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Throwing Out the Bums Before Election Day

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In Wymore, Neb., citizens got fed up with a councilman who kept leaving meetings. So last Tuesday, May 10, they voted him out in a recall election.

It’s part of a nationwide pattern, as citizens discover that they don’t have to wait until the next election to throw the bums out.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., a recall effort against Democrat Mayor Ron Littlefield has been tied up in court since September. But organizers who filed an appeal are not giving up, and say they expect the case to go to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In Florida, tax-happy Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, a Republican, was recalled on March 15 when 88 percent of voters gave him the boot.

In Omaha, voters on Jan. 25 narrowly failed to remove Democrat Mayor Jim Suttle. As Ballotpedia puts it, “Under Suttle's mayoral stint, property taxes increased 15%, despite a campaign promise not to do so. The 'wheel tax' on cars grew more than 40%, from $35 to $50. Restaurants were also handed a 2.5% tax increase.”

In Akron, Ohio, USA Today reports, “lawyer Warner Mendenhall led a failed 2009 effort to recall Mayor Don Plusquellic, a Democrat who has been in office 23 years. ‘The spending has gotten out of hand,’ says Mendenhall, who calls himself a liberal Democrat. ‘The mayor had spent us into a deep, deep hole and needed to go.’”

Of course, recall is a two-edged sword. In Wisconsin, nine senators – six Republicans and three Democrats – are facing recall elections this summer over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s bold move to end much of the state’s collective bargaining with public employee unions. In Ohio, public employee unions are pushing a bill aimed at recalling Republican Gov. John Kasich for his backing of a new law that sharply curbs public union power.

In Illinois, voters approved a new law in November that allows recall of the governor. In 2003, California voters dumped Democrat Gov. Gray Davis in a recall election.

In West Virginia, which allows cities to recall elected officials, a bill was introduced to extend recall to federal elected officials but did not pass before the legislature adjourned on March 18.

In January, four Republican legislators in Hawaii co-sponsored HB 197, a broadly worded recall law that could include federal officials. It did not get a hearing in the Democrat-dominated Judiciary Committee before the session ended on May 5.

And so it goes across the land. Recalls have become such a threat to incumbents that the U.S. Conference of Mayors (COM) released a video on April 12 at the National Press Club entitled “Recall Fever: Stop the Madness.” The 30-minute documentary looks at recall campaigns in Omaha, Miami, Akron and Chattanooga. A panel of mayors addressed “the destructive and costly impact of local recall elections [and] to share survival strategies.”

A COM press release noted that 57 mayors “faced recall attempts last year, up from 23 in 2009” and that 15 mayors had already been targeted in 2011. At their upcoming meeting June 17 to 21 in Baltimore, the conference will hear from embattled politicians, including Nancy Pelosi. Now, there’s a canny selection. If anyone can give tips on how to keep a tin ear regardless of public sentiment, that would be the former House Speaker and now Minority Leader.

Sacramento-based Tea Party activist Christina Botteri, a founding member of the National Tea Party Federation and Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, said that recalls appeal greatly to Tea Party members, who are growing impatient with both parties.

“Across the country, people are getting wise to the fact that they don't have to suffer under the wrath of a bad elected official until election day,” she said. “We're seeing more and more constituents, outraged at misrepresentations by their office holders, taking matters into their own hands through the recall process.”

Tom Cochran, CEO and executive director of the mayor's conference, told USA Today:

“There is inside this country right now an anti-tax, anti-spending mood. It's a new thing in America: We're going to kick you out of office. They don't have to wait anymore.”

Actually, recall has been around since before the American Revolution (see, and most current state recall laws were enacted at the turn of the 20th century. Nine states have such broadly worded recall laws affecting “any, all or every” elected official that they may include U.S. senators. Another 29 provide for recall of either state or local officials.

New Jersey’s recall law, enacted in 1995, explicitly includes members of Congress. Last year, New Jersey Tea Party groups tried to recall Democrat Sen. Robert Menendez over his votes on Obamacare and other spending, but the state Supreme Court delayed a decision on the petition, making the issue moot because Menendez will be on the 2012 ballot.

In light of an increasingly restive public, Ms. Botteri has some advice for office holders who might be tempted to write off “recall fever” as a temporary ailment:

“If I could send a message to those politicians defying their constituency: Take a few minutes today to become familiar with the recall process in your state. I guarantee your electorate is.”

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