Block that Recall.
We just had an election to recall the Governor of California in September 2021. That recall failed.
On February 15, in San Francisco, we had another recall election to recall three San Francisco School Board members. This time it succeeded.
A recall is a kind of state or city version of impeaching the President. The idea is that an elected official has done something so illegal or outrageous that we simply cannot wait for the next election to get rid of this despicable human being — An election must be held ASAP! Unlike impeachment, which is decided by the House and Senate, it is the voters rather than legislators who decide whether to kick the bum out.
A recall is supposed to be an extreme solution to an extreme problem. It is not supposed to be used to get rid of someone just because you disagree with them. That’s what regularly scheduled elections are for.
The supporters of the recall could not point to any particularly illegal or egregious actions of the three board members they wanted to toss out. They presented a laundry list of grievances — including the closing of the schools because of the pandemic. This was something that was done by every single school district in the country! The school board’s most controversial act was a decision to change the names of 44 schools whose names it said honored figures linked to racism, sexism, and other injustices. There was a firestorm of outrage about it in San Francisco, and it was a kooky “Only in San Francisco” news story around the world. All of this outrage caused the school board to reverse its decision — so why should they be recalled?
So why did this recall happen? There’s a general “Throw the bums out!” feeling in the air. Is this feeling generated by our terrible frustration at the failure to throw Trump out of office?
Yes, Trump really did commit impeachable acts. He obstructed justice, profited from the Presidency, solicited foreign interference in U.S. elections, advocated political and police violence, abused his power of pardoning. engaged in reckless conduct, persecuted political opponents, violated immigrants’ right to due process, and violated campaign finance laws.
Phew. Now, that’s someone who should be thrown out of office! Any one of those reasons is enough to justify impeachment. Compare that to the School Board members who:
- Infuriated parents by closing the schools, which was universally done because of the pandemic
- Wanted to rename 44 schools and changed their minds when many people got upset.
Or perhaps the anger around these recalls is “part of the culture of outrage generated by Fox News and Trump and his supporters,” as Peter Gabel, long-time activist, suggests in a letter to the SF Chronicle. Gabel goes on:
“Only if true malfeasance occurs — such as bribery, sexual harassment or other illegal or immoral conduct — should we disrupt the normal democratic process in this way. Controversial policy decisions or votes should not be a basis for recall because it undermines the election process and encourages politically motivated wealthy donors to threaten recalls every time something happens that they don’t like or that challenges their interests.”
In a democracy, we have an established path to throw unpopular politicians out of office. And that path is:
Elect someone else.
Impeachment and recall are important safety valves if the office-holder is guilty of committing crimes or violating their oath of office in some totally reprehensible way. But used repeatedly and without good cause, recalls can destroy our democracy because:
If you’ve got enough money, you can get a recall on the ballot.
So if recalls become business as usual, it’s an easy way for billionaires to gain even more control of our government.
Who funded the School Board recall? Billionaires like venture capitalist Arthur Rock and the former head of PayPal, David Sacks, among others. These people don’t give a damn about public schools. They funded the recall to enhance their own power. And the billionaires’ power will be enhanced now that the recall is successful because Mayor Breed appoints the replacements.
Now, I know a lot of people — not just here but all over the country — felt all warm and fuzzy when an African-American woman — who grew up in the San Francisco projects, no less — was elected mayor. What a feel-good story! Isn’t that what democracy is about, in its best moments?
Well, actually, no. Democracy’s best moments are when the voters look past a candidate’s identity to examine whose interests she actually represents. And from the beginning of her political journey, London Breed has, as they say in politics, “carried water” for the billionaires of San Francisco. That’s who’s who brung her to the dance. Everyone in politics in this town knows this.
So the School Board replacements will be beholden to the Mayor and the billionaires — not the people who voted for them since no one voted for them.
And in San Francisco, being on the School Board is often the first step in a political career. So this gives Breed a huge and unearned say in the future of San Francisco politics.
This successful recall was a step away from democracy and away from a progressive political vision of San Francisco.
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