Interview with Josh Newman, recalled California State Senator

The November 2018 midterm elections have been emphasized for their record-high turnout. Critics of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party have emphasized the potential for a “blue wave,” as Democrats seemed poised to make record gains across both state and federal elections (debates about how successful Democrats were varied widely between partisans). However, under this context, Josh Newman, a Democratic California State Senator representing large swaths of traditionally conservative (but recently more purple) Orange County, was recalled this past June during a primary election with nearly 60 percent of votes supporting his removal from office. Mr. Newman is one of only five politicians ever recalled in California, and the first since Gov. Gray Davis was recalled in 2003. Elected in 2016, Mr. Newman managed to beat the odds and flip his historically Republican-leaning district, winning his district by less than 1 percentage point. His removal from office cost Democrats their supermajority in the State Senate, although Democrats managed to re-obtain their supermajority after the November election.

This interview, conducted on October 29th, a week before the November 6th election, as part of a larger article about direct democracy in California, touches upon direct democracy from Mr. Newman’s own perspective. Although Mr. Newman has hinted at running for his old seat, BPR is the first outlet to report his public statements to run again in 2020.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Berkeley Political Review: What are your thoughts on the ballot initiative process? (A tool for the people to voice their opinion, a tool taken over by special interests, a tool manipulated for political purposes, or something else?)

Newman: As someone who was fairly recently the target of a ballot initiative process, you will probably not be surprised to hear that is something about which I’ve given a fair amount of thought.  The ballot initiative process in California, in the form of the constitutional provisions for initiatives, referenda, and recalls, are, at this point, I believe a far cry from what Governor Hiram Johnson and his fellow progressive reformers had in mind when the succeeded in adding these features to California’s governance in the early part of the 20th century, well before the advent of modern politics as it is currently practiced.  Those idealists had no way of anticipating our current political reality, shaped as it is by a combination of massive technological change and the rise of the professional class of consultants and strategists who have come to dominate politics at every level in California.  It’s hard to argue with the theory of the initiative process—the creation of voter-driven ‘safety valve’ wherein the common citizen would have recourse to address issues in response to legislative overreach, manipulation by special interests, or unethical behavior. This is not, however, what you tend to see in most of the initiatives that find their way to the ballot these days.  More often, instead of the initiative process being used by the people in the service of the public interest, California’s initiative process is more likely to be employed by special interests in ways that arguably run counter to the public’s interests. Moreover, to the extent that many of the initiatives which wind up on the ballot could have just as easily been addressed through the legislative process, the average citizen has reason to ask why, if the purpose of elections is to hire civic-minded men and women to represent our interests in Sacramento, why are we being asked to do their work for them at the ballot booth in the form of a seemingly never-ending flow of confusing and often misleading propositions?

Berkeley Political Review: How much of an impact do you believe Proposition 6 had in the recall process?

Newman: That’s an interesting question.  The passage of SB-1, which imposed new taxes on gasoline and diesel, as well as raising the costs to register a vehicle in California, was obviously a catalyst for the effort to have me recalled from my seat representing the 29th Senate District (which includes portions of north Orange County, southeastern Los Angeles County, and a small corner of western San Bernardino County).  At about the same time, a statewide effort was spearheaded by Assemblyman Travis Allen, to collect signatures for a ballot measure which would repeal SB-1 as implemented.  That effort lacked the kind of focus and, more importantly, the funding to generate much momentum, and eventually fizzled. Meanwhile, in my senate district, the combination of paid and volunteer signature gatherers found that, in working toward gathering the roughly 70,000 valid signatures required to instigate a recall vote against me, rather than make the case against my record or my conduct in office, a much more effective tactic in the collection of signatures was to tell a voter that a signature on this petition was in support of repealing the gas tax.  That was obviously not a true statement, at least not directly (the question as to whether or not voters were intentionally and illegally misled in this regard is in fact still a matter of legal dispute, in a lawsuit being pursued against the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the people who gave us Prop. 13, in a lawsuit pending against them in the Los Angeles Superior Courts). At best, the effort to use the gas tax as a pretext for having me recalled had more to do with partisan politics and the balance of power in the legislature than it did with the gas tax per se.  I was, after all, not only not the author of SB-1 but one of a total of 81 members of the legislature across both houses who voted for SB-1.  Advocates of my recall were actually transparent and explicit about why it was I who was selected as the target: the so-called “Weak Gazelle Theory,” that since I was the Democrat who had most narrowly achieved victory in the last election cycle, in a district which that had been historically dependably red, that I was therefore a ripe target for a recall as a first step toward using resentment of the gas tax toward breaking the Democratic hold on the legislature. The recall effort against me was well underway before a subsequent petition was taken out, funded and supported by a different coalition, which succeeded in collecting the signatures needed to place on the ballot the repeal measure which would eventually be Prop 6. And, in support of the argument that the initiative process is often used in ways that have more to do with politics than policy, the motivating factor in raising sufficient funds to support a statewide effort to collect signatures in support of Prop 6 came not from anti-gas tax interests but from a coalition of gubernatorial candidate John Cox and incumbent Republican members of California’s congressional delegation, who calculated that the presence of an anti-tax measure on the November ballot would drive Republican turnout and thereby improve their prospects  .

Berkeley Political Review: Do you think Proposition 6 will pass this November? What will be the ramifications if it does?

Newman: I couldn’t say with any real certainty which way the vote on Prop. 6 will go on November 6th, beyond the results of recent polls which suggest it more likely will not.  If it does pass, though, there are two basic sets of ramifications. First, the transportation and infrastructure projects which the roughly $5 billion in annual revenues produced by SB-1 are currently funding will either be canceled or, at best, substantially delayed.  Second, and equally significantly in my opinion, a prospective repeal of SB-1 will have a chilling effect, rendering future efforts to solve California’s problems in similarly broad and ambitious strokes, highly unlikely.

Berkeley Political Review: In your time in the legislature, did you ever contemplate or discuss reforming the ballot initiative process?

Newman: I did.  In fact, prior to my recall, I had introduced a piece of legislation earlier this year, SB-1394, which would have prohibited the practice of paying bounties for the gathering of signatures on a per-signature basis.  My way of thinking on this, as vividly reinforced by the practices of the proponents of the recall effort against me, was that this was one of those areas where the framers of California’s initiative process, would have been surprised and appalled at how their system had been allowed to evolve, to the point of the creation of a mini-economy in the sphere of signature-gathering, where a small number of specialized firms now offer the services of professional signature gatherers to interested groups at an agreed-upon rate per signature gathered, so that the question of whether or not a measure makes it to the ballot has more to do with the resources of the proponents than the merits of a particular policy.  This attribute of the current system, where money winds up being the deciding factor on a measure making it to the ballot, could not run more directly counter to the original framers of the initiative process. At the time of the recall vote against me, my bill had passed out of the Senate and to the Assembly, where it died once I was out of the legislature in June. Concurrently, Assemblyman Evan Low had a bill which was quite similar, and which made it all the way to the Governor’s desk, but which was vetoed by Governor Brown, under the rationale—which I find uncompelling— that the proposed change in rules governing signature gathering would only make the initiative process more expensive.

Berkeley Political Review: Political realities aside, if you could reform the way ballot initiatives worked, what would you change, if anything?

Newman: In addition to the legislation I introduced, which was deliberately narrow and designed to cure only one particular, if very flawed aspect of the current initiative process, I would advocate strongly for amending the provisions for in the California state constitution pertaining to the recall process, to include an explicit articulation as to what does and does not constitute a recallable offense.  Despite the framers’ presumption that recalls would only apply to elected representatives in cases of malfeasance or a clear violation of the public’s trust, there is currently nothing in the current language that prevents the abuse of the recall process to target a duly elected officeholder for purely partisan, opportunistic reasons for, say, being one of 81 members of the Legislature to vote on a matter placed before them as part of the normal legislative process. Further, I would propose altering the current recall process to change the following:  first, allowing the object of a recall effort to have access to the list of signers of the petition against them, so that in the event of a campaign to gather signatures which relies on false or misleading arguments, the target of the effort would have the opportunity to contact and educate signers who might then decide to rescind their support (no such option exists today); and second, in the event of the recall of a public official for anything less than a violation of law, that the question of their successor would be decided in a subsequent election, rather than as it currently stands, where the recall vote is effectively a two-part question- should Official X be recalled, and if so, whom would you choose to succeed him or her?  The format creates the perverse circumstance where, despite a duly elected public official having done nothing legally questionable, he or she can be replaced by a candidate in the second half of the question who actually receives fewer votes than the person being recalled (this was true in both the case of my recall as well as Governor Gray Davis’s as well. Under existing provisions, the person being challenged for recall cannot themselves be one of the replacement options, which I would argue should be changed as well in those cases where no illegal behavior is alleged). Lastly, consideration might well be given to changing the term ‘Recall’ itself, since polling in my recent recall race showed that many voters did not actually understand the term or grasp its intent, instead thinking that recalling someone actually meant to retain them, making it possible they would vote the opposite of their actual preference.

Berkeley Political Review: Besides Proposition 6, do you find any other propositions on the ballot this year particularly important, egregious, or noteworthy in any other way? Why?

Newman: Among the propositions on this year’s ballot are examples of the initiative process serving as an excuse to allow California’s legislators to abdicate their responsibilities for making policy on behalf of the voters of the state they were elected to serve.  Propositions 8, which would regulate the dialysis industry in a very granular way, and Proposition 12, which would create new rules on the treatment of livestock, are prime examples in that regard. Proposition 7, which proposes to reform daylight savings time but which has no chance of being implemented, is a different kind of example of the initiative process being deeply flawed.

Berkeley Political Review: Finally, do you plan to run for your seat in 2020?

Newman: Yes, I remain committed to public service, and I think it’s worth testing the proposition (no pun intended) that my overall body of good work representing my constituents in California’s 29th District will be sufficient to offset the deliberate and cynical exploitation of flaws in the state’s initiative system which led to my recall this past June in a relatively low-turnout primary election.

Featured Image Source: Voice of OC