A Republican effort to recall a Democratic state senator from Orange County took some new turns this week when Democrats in the statehouse inserted language into a budget bill to change the recall process, legislation that could help Sen. Josh Newman survive the recall effort.
In another twist, Newman also filed a complaint with the secretary of state this week alleging that recall backers were misleading voters by telling them they were signing a petition to repeal a recently raised gas tax.
The developments turned up the heat in a partisan fight that started after Newman voted in favor of a $52 billion transportation plan that will increase the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon this fall. That vote prompted Carl DeMaio, a conservative talk radio host and former San Diego city councilman, to launch the recall effort in a district Newman narrowly won last year.
But it was Republicans who were on the defensive this week, after Democrats slipped language into a budget bill unveiled Monday that would add months to the process for placing a recall before voters.
Republican Sen. Joel Anderson of San Diego says the change to a century-old recall system will make it virtually impossible to oust sitting lawmakers.
“So this isn’t just about Josh, this is about fundamentally shifting the power from the people to the politicians, and it’s wrong,” said Anderson, who also took issue with the legislative process. “When they put it into the budget and they drop it on Monday and pass it on Thursday, we call that passing bills in the dark of night.”
Currently, if recall backers gather enough signatures within 160 days, the governor must call an election within 80 days or consolidate the recall with a regularly scheduled election within 180 days.
The bill would elongate that process in several ways. It would give voters who signed a recall petition 30 days to remove their name, and require that each signature is individually verified -- currently, elections officials conduct a random sample. The bill would require the Department of Finance to estimate the costs of a special election, compared to consolidating the recall with a regularly scheduled election. It would require the Legislature to hold hearings on the costs.
All those changes would make it harder for the Newman recall to qualify -- and if it does, could push a recall vote to next year’s June primary or even the November election, when turnout is larger. That would boost Newman’s chances of hanging on to his Senate seat in a swing district, since Democrats usually see better voter turnout in larger elections.
Newman characterized the changes as mild, and said that while Republicans are crying foul, it’s their actions in his district that prompted the budget bill.
“We want to clear up ambiguity as it relates to somebody being able to withdraw their name if they find out that they signed a petition under false pretenses and also make sure we make it clear to the voters what’s happening, what it will cost them,” he said.
Newman said it’s necessary to make it easier for voters to remove their name because he’s received reports from hundreds of voters that they were lied to by signature-gatherers about what they were signing. He said in his complaint that signature gatherers have huge red signs reading, “Stop the Car Tax,” and tell people the same thing when asking them to sign the recall petition.
“I can’t go to a market in my district without meeting someone who wants me to sign a petition, ostensibly to repeal the gas tax but is actually to repeal me,” he said. “It’s misleading, and we found out voters who signed a petition they didn’t understand would like to have their names removed, but we don’t know at this point how many of the signatures meet that description at the moment.”
While lawmakers easily passed the recall bill -- and Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign it -- this isn’t the end of the fight. DeMaio, the recall backer, is threatening to sue over the changes. And he said Newman’s complaint is without merit.
“Josh Newman knows this is a pack of lies,” he said of charges that recall signature-gatherers are misleading voters.
“In fact, we are specific as to why we are recalling Josh Newman: He voted for the car and gas tax hike, and what better way to send a message to the politicians that we want it reversed than to start firing (them) one by one.”