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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Recalling Mayors

In our chapter on elections and campaigns, we discuss recall elections. On the local level, USA Today reports, such elections are becoming more common:

Buoyed by the viral power of the Internet and rising anti-government sentiment, disgruntled voters have set off a rash of recall drives against mayors in cities across the USA.

The urge to oust city leaders has intensified in the struggling economy as more mayors raise taxes and cut services to close budget shortfalls.

Fifty-seven mayors faced recall attempts last year, up from 23 in 2009, according to Ballotpedia, a non-profit that tracks recall elections. So far this year: 15. Almost all have failed.

Recalls are so frequent that the U.S. Conference of Mayors today launches a campaign warning mayors to brace for recalls. The effort includes a documentary-style film, Recall Fever: Stop the Madness. The film recounts recent recall efforts in Omaha; Miami; Akron, Ohio; and Chattanooga, Tenn.

"Any person who's coming in to serve needs to understand this is happening," says Tom Cochran, CEO and executive director of the non-partisan mayor's group. Cochran says that budgetary decisions made in this tough economic climate are likely to trigger more anger. "If they don't have a website, if they don't have a blogger," he says of mayors, "they better, by God, get one." ...

Voters generally like recalls, says Joshua Spivak, who writes a blog on recall elections and is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City. "That's the whole point of democracy," he says. "Mayors have to accept that … that's part of the challenges of being a public elected official."

Most recalls fail, but last month, Miami-Dade County mayor Carlos Alvarez, who listed no party preference, was ousted by 88% of voters in a special election. Alvarez angered constituents when he gave pay increases to staffers and raised property taxes during a housing bust.

At the Recall Elections Blog, Spivak faults the Conference of Mayors effort:

Specifically, it notes that the recall has targeted local leaders “who have done nothing illegal” and that voters are “expressing their feelings -- often times in destructive ways.” This seems to be a fruitless attempt to shift the blame to the voters, and by stressing the illegality red herring, ignores the fact that recalls are (in most states and localities) inherently political devices. Most recalls are not based around illegal action, and a study of the history of the recall shows that it was not intended to flush out corruption. Voters are simply not going to like this line of attacks.

This is a shame, as the mayors should be calling attention to the cost of recalls. As I’ve mentioned before, arguing that a recall is expensive does not work that well as a campaign defense. However, it is pretty much the only time that the recall’s price tag comes up. The mayors are right to bring this issue to the fore now, and try to present a reasoned explanation for why voters should limit the recall in order to save money. But the Mayors have to walk a tightrope – which their initial press release did not do – and show that they are looking out for the voters best interest, and not seeking to protect themselves and limit options for deploying the recall.