Commentary: Recall rumblings beginning to be heard

If they were cars, we might call them lemons. No wonder some folks want a recall. I'm talking about a few of Duluth's elected officials, some only recently elected, who have been working overtime to alienate voters. First, the City Council, inclu...

If they were cars, we might call them lemons. No wonder some folks want a recall.

I'm talking about a few of Duluth's elected officials, some only recently elected, who have been working overtime to alienate voters.

First, the City Council, including erstwhile-councilor Herb Bergson, defied a citywide referendum to alter the smoking ordinance -- a move introduced just weeks after the general election and completed before new councilors took office and Bergson moved into the mayor's office. The merits of the change were debatable as policy, but the manner of change was indefensible as civil politics.

Then, against what appears to be an even bigger, firmer majority of Duluthians, the council, abetted by Bergson in his new role as mayor, caved on the Ten Commandments, although the status remains uncertain.

Thus, in addition to various petitions floating around for referenda on the Ten Commandments monument (which I support) there are rumblings of recall.


It's what columnist George Will called "buyer's remorse" during the gubernatorial recall in California last year -- buyer's remorse at the ballot box.

California ousted Gray Davis, the governor it had re-elected only months before, in favor of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Locally, our friends in Superior recently had three mayors in a span of four years thanks to a recall. Voters there yanked Margaret Ciccone, in the midst of her first term, in a recall effort that put Sharon Kotter in the top seat. She, in turn, lost in a landslide to Dave Ross.

Officials in Duluth are practically daring voters to say, "Hulk, smash!" The smoking decision, in particular, showed an almost totalitarian instinct for ignoring the will of citizens.

A recall is, at least, one vote they would have to heed.

It's a legal possibility. As I understand the City Charter, the only stipulation is that six months elapse after a given official takes office. After that, any excuse or none will do. Just get the right number of qualified signatures on a petition and you can bring recall to a vote.

I suspect ire is running high enough to make a few officials sweat through another election, although actually ousting some would be difficult. Consider that the councilor most emphatically on the wrong side of both controversies -- Russ Stewart -- won his district by the largest margin of any candidate. Even if you think that was because of his inexperienced competition, will a tougher opponent emerge this time?

And the question remains, is recall a good idea in the first place?

Recall efforts are costly, time-consuming and yield unusual results -- see California.


And there are also principled arguments against the idea. George Will, like many conservatives, thought it was a bad idea in California despite removing the notoriously liberal Davis. Voters made the mistake, he said. They should live with it and do better next time.

That is a fair point. Our form of government is not direct democracy but representative democracy, for many good reasons. We're supposed to pick people of good character and serviceable intellect to handle the details of policymaking, then evaluate our choices at regular intervals, not whenever the mood hits.

Here in Duluth, we picked the most left-leaning City Council in recent memory, then gasped when the excesses of the far left manifested themselves.

To see why, I think it pays to consider the political makeup of northern Minnesota. Having grown up here and followed and covered politics for a while, I think the conventional wisdom that we're a bunch of wild-eyed liberals is wrong. But the conventional wisdom that we're a one-party system is closer to truth.

I'd guess 30 percent of us are Republicans, 5 percent are independents and 15 percent are hard-left liberals who vote Democrat and Green. The rest -- half -- are basically conservative Democrats: people who go to church, usually side with workers over management, support the troops, care about the environment within reason, want poor people to have a little help, bristle at bigotry, are socially conservative and think Republicans are the spawn of Satan.

They are Democrats -- circa 1965. Former Mayor Gary Doty and long-time U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar are the sort of politicians they prefer.

The last mayoral election demonstrated the idea. The two most centrist primary candidates lapped the field. In the general, Bergson and Charlie Bell -- both actually left of Doty on many issues -- played Doty, the pro-business, pro-values, family-guy Democrat, high on character, loathe to offend. The more charismatic and experienced of the two won.

The only problem is, it's possible to look like a Doty Democrat without being a Doty Democrat.


We may feel sucker punched. Knowing what I know now, I would weigh in differently today for some council endorsements.

But still, we had a good idea what we were getting, and we deserve it. In that, we resemble California, which knew Davis' policies were destroying the state budget but could not resist re-electing him anyway.

We elect leftists and hope they will act like moderates.

Unlike Will, I do believe there's a place for recall elections, but I agree with the principle that they ought to be vanishingly rare -- the political nuclear option. Duluthians will have to decide whether these latest offenses qualify. I'm skeptical.

But regardless, to avoid buyer's remorse next time around we must give more thought to our votes. We have to ask more confrontational questions, as well, because, sadly, city government, due both to external pressures like the Ten Commandments lawsuit and to its own inclination, has become a battleground for social and national issues.

It wouldn't hurt, either, if a few more of those 50-percenters ran for office.

Kyle Eller is features editor of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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