effort had the effect of jolting the Dunleavy administration,” says Gerald McBeath, a retired political scientist at the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks campus. “It was the recall attempt that curbed the governor’s plans relatively early.”

More Traction at the Local Level

A petition is circulating to remove Louisiana Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards from office, citing his handling of the pandemic, the economy and Hurricane Laura. At a news conference last week, Edwards dismissed the effort. “There are a lot of things that keep me up at night,” he said. “That’s not one of them.”

Petitioners need more than 600,000 signatures to put a recall election on the ballot, which looks like a long shot. Still, the effort has already inspired one columnist to make the case for recalling New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas also faces a nascent recall attempt.

Durkan, the Seattle mayor, may be in the most trouble. The recall effort there will have to collect 56,202 signatures. As of Wednesday, more than 43,500 people had pledged to sign the recall petition. 

Actual signature collection can’t take place until after the state supreme court issues its ruling about whether the recall can proceed. That is already causing some confusion, with Tim Eyman, a veteran sponsor of ballot initiatives in Washington and an unsuccessful GOP candidate for governor this year, circulating petitions. “Because it is against the law to sign the same petition twice, we’re going to have a lot of work (educating voters),” says Grace Harvey, who chairs the Durkan recall committee.

The recall complaint charges Durkan with engaging in “chemical warfare” against residents, in reference to police use of tear gas during protests this summer. Harvey says the situation made her recall the 1999 riots in Seattle during a World Trade Organization meeting, after which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a lengthy report about the police department called “Out of Control.”

“Personally, I thought of recall because I knew there were a whole lot of lawsuits and judgments against the city in 1999,” Harvey says. “I saw the similarities legally, in that civil rights were violated.”

Harvey notes that her committee is nonpartisan but “very definitely left-leaning.” She says she’s been surprised, however, to find that the recall is garnering support from conservatives as well, who think Durkan has let “anarchists take over Seattle.”

“I went on Fox News live and expected a lot of conservative backlash,” Harvey says. “That wasn’t the case at all. People were falling over themselves in excitement.”

The New York Times reported that U.S. Attorney General William Barr has asked prosecutors to explore the question of prosecuting Durkan for allowing protesters to occupy the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood this spring. A Justice Department spokesman denied that Barr had made such a request.

For all its economic success as a city, Seattle politics have been volatile. Four different people have won the city’s last four elections for mayor.

The odds are that Durkan will survive the current challenge, even if the supreme court allows the recall to move forward. Opposition from both the left and right, however, does make her uniquely vulnerable. Spivak says: “That may be the one that gets somewhere.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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