THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

People Of Illinois Should Get The Facts From California About Recalling Governors

Dear good people of Illinois:

I understand that you will have a measure on the ballot next year for your approval that would give you a process for recalling a governor.

Given that your last governor was arrested on federal corruption charges and his predecessor is serving time in federal prison, it makes sense that you would entertain any proposal that would seemingly put power back into your hands.

But take it from someone who remembers the last time a governor was recalled: Having the power to recall the governor might feel empowering, but that feeling is temporary at best.

I realize your current governor, Pat Quinn, is responsible for this proposal. He has framed recall as the "ultimate ethics measure for the people of Illinois," based on having two bad governors -- one from each party.

For Quinn, the recall proposal is a no-brainer. He carries the populist banner running against one person who's incarcerated and the other who's indicted. In light of recent history alone, simply putting recall on the ballot makes Quinn appear as the personification of good government.

Eighteen states have the power to recall a governor, but it is rarely used. In 2003, we in California recalled Gray Davis. Before that, the last governor to be recalled was in North Dakota in 1921. Any feeling of elation that you have must be tempered by the rarity of such an occurrence.

Moreover, the Illinois recall measure sets an especially high bar. Thirty state legislators, 15 from each party, would have to sign affidavits to start the process. Proponents would then need to get hundreds of thousands of signed petitions by voters before a special recall election could be set.

The other cautionary point is recall tends to be marked by emotion, which can blind one to judicious reasoning. The political climate that shaped the California recall was the state's energy crisis, which caused energy bills to triple in some cases.

Many of the players responsible for the partial deregulation in 1996 were no longer in office when the crisis occurred.

Californians were justifiably angry and we needed someone to blame. Davis became the convenient fall guy. But Davis was also a key ally in his own demise.

Davis was viewed rightly or wrongly as not fighting for Californians. He was also seen as spending more time fundraising than governing the state.

Davis accepted $2 million from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and used his political connections to pass an estimated $5 billion raise for the association over the coming years. Though he was not guilty of anything illegal, he was guilty in the court of public opinion on charges of corruption.

This led to Davis' recall and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who defeated a plethora of candidates that included Hustler magazine Publisher Larry Flynt and former child actor Gary Coleman.

There's clearly nothing in the Illinois proposal that could rival the circus atmosphere of California's recall. But I do offer a cautionary note based on the perfection of hindsight.

For all of the emotion and frustration that led to the recall, I cannot say it was a net positive for the state. Tens of millions were spent and California today makes the Davis years look like "good old days."

Economically, the state is worse off. Davis was also recalled in part for the Vehicle Licensing Fee (VLF), which would have reduced the current projected deficits.

Many of those who cheered as Schwarzenegger announced that his first act after his election in 2003 would be to cut the VLF are now the primary obstructionists to any proposal that seeks to close the state's annual budget gaps by increasing revenues.

Would California have been better off not recalling Davis? The facts on the ground suggest probably.

The other thing to keep in mind is that part of your frustration is the result of the system working. Neither George Ryan nor Rod Blagojevich got away with their misdeeds.

It was a system based on judicious reasoning and evidence, and it requires time. Don't replace that with the emotion also known as the "will of the people." Trust me, it may feel good in the short-term, but it is hardly a long-term solution.

I wish you the very best whatever you decide.

Sincerely,
A Concerned Californian

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of "Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War." E-mail him byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his Web site: byronspeaks.com.