Mayor West's future is shaky
Special to The Times
SPOKANE voters have the chance to join a growing number of cities throughout the country in a newly invigorated tradition — ousting an elected leader by recall.
While it is a first for this city, there has been an expanding trend of both threatening and using the recall against local officials. Mayor James West could survive Tuesday's ballot count, but judging by how other voters from across the nation weigh in on recalls, he probably should start making other plans for his career.
The sex and abuse-of-office scandal surrounding West has made him an obvious candidate for a successful recall. Because of its relatively rare usage, the recall has never been considered too important, and it is therefore hard to pinpoint what causes a recall to succeed or fail. Though it has been around in America since Colonial times, it only grasped widespread attention with its use against California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.
Despite its lack of public attention, it is well entrenched throughout the country. Ever since its revival by Los Angeles in 1903, more than 60 percent of American cities and municipalities have adopted the recall for local officials, a total that exceeds the number possessing the initiative and referendum.
Even with its lack of use, the recall is a popular threat, but one that is very hard to carry out. For example, in the 90-odd years that California has had the recall, governors were threatened with a recall 31 times before such an effort finally got enough signatures to get on the ballot. And California has a much easier recall law for statewide officials than other states.
In Spokane and Washington state, which both require malfeasance in office and must clear a judicial-review hurdle, it is much more difficult to get the recall to a vote.
However, once the recall gets on the ballot, there seems to be a very good likelihood that the official will be ousted. A 1987 book cites a 50-percent success rate and ancillary evidence provides support for that figure. For example, only two governors in U.S. history have faced a recall, but both were removed, and in California, the state that has used the device the most, four of the seven state legislators who faced a vote were given an early retirement. Why some officials are removed and others survive is a hazy question.
There is no great unifying theme in recall removals, but there are some very specific attributes that make a recall likely to succeed. Charges of corruption are probably among the top reasons for recalls. Many of the people who have lost recall elections were removed under fire of corruption allegations. This has been the case from the beginning, as can be seen by the cases involving the first two mayors recalled in this country, Los Angeles' A.C. Harper in 1909 and Seattle's Hiram Gill in 1911.
Straight-out partisan attempts to remove an elected official mostly fall flat, even though Davis and a few other candidates certainly faced that problem. Instead, recalls are frequently successful when they are run based on a single issue, such as raising taxes, or when an interest group feels betrayed. One of the great examples of this was the removal of Wisconsin state Sen. George Petak in 1996; Petak was voted out of office for switching his vote to support a tax to help build a new baseball stadium.
Unfortunately for Mayor West, both corruption charges and feelings of betrayal are evident in his recall. The abuse-of-office allegation clearly has the whiff of corruption, and for a mayor who initially ran on a conservative-issues platform, his Republican base may very well feel betrayed by the sexual nature of the complaints against him.
All of these factors point to a bad outcome for West. Perhaps he can take solace in the careers of some early recall pioneers. Gill was once again elected mayor in 1914. And the first governor removed by a recall, North Dakota's Lynn Frazier, won a U.S. Senate seat two years after his fall.
However, more-recent recall losers have had a more ominous end to their career. California's Davis quickly became a punch line. Even worse is the example of the next official to be removed by a recall, Wisconsin state Sen. Gary George, who was ousted in November 2003. George pled guilty to conspiracy charges and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Spokane's voters are getting their chance now to speak on West's future. If the past is any guide, he should be getting his bags packed, just in case.Joshua Spivak is an attorney and media consultant based in New York and Berkeley, Calif. He has written on recall for Seattle-based History News Network and other outlets.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company