Terry McAteer: The aim of Gov. Hiram Johnson’s recall measure | TheUnion.com
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Terry McAteer: The aim of Gov. Hiram Johnson’s recall measure

On Jan. 3, 1911, newly elected California Gov. Hiram Johnson, in his inaugural address, fulfilled one of his campaign promises by introducing legislation to establish the initiative, referendum and recall process. One hundred and ten years following its enactment, Californians are again faced with the Johnson reform measure: the ability to recall our governor, Gavin Newsom.

As the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with our founding fathers’ intent in dealing with legal matters, we the voters need to also be asking the same question of Gov. Johnson’s intent when deciding how to vote on the upcoming recall election.

This story begins with the election of the Progressive Republican Party, which was swept into power by the California electorate in 1911. America was in a truly progressive mindset with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09). His successor, William Howard Taft (1909-13), kept the Progressive fires lit.



These fires brought a new era to American politics when big business monopolies were broken up to benefit the working class, and government graft and corruption was cleaned up to preserve representative democracy.

For four decades, prior to the election of Johnson, California was ruled by railroad interests. The entrepreneurial Big Four (Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins) helped build the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869 to create a nationwide east-to-west railroad linking its two coasts. Following this masterful feat, they turned their fortunes into consolidating West Coast railroads into a monopolistic giant known as Southern Pacific Railroad.




Californians were completely dependent on the railroad to move people and commerce throughout this vast state. The iron horse had made horses obsolete and the car was yet to be invented, so trains were the only viable means of transportation. Since Southern Pacific possessed a railroad monopoly, the Big Four used all means possible to maintain their monopoly, including “buying” both Democratic and Republican political office holders. They also bought off the State Railroad Commission, which was empowered to regulate freight and passenger rates.

The best reading of this period is Frank Norris’ book, “The Octopus,” which tells the true story of the Southern Pacific’s ruthless tactics causing the 1880 blood bath at Mussel Slough in the Central Valley. It’s a great read for fully understanding the power of the Southern Pacific.

By the turn of the 20th Century, California business and community leaders were calling for legislation reform because railroad rates and political graft were causing undo hardships to both businesses and the public. When the direct primary became law in 1908, thus eliminating smoke-filled and backroom party conventions, the door was open for reformist candidates.

Enter the 45-year-old San Francisco assistant district attorney, Hiram Johnson, who had recently successfully tried the mayor of San Francisco, Eugene Schmidt, for graft. His own father, Grove Johnson, had also been an elected state senator on the Southern Pacific graft payroll.

Hiram decided it was time to run for governor. He wasn’t welcome to travel or campaign on trains, due to his anti-Southern Pacific stance, so he drove himself around the state in a Model T Ford. He captured the imagination of Californians and was easily elected governor.

His inaugural address provides some insight as to his vision for the recall provision to our state constitution. As Johnson stated:

“If we can give to the people the means by which they may accomplish such other reforms as they desire, the means as well by which they may prevent the misuse of the power temporarily centralized in the Legislature, and an admonitory and precautionary measure which will ever be present before weak officials, and the existence of which will prevent the necessity for its use, then all that lies in our power will have been done in the direction of safeguarding the future and for the perpetuation of the theory upon which we ourselves shall conduct this government. … This means for accomplishing other reforms has been designated the Initiative and the Referendum, and the precautionary measure by which a recalcitrant official can be removed is designated the Recall.”

If you care about the intent of how the recall process was put into place, then you need to focus on two words. The two key words Johnson uses to describe the need for the recall mechanism are “weak” and “recalcitrant” public officials.

Remember, that Johnson was wanting to get rid of politicians who were under the thumb of the Southern Pacific. He felt they were weak and not caring of the public’s interests. Therefore, my voting friends, it is up to you to decide if Gov. Newsom is a weak and/or recalcitrant (Webster’s definition: “obstinately defiant of authority or restraint”) public official.

Mull these two words over before casting your ballot. Gov. Johnson gave you this powerful tool. Use it wisely!

Terry McAteer lives in Nevada County.


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