Recall fever: All these recalls decrease democracy

Rick Ayers
4 min readSep 17, 2021

Now that the spurious project to recall Governor Newsom has been defeated, we can step back and review the whole bizarre episode and the lessons we might draw from it. Let’s remember that the vote, foisted on us by billionaire donors, cost the state $276 million to conduct and threatened to put in office someone with a tiny percentage of the vote. In the end, there is broad agreement that the whole process is a disaster — not an exercise of direct democracy but an anti-democratic power grab by a minority.

Now we come to the next round, the recall elections in San Francisco against District Attorney Chesa Boudin as well as three members of the school board. We are told by many in the political establishment that the recall of Newsom was ridiculous but that these cases are different, and that these people did some unforgivable things. As with the gubernatorial recall, I would reply: there is an obvious and ready remedy for your dissatisfaction, and that is the next election. If there ever is a suitable time for a recall, it is when there are gross violations of law and power — pedophilia, bribery, murder. Right now there are seventy recall efforts going on in California. Clearly this is an instrument that has gone mad.

Let’s take a closer look at the ginned up outrage that is driving the anti-democratic recalls that are still looming over San Francisco.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin ran and won on a platform of changing our criminal justice system — making it more effective in preventing crime, more responsive to victims, and more in line with nation-wide efforts to end mass incarceration. In fact, he has reduced the jail population by half, allowing people and families to rebuild their lives while protecting people from COVID-19. He has increased support for victims of crime, including victims of domestic violence. And he has fought for public health measures to prevent crime before it happens.

He incurred the wrath of the right-wing SF Police Officers Association by holding those who abuse power accountable, including prosecuting a San Francisco police officer for killing an unarmed Black man. This move, in fact, had the support of many SF officers. He has also prosecuted corporations that take advantage of vulnerable workers, a public interest action that is all too rare in prosecutor offices.

The recall effort on Boudin is based on the lie that San Francisco is getting more dangerous by the minute and that the D.A. is letting criminals off left and right.

But the reality is that violent crime in San Francisco is at historic lows and overall crime has dropped by 30%, even during this pandemic which has caused economic crises for many. So Boudin is doing exactly what he campaigned on and effectively, as the data shows. The recall is simply an attempt to re-debate the issues now instead of waiting for the next election cycle.

What about the school board, what terrible crimes have the three members of the board committed?

Some parents, calling themselves Decrease the Distance, have been agitating for the return of students to the classroom, even in early 2021. The board and the union have been working hard to develop a safe opening of schools — many of which are overcrowded and have limited ventilation. But this group and their media supporters had demanded the schools open months ago, that we not worry about health dangers. The growing COVID crisis we are facing now in our schools is an indication that the thoughtless rush to open was a terrible idea.

And apparently there is anger that they opened up admissions to the elite Lowell High School, moving to a lottery system. The transition, however, has been smooth and we are witnessing a dynamic, successful, integrated school.

The other “great crime” of the school board is that they have suggested a community process of renaming a large number of San Francisco schools that are named after notorious racists, slave-owners, and crooks. While racist monuments are coming down all over the country, this was a reform too far for the comfortable class in San Francisco. The media has never publicized the research that went behind the proposal, which showed that Vasco Balboa was a slave owner and colonizer, James Lick a notorious racist, Francis Scott Key a slave owner, and so on.

Especially egregious, they argued, the board was spending time on name changes when they should have been working to get kids quickly back into the classrooms. That is another ridiculous charge. The vote on the name changes took an hour. The distraction of the recall will cost millions of dollars and take everyone’s attention away from the safe operation of the schools for months. Note too that the majority on the board has voted for these all measures but the recall only targets the educators of color.

And, don’t forget this: while the Newsom recall offered a list of other candidates the public might want to vote for, if school board members are recalled, their replacements will be appointed by Mayor London Breed. This will be an end to democratic governance of our schools as it will lead to a mayor-run school system, which has proved a disaster in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere.

Let’s be honest and take a deep breath. The Newsom recall debacle reminds us that endless recalls will keep us all in a constant state of campaigning, preventing our elected officials from doing their jobs. Since these people have all been democratically elected, the critics should simply wait for another election to make their challenges.



Rick Ayers

Rick Ayers is professor emeritus of education at the University of San Francisco.