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Weekly Update
John Lindstrom
Gongwer News Service

Recall Heat Is On

July 22, 2011

It’s hot, yes indeed, but a here’s a question to ponder as you pray forgiveness from the polar bears while hugging the air conditioner. Who is hotter these days — the young kids trooping gamely off to Camp Sweatybutt for summer fun or politicians worried about the possibility of recall?

Some 20 politicians in Michigan, from Governor Rick Snyder to House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richadville (R-Monroe) on down, are sweating from more than the mercury rising. Recall efforts are underway against all these politicians.

Officially, everyone views the efforts as no more annoying than ants at a picnic. “Seriously,” people scoff sourly, “do you honestly think the voters are going to recall Rick Snyder?” “Do you really think the public wants to get rid of these guys?” they sputter.

Unofficially, though, people are nervous. The odds that all 18 officials could face a premature ballot via recall are less than our erstwhile Sweatybutt campers will build a snowman during lunchtime activities these summer days. But the odds that at least one or two pols could face early polls…well, that has a slightly better than a snowball’s chance.

That at least is one reason for the sudden furor over the recall efforts, both legal and in the commentariat. Mr. Bolger is challenging the very nature of the state’s recall law, arguing it is unconstitutional because a county’s election board that includes executive and judicial officials would make a ruling on a legislative official in theoretical violation of the constitution.

And business leaders have started publicly complaining that the recall efforts are little more than a sour-grapes effort to rescind the November 2010 election results (a complaint that sounds familiar to anyone who was paying attention in early 2009).

How well organized, how well financed, how serious these recall efforts are is hard to tell en masse. The recall effort against Mr. Snyder, for example, is far better organized than the pathetic effort of the 1980s against former Governor James Blanchard, or the even more wimpish effort just a few years ago against former Governor Jennifer Granholm. Even still, this recall effort’s mountain is so high to climb it would be best not to expect Mr. Snyder on the ballot before 2014.

But some of the recall drives could be successful in putting some politicians up on the ballot. The organizers and supporters of the effort are drawing some of their inspiration and fire from efforts in Wisconsin, where recall efforts against Governor Scott Walker and a number of legislators have found their way to badger ballots.

The first such recall election took place this week in Wisconsin, and the legislator targeted survived. Here’s the interesting twist, however: the focus has been on Republicans targeted by Democrats. But the first Wisconsin politician to face the recall at the polls was a Democrat.

Republicans clearly are not against recalls in the wolverine state either. An effort against Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) was launched but has so far failed legal muster.

Current state Treasurer Andy Dillon, when he was House speaker, faced a recall effort that was not led by his fellow Democrats.

Go back a few years when Ms. Granholm proposed tax increases, and a well-known former Republican legislator immediately began handing out flyers saying “Recall 1983?”

Michigan’s entire political and governmental history has been changed because of the 1983 recalls of then Democratic Senators Phil Mastin and David Serotkin. For one thing, it helped deliver the Senate to Republican hands, in which it has been held ever since.

It also defined how legislators would handle state fiscal crises. Spending cuts had always been part of resolving budget issues, but since the income tax was enacted in 1967 it had been part of solutions through the 1970s and up to 1983. After those recalls, though, there was no attempt at a general tax increase until the 2007 action.

There are several other aspects of those 1983 recalls. One is the official disapproval and disdain the parties showed toward recalls. Well, that is, former Governor William Milliken was very disapproving of the recalls. Then current GOP leaders were more muted in their comments, though officially they discouraged local parties being involved in the recalls.

Talk to anyone active in the efforts in 1983 though, and it was clear Republican officials were up to their sweaty armpits in the effort. Look, for all the high talk that recalls should only be reserved for the most dire cases of actual mis-mal-non-feasance, let us be real. Recalls are a shot at shifting or winning control, so any party leader would fail to do his or her job not to pursue the potential partisan advantage a recall would provide.

In the current climate, especially since the state has become so used to recalls (and full disclosure, this reporter has a good friend on a Detroit-area school board facing a recall), the sense of moral outrage over a recall is kinda tepid.

There are those who feel recalls are a critical check of the citizens on elected officials. Since governments cannot be forced into early elections as they are in parliamentary systems, recalls, these folks say, are a way of ensuring that democracy works for the voters.

Opponents of general recalls warn that the threat of such an election inhibits honest dialogue and the ability of elected officials to make tough decisions.

Some, many during the last election, also sniff that this country is not a democracy but a republic, which implies, one presumes, that elected officials must be free to make unpopular decisions. This is why some of the current complaint that recalls are an attempt to undo the November 2010 election results frankly sounds like some warmed-over yammering from two years ago when Democrats complained that Republicans were refusing to recognize the results of the 2008 election.

No argument the greatest leaders are those who stood up against, when needed, popular demand. Yet, don’t most politicians when running for office promise to do what the people want and not necessarily what’s the best for themselves? So, if the voters feel the politicians feel they have not paid attention to them, is it a surprise that recalls would be seen as an option?

Which brings us to the second point of the 1983 recalls: the absolutely gutless way Democrats fought back against them. Mr. Blanchard was absent from the public part of the fight, though he said later he wanted to be there and was advised that people were so angry that his appearance could make things worse.

The point is that if one is facing recall for doing what one believed was right, one should fight like hell back. Take the issue back to the public, whatever it is, and stand up for what you did. Since this approach was not tried, or no more than weakly, in 1983 it is impossible to say if it would have worked or not.

Still, every politician should live secure in the knowledge that one day he or she is going down. One should depend on one’s mother for love, not the public, after all. So if there is a full frontal attack on how one has acted, then one should counterattack with a defense of that action. That way even if one loses, one can say he or she did so for the “right” reason. That’s how they teach it at Camp Sweatybutt, one is sure.

Mr. Bolger’s argument on the legality of the recall law is interesting and in one way defensible, but raises more issues than it resolves, since the different branches of government affect and oversee each other all the time. That is why the system works as it does.

It seems that if recalls are a serious problem to governance, then the only real answer is less in making them more difficult to attempt than in an aggressive fight to defend one’s action and defeat the effort.

So while we swelter under the current dome of roasting temperatures and dripping humidity, we can take comfort in watching some people sweat for non-meteorological reasons, and wonder if they will be willing to work up a sweat later in the election ring. Doing so will make all the Camp Sweatybutt campers proud.

John Lindstrom is publisher of Gongwer News Service. For nearly 50 years in Michigan, Gongwer News Service has provided independent, comprehensive, accurate and timely coverage of issues in and around Michigan’s government and political systems. For subscription information, including a free trial, visit Gongwer online.

July 21, 2011 · Filed under Weekly Update Tags: , ,

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 James Brazier // Jul 22, 2011 at 11:17 am


    You omitted the fact that the intiative and referendum tool for repealing new unpopular laws has been negated by the Michigan Supreme Court blessing the sticking on an appropriation in a law that is not the budget and then saying that htis immunizes the law from this type of popular repeal.

    This fact is important in evaluating the current recall drives since there appears to be no other option for dissatisifed voters.

  • 2 Sylvia McCollough // Jul 23, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    “Fight Like Hell” is the only way to stop a recall! In 1983, the McCollough anti-recall campaign proved that was possible. Senator Patrick McCollough was being recalled, and after the defeat of Senators Mastin and Sal S., we knew that if we didn’t do the ground work ourselves, organize our own campaign and district, we would go down as well.

    Standing on freezing street corners and parking lots, going door to door, the McCollough team garnered enough signed petitions of support to beat the 1983 recall, and stop it dead in its tracks. Governor Blanchard made more than a few calls to the McCollough home checking on the progress. Needless to say, he was more than a bit nervous over the outcome, knowing that he would likely be targeted if we lost.

    The night of the tax hike vote, I said we would face a recall, but everyone poo-pooed my assessment, and as it turned out, I was right. Democrats lost the senate over that vote, and we’ve never regained control since.

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