I know something about recall elections in California. I was an advisor to Arnold Schwarzenegger during the 2003 campaign to recall then-governor Gray Davis. I also know something about the state’s executive branch. After Schwarzenegger was elected governor, I was appointed as his special advisor for jobs and economic growth and, later, to the boards of the State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS), the Regents of the University of California, and the California High Speed Rail Authority. Finally, I also know something about the California legislature, which removed me from the CalSTRS board and refused me a full term as a regent but embraced public–private partnerships and low-carbon standards that I had led. Advocating responsible legislation has been the focus of the political action committee that I have run since 2011 because I know, even when all the attention is on the governor’s mansion, that more than one person governs the Golden State.
The public, taking cues from journalists who should know better, often associates governance in California with a single figure: the governor. That’s a big mistake. Governors are a necessary but insufficient ingredient for successful governance. The other ingredient is the state legislature, which comprises 80 members of the assembly and 40 state senators. This isn’t to say that a governor cannot perform his or her specific duties well—or poorly. But the state’s residents cannot thrive without both a good governor and a good legislature.
The governor is no ordinary executive. CEOs generally have authority to take action without seeking prior approval from the board of directors. The president of the United States often takes action without approval from Congress, especially in foreign affairs. But since legislation affecting domestic affairs in California requires the approval of both branches of government, a California governor dealing with the state legislature is in the same position as a U.S. president dealing with Congress on domestic matters: he is dependent on them to advance his agenda.
What, then, of the current effort to recall Gavin Newsom? Statewide elections in California cost a lot of money. The incumbent under attack tends to be less popular, and therefore less likely to generate interest from new campaign funders, than he was when initially elected. As a result, and unfortunately for residents, recall elections tend to force their targets into the hands of special interests—the California Building Industries Association, say, or the California Prison Guards Union—that stand to benefit if they improve their relationship with an incumbent who stays in office.
Providing support to an incumbent under fire is not a high-risk investment for special interests. Such spenders are merely making a bet that the incumbent would be grateful to those who helped him should he prevail. If he loses, the spenders know that the opponents will either be favorable to their interests or amenable to future support. With another election coming up just 14 months later, whoever prevails will immediately be on the hunt for even more money, which the usual suspects will be ready to provide, and keen to show progress, which requires legislative consent.
For that reason, no matter who prevails this September, the state’s governance cannot materially improve without a legislature dedicated to its improvement. Whatever the results of the latest California recall, residents and observers will learn once again that governors aren’t the only ones who govern.
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