The Riggs Report: Recall warfare at the Capitol

​July 6, 2017

Fallout from gas tax hike creates high stakes drama

The political chess game over efforts to recall freshman state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, is picking up speed, with accusations of fraud and betrayal filling the air. At least, the air that’s breathed by California’s political community.

The California Republican Party recently submitted nearly 85,000 signatures to election officials, a number far greater than what’s needed to qualify the recall for the ballot.

Radio talk show host Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego City Council member, is spearheading the effort over Newman’s recent vote to pass a transportation bill that raises the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon and the diesel tax by 20 cents a gallon.

Why target Newman, since 78 other legislators in the Senate and the Assembly also voted for the tax increase? Because Newman’s grip on his seat is considered precarious, given that he was just elected last fall in a swing district, beating the incumbent by just under 2,500 votes.

DeMaio and the GOP see an opportunity to chip away at the Democrats’ two-thirds supermajority, beginning with Newman.

“Our goal is to roll back the car and gas tax by recalling state senators one at a time,” DeMaio told NBC Los Angeles’ Conan Nolan last month.

It’s common practice for political leaders to spare a vulnerable member from having to cast a controversial vote. But in this case, the Democrats in the Senate did not have a vote to spare.

The transportation package passed with the bare minimum after Democrat Steve Glazer voted no and Republican Anthony Cannella crossed over to vote yes.

Newman and his allies are fighting back, accusing petition-gatherers of misleading voters by saying their signature was to repeal the gas tax, not to recall Newman.

“It raises some questions as to the legitimacy of this process,” Newman told NBC Los Angeles.

Having put Newman in this position, his fellow Democrats are now trying to rescue him from becoming a political sacrifice. They are asking the state’s political watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, to change existing regulations to allow larger contributions from fellow lawmakers to fight the recall campaign.

Democrats in the Legislature also recently passed a law that greatly extends the time for placing a recall vote on the ballot, meaning that this election—if it goes forward—would be held at a time when there is a greater turnout of Democratic voters.

Newman is right to be worried, given the dynamics of his district and public distress over the gas tax increase. But the reality is that very few recall elections succeed.

Out of 162 recall attempts since 1913, only five state officials have been recalled in California. The most recent one, of course, was the most famous—the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis that led to his replacement by a Hollywood action hero named Arnold Schwarzenegger.