Constituents Give Mayors Pink Slips With Recall Votes

Politicians may have pioneered successful online campaigns, but voters are now using the same technology to oust their elected officials. Over the past two years, there has been a sharp rise in recall elections against mayors. One main culprit is technology. Host Michel Martin discusses the use of technology in recall efforts with Joshua Spivak, founder of the web site "Recall Election Blog," and Mayor Jim Suttle of Omaha, Nebraska. Mayor Suttle survived a tight recall election in January.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, this won't be news to fans of professional hockey, but fighting is actually part of the sport. Now the Washington Post's Paul Farhi explains the strategy behind the mayhem in his profile of Washington Capitals' center Matt Hendricks. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we'll talk about how voters are expressing their dissatisfaction with government and elected officials. And that's nothing new and probably expected in light of the weak economy, budget cuts and partisan battles in Washington and its state capitals across the country. But since all politics is local, as they say, that frustration seems to have led voters and a number of cities to turn on their mayors by trying to recall them from office.

According to the website Ballotpedia, a nonprofit that compiles this information, there were 57 attempted recalls in 2010. That's up from 23 in 2009. Just this year, Mayor Carlos Alvarez of Miami Dade County, Florida - 88 percent of voters ousted him from office.

Mr. CARLOS ALVAREZ (Former Mayor, Miami Dade County): Everything has a beginning and an end. I wish my end would've lasted 18 more months. But it didn't. And you have to face with the reality.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about this phenomenon, so we've called upon Joshua Spivak. He's a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City. He's been writing about recall elections for 15 years. And he recently launched the website Recall Election Blog. And he's with us from the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Welcome, Joshua, thanks for joining us.

Mr. JOSHUA SPIVAK (Senior Fellow, Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us, Mayor Jim Suttle of Omaha, Nebraska. He faced a tough recall election in January, but he won with 51 percent of the vote. Mayor Suttle is now part of the campaign Recall Fever by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. That's to educate mayors and the public about the recent wave of recall elections across the country. And he's with us from his office in Omaha, Nebraska. Mr. Mayor, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

Mayor JIM SUTTLE (Omaha, Nebraska): Well, thanks for having me on your program and taking an interest in this subject.

MARTIN: So Joshua, let's start with you. Is this voter dissatisfaction driving this wave of recalls and just the kind of economic environment and people looking for a place to put it, or is it something else, in your view?

Mr. SPIVAK: I think it's two things. One is the voter dissatisfaction. As in any economic downturn, the voters take it out on politicians. That happens all the time in the past. But the recall expansion has been going on for at least 30 years. For example, of the 20 state legislative recalls that have happened in the country's history, in over a century, 13 of them have been in the last 30 years.

So the recall is expanding, thanks mainly to technological advancements in gathering signatures and getting groups together, in spreadsheets that allow you to pinpoint which voters are the most likely to get involved. Same thing with the initiative - the initiative industry has grown, and so signature gathering has become an industry rather than just something that voters do on their own.

MARTIN: So it used to be quite laborious. Recalling an elected official used to be just a very laborious process. But now because of the technology tools, like social media, for example, it's just become easier to speed up the process. Is that your thought?

Mr. SPIVAK: Yes. Yes. That and you could actually pay money to do it in a much more efficient fashion. So now in California you could spend $3 million and get pretty much any initiative on the ballot. Same thing with the recall. If you give enough money, you will get it on the ballot.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, let's turn to you. What was the catalyst that started the recall offer against you?

Mayor SUTTLE: Well, I think it was the hidden agendas that were finally brought out in the press as we got ready to go up to election day or recall election day of January 25, 2011. But one hour after I was declared the victor on May 12th, 2009 in the original election, there was a blog of Recall Suttle. And this we traced back eventually to my opponent. So what started as sour grapes segued into chaos - let's keep the chaos alive so the mayor falls flat on his face as he tries to get solutions in place.

That segued into busting of the city unions Wisconsin style, and that segued finally into the landlords who were upset that we were cracking down on code violations. These were the four hidden agendas behind the scene.

MARTIN: Joshua, did you follow Mayor Suttle's campaign?

Mr. SPIVAK: Yes, I did.

MARTIN: And tell us what you know about it.

Mr. SPIVAK: Well, as he said, there was this campaign against him. Though I don't think the blogs or social media are something that you could focus too much on as a problem - because they just exist. They're the same thing as news and gossip used to be. It's a fact of life. And actually, the mayor's conference has mentioned this in their argument. And it seems to be sort of an off-topic problem.

I think that the focus, as in Mayor Suttle's case, should be signature requirements. How high should they be? How difficult should you make a recall? I don't know that there's anything Mayor Suttle could've done. And that's sometimes what happens with these recalls. They just - they - if an opponent wants to put them on the ballot, they'll get on. And for Mayor Suttle, fortunately, he was able to win over the voters.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We're talking about recall fever that seems to be spreading the country. Local officials seem to be subjected to recalls at a faster rate than before. We're talking about what those reasons might be. We're speaking with Joshua Spivak. He studies the issue and he writes a blog called Recall Election Blog. I'm also speaking with Mayor Jim Suttle of Omaha, Nebraska, who survived a tough recall election last year.

Well, Joshua, tell me about other cases other than Mayor Suttle's. Have you figured out in which instances mayors are successful in finding, or other elected officials are successful in fighting them back and ones in which they are not? I know that in Mayor Alvarez's case there was a feeling that he was tone deaf, I mean the fact that he had raised his - the salaries of staff at the same time that he was cutting, you know, elsewhere. And that that seemed to be a feeling that you just don't have the right attitude for the times that we are now in. So do you find that there's any through-line to the narrative on either side of this?

Mr. SPIVAK: I think every recall is unique in its own way. What usually occurs is that feeling of betrayal, that somebody was betrayed by the elected officials. The quintessential recall in this case was a recall of a Wisconsin state senator, George Petak, in 1996, who voted one way on a stadium financing bill and then switched his vote. And then he was recalled.

And so that feeling that, hey, the voters did - the elected official did something that I wasn't expecting and that I voted against is one of the big motivators. Taxes, pay raises - two state senators in Idaho in 1971 were recalled because of pay raises. This actually goes back to the beginning of America. In 1816, Congress changed the way it was paying itself that seemed like an increase, and two-thirds of Congress was gone by the next election.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, how were you able to address this? I mean, what you're hearing Joshua say is that if you've got people who are motivated, pretty much they can get these issues before the voters if they're motivated, organized and have enough money. So how were you able to resist it?

Mayor SUTTLE: Well, we have a very good group of staff members and our consultants. We pulled them all back in. We actually planned for the worst case and the worst case was that I would be back on the ballot. So we began our efforts and stayed consistent with our storyline. And the thing that really captured the voters more than anything else from our polling is the cost of the recall elections.

We would've had to gone through three, if you think of the recall, then a primary for mayor and then a general for mayor - this was $1 million at a time when we were with tight budgets. And the public did not want to do that. And so even the recallers were flaunting something that they were criticizing me on. And that is spending. They were going to spend $1 million of taxpayer money for an election that was, in essence, a fifth quarter to a football game. I won fair and square on May 12, 2009. And they wanted a do-over.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, so, what is your sense going forward? Do you feel that there needs to be, overall, some change in the rules? I mean, I understand that the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in part, what they're doing with this campaign is trying to analyze this issue just to see whether the bar is too low now and should be raised. What is your sense of it based on your experience?

Mr. SUTTLE: Well, I think it's obvious the system is broken and being misused, but that's for the legislature to decide. If I spent my time on this issue, I will be shirking, bringing the real solutions to the horrific problems that Omaha is facing and other cities are facing.

Now, I fulfilled getting stability to the city's finances. That was one of my promises and I fulfilled it. Our books are working, our finances are working and we have full services offered to the public, as they have demanded.

Second objective I have is to create jobs in the private sector. So I'm going to stay on mission. I'm not going to get off mission if individuals want to fix the problem of the statutes, then that's for the legislature and they are so inclined. They're welcome to do that.

MARTIN: Mr. Spivak, what do you think? You studied this issue for a very long time. So, what's your sense of it, based on your reporting over the years?

Mr. SPIVAK: I think there are very strong philosophical reasons against the recall. And Alexander Hamilton made them, and William Howard Taft made them. However, the voters like it and the voters approved it. And so, there are strong philosophical reasons for the recall. And I don't think a campaign against the recall will work.

In fact, it's been expanding and other states are adopting it. I think it has to be practical issues of, are we running it right? So, for example, Mayor Suttle's example of re-elections, do you want just one like California has? Which I think would benefit the incumbent, but I think that's the right thing to do from a cause standpoint.

Similarly, raising the signature requirements for local officials as opposed to state officials, state officials it seemed fine - local officials, because mayoral races are lower turnout. Miami had a 4 percent requirement, 4 percent registered voters. That's what the requirement was. That's how many signatures you needed. That seems pretty low.

Generally, it's between 15 and 25 percent for state officials. And it depends on whether it's registered voters who need to sign or the amount of voters who turned out in the last election. So I think that's the play at those margins.

Because the philosophical arguments of the recall have been gone over and the recall has succeeded and won in the states it's been adopted and other states are just considering it right now. So it seems to be a popular initiative.

MARTIN: Joshua Spivak is the founder of Recall Election Blog. He's also a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City. He joined us from the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.

Mayor Jim Suttle of Omaha, Nebraska survived a tough recall election. He is now part of the campaign recall fever by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to educate mayors and the public about the recall laws and we caught up with him at his office in Omaha, Nebraska. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. SPIVAK: Our pleasure.

Mr. SUTTLE: Thanks for having me.

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