The Recall

“You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

On the evening of April 7th, 2017, a bill came to the floors of the California State Senate and State Assembly for a vote of the full membership.  That bill was SB-1, formally titled “The California Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017.” The bill’s primary authors were State Senator Jim Beall, who represents California’s 15th Senate District, which includes all or parts of 13 cities in Santa Clara County, and Assemblymember Jim Frazier, who represents the 11th Assembly District, which includes nine cities in Contra Costa, Sacramento, and Solano Counties. 

At the time of the vote, I had been a member of the State Senate for a scant four months, having just been elected to my first term as a California State Senator, by a very narrow margin (in what turned out to be the closest legislative race in the entire state in that cycle), in the November 2016 general election.  Senators Beall and Assemblymember Frazier, each of whom were by then in their third terms in office, had been working on this particular bill for well over two years, in response to a widely shared consensus that California was well on its way to an impending crisis as the result of what was by then nearly three decades of lack of investment in the state’s sprawling and rapidly aging transportation infrastructure. Depending on whose figures you used at the time, the amount of investment needed to shore up and modernize California’s aging roads and bridges over the next decade came to somewhere between $57 and $85 billion or more. 

Under its provisions, SB-1 promised to generate approximately $5.1 billion a year from a combination of taxes and fees which included a 12 cent per gallon increase in taxes on gasoline, a 20 cent per gallon increase on diesel fuel, and a set of sliding-scale increases in the costs of registering or re-registering a vehicle in the state.  The argument for this new tax, supported by a broad cross-section of stakeholders across the state, was that it was necessary at the time due to a combination of the relative decline in the purchasing power of the state’s existing gas tax, coupled with the Federal government’s chronic failure to provide states like California with the necessary level of funds to meet the current need.

As I approached the floor vote for SB-1, I can tell you that the prospect of raising anyone’s taxes wasn’t a particularly attractive prospect from my point of view.  Far from it.  I had spent the previous year campaigning, and ultimately getting myself elected, in a “swing” district by campaigning on a message of principled pragmatism and common-sense reform.  If the choice had been mine to make, rather than implementing a new tax, I would have much preferred for the Legislature to have been focusing on making state government work more efficiently and cost-effectively.  Of course, as a brand-new member of the senate, not to mention the guy whose surprise electoral success in a district that had been held by Republicans for more than three decades had also given Democrats a two-thirds “supermajority” in both houses of the Legislature, that wasn’t my choice to make at all.

So as I considered the vote I was about to cast, the best analogy I could come to was how I would have approached a similar situation where for instance I had been elected to the board of something like a condo homeowners association, only to find that the previous members of the board whom I had replaced had failed for over three decades to make necessary investments in the property, to the point that the safety and solvency of the association was now in question.  What would I have done in such a situation?  Well, I would naturally have supported a plan, however reluctantly, to make the necessary investments to solve the problem and, in so doing, would have also supported a vote to increase the dues of the association’s members in order to raise the funds necessary to make those repairs.  Having done that, as a member of the board I would also have seen to it that all dues payers would get full visibility into the plans for those repairs, as well as full transparency on the use of funds, and the assurance that when the work was properly completed their dues would once again revert to previous levels.  Under the circumstances, that seemed like a pretty logical framework to me at the time, and that voting for SB-1, given the nature of the problem facing the state of California, was the right thing to do at that time. 

As it happened, on the same night that we were voting for SB-1, we also voted for another piece of legislation, SCA-2.  That bill was actually mine, and it was also my first official piece of legislation as a state senator. Senate Constitutional Amendment 2, “Motor vehicle fees and taxes: restriction on expenditures: appropriations limit.”  My bill, which eventually became Proposition 69 on the March 2017 primary ballot, amended the California State Constitution, specifically by adding Article XIX D, so as to require that any new revenues derived from the provisions SB-1, when enacted, could be used solely for the purposes specified in the Act.  In other words, not moved, shifted, or stolen in order to fund other purposes or pet projects, which is why it came to be known to as the so-called “Lockbox Amendment.”

That April evening, I presented my bill on the Senate floor, and we voted on it, as well as on SB-1.  As we did so, the Assembly did the same on their side, only in opposite order, and the results were the same on both sides:  each measure passed, by the exact same margin, narrowly meeting the 2/3 approval threshold for passage of a revenue-raising act as required by the California state constitution.  In the Assembly, the vote in favor was 54 to 26, with every Democratic voting for it and every Republican against. 

In the Senate, things weren’t so simple.  Prior to our vote, then-Governor Jerry Brown, upon learning that one of the Democratic members of the senate was unwilling to support the measure, had struck a deal earlier that week with a Republican member, State Senator Anthony Cannella, with the promise of roughly $400 million in priority spending in his Central Valley district in the upcoming state budget.  Sure enough, when the votes were tallied that night on the senate floor, the measure passed, exactly meeting the two-thirds threshold, with 26 Democrats plus Senator Cannella voting  “aye” and every other Republican plus one Democrat casting “no” votes.

So, put yourself in my position: four months into my first term as a state senator and I had not only been part of the passage of a measure geared toward fixing one of the state’s biggest problems but, with the “Lockbox” amendment, I’d also gotten my first major piece of legislation passed, a constitutional amendment, no less.  For the rest of time (or at least until some other amendment overrode mine), I had caused an amendment to the state constitution of the largest state in the union, home to the world’s fifth-largest economy, and in a way that would protect and save Californians’ hard-earned funds.  Seemed pretty cool at the time (actually still does, come to think of it). 

Following the votes for SB-1 and SCA-2, which took place on a Thursday evening, the Legislature went into recess, and all of the members went their separate ways for Easter break.  Two days later, taking advantage of the first real break I’d had in the nearly two years since I started my campaign for state senate, my little family and I flew to the Caribbean for what I assumed would be a relaxing and much-deserved beach vacation.  Here’s how busy I’d been over the past year—not only had I managed to get myself elected, against fairly steep odds, my wife and I had also had a baby (at odds only slightly less steep, when you consider how long we’d been trying), with our little kid coming into the world just a little over two weeks before the June 2016 primary.  In April of 2017, she was just a little under a year old. 

I can still vividly remember just what it was like when we arrived at our little hotel on the island of St. Lucia, after two flights and nine hours of flying, followed by a nearly hour-long taxi ride from the airport.  I’m about as perpetually connected to the Internet and my devices as the next guy, so that as we were checking in to our room, I was also checking to see if I could find a decent Wi-Fi signal, and when I asked the nice woman at the front desk for the Wi-Fi password.  As she provided it to me, she also let me know that the only place on the resort property that had Wi-Fi was the main reception hall where we were standing.  Well, I thought, that explains all these kids all sitting around with their iPads and whatnot, chatting and facetiming with their friends at home, all bummed about being stuck with their uncool parents here in St. Lucia.  As I turned to my wife to let her know I was going to just be a moment while I logged on and super-quickly checked my email, and she gave me one of those looks, the kind that say, “Like, really?”  Being the conscientious partner that I try to be, I told her hey, don’t worry—I’m just going to check my phone this one time, and then I’m going to disconnect and be so present the whole rest of the week that you won’t believe it (not that she was ever really going to believe that, but it seemed like the thing to say at the time). 

As I was waiting for my phone to connect to the network, I remember looking over at Darcy, all loaded up with what looked like about three hundred pounds of bags and bottles and kid travel gear.   My phone finally connected, and as the screen started filling up with messages, one particular subject line caught my eye.  It was from the day’s headlines in Sacramento Bee, and read “Republicans Target SoCal Democrat for Recall over Tax Vote.”  “Well, that’s bad,” I thought to myself.  “Somebody’s in big trouble.  I wonder who it could be.”  I clicked on the link while running through the list of possibilities in my mind, making an additional mental note to be very supportive of whoever turned out to be the poor colleague on the other side of the effort.  The page slowly rendered on my very slow internet connection and finally became legible, and who was the poor unfortunate legislator being targeted?  Lo and behold, it was… me. 

Needless to say, this might not have been one of the most restful vacations I’ve ever taken.  On the bright side, it was probably decent practice for what the next fourteen months of my life would be like, which would include my being sued multiple times, verbally accosted at town hall meetings and all across my district, and even surveilled in my home and threatened online and by phone. 

It serves no big purpose to relitigate the merits of the recall or the tactics of its proponents here, but it does seem worthwhile, as I work on making way back into office, to point out a few key facts.  First, to the argument that I was the “deciding vote” on SB-1: I was not.  Under the provisions of California’s state constitution, in order to take effect, any revenue-measure must receive two-thirds approval in both houses of the Legislature.  In the State Assembly, that number was 54.  In the State Senate, it was 27.  As alluded to earlier, to get to that number in support of SB-1 required the vote of one Republican in addition to 26 Democrats, of which I was but one. 

Under any reasonable assessment, then, I wasn’t the deciding vote any more than any of my 25 Democratic colleagues voting on the measure.  Okay, it was then asserted by the proponents of the recall, Newman might not have been the deciding vote, but he nevertheless betrayed his constituents by voting to raise their taxes after making a promise in his campaign never to do.  In fact, I actually never made any such promise, beyond making clear my general priority of making California state government more efficient, transparent and accountable, a good proof point for which was my authorship of SCA-2, which became Prop. 69 on the June ballot and ultimately passed with roughly 70% of the vote. 

At the end of the day, I wasn’t recalled for malfeasance or any other breach of the public trust (which was, after all, the purpose intended by the reformist framers who succeeded in getting it incorporated into California’s state constitution way back in 1911 during an era of rampant corruption).  I was recalled because, frankly, those who wanted to break the Democratic supermajority at that time correctly saw an opportunity in the passage of SB-1 to do exactly that, and eventually succeeded in so doing despite every effort to point out the lack of integrity in this action and the slippery slope, by way of the cynical manipulation of constitutional loopholes and voter sentiment it seems to represent. 

As the saying goes, all’s fair in love and war, and to the proponents of my recall this was a kind of war, a war against a state of politics they were growing increasingly frustrated at losing, a war against an ascendant political culture in California that indulges big government while disrespecting the hard-pressed taxpayers who pay for that government.  And, as it turned out, in the vote that took place on June 5th of last year, it was their argument, supported by their tactics, which carried the day.  In a primary election characterized by relative low turnout and where there were lots of other things on the ballot to attract voters’ attention, including a hotly contested congressional primary, when voters stood in the ballot booth and considered the question, “Should Josh Newman be recalled (removed ) from the office of State Senator?”, a majority of them answered “Yes” on that particular June day.

So, you may be wondering, what did I learn from all this?  What did I learn from being recalled and how is it that, having been recalled, I would presume to offer myself as a candidate for the same office again?  In a nutshell, this: when you offer yourself as a public servant, you don’t always get to choose the moment, sometimes the moment chooses you.  For me, in that moment on the evening of April 6th, when the vote for SB-1 came before us on the senate floor, having considered the merits of the bill and the problem it was endeavoring to solve, it seems now as it seemed then that my choice was clear. 

In retrospect, even with the benefit of hindsight, I would make the exact same vote today, even knowing full well the political consequences I would eventually face.  Having said that, and having been asked countless times in the last year what, if anything, I would have done differently, I can say that one of the things I might have done differently, prior to the vote on SB-1, is to have done more to force a fuller and more public discussion on the merits of the bill; the nature of the problems it was designed to solve; and the systemic challenges in place preventing the state from otherwise securing the necessary funds. 

Just as important as all that, perhaps, is another lesson I learned from the whole experience, and it’s this:  even as I might very well take issue with the integrity and tactics of those who instigated the recall against me, I will grant them this:  Californians, like most Americans, are fed up with politics and politicians these days and, as a result, duly skeptical about how their government is run and how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent. 

This is especially true, and in fact unsurprising, in California, where because of the massive scale of our state, the numbers associated with state government are almost incomprehensibly large.  So large that it would seem to follow that, in a state where total spending is an eye-popping $215 billion a year, there should be plenty of money to do seemingly simple and basic things like finding a couple of billion in all of that to pave our roads and fix our bridges. 

If only it were that simple.  But sadly, it’s not. In a state as large as California, it’s never going to be an easy thing to explain to voters exactly how state government works and where exactly their money is going. But that doesn’t mean that those who have been elected to serve as our representatives at the state level shouldn’t be doing more, much more, to provide the basic levels of transparency and accountability that every taxpayer has the right to expect.  I get that.  Ironically, I’ve always gotten that, and that commitment to transparency and accountability, to making California state government work better, more efficiently, and more purposefully was the reason I ran in the first place. 

And that’s why, as you may or may not be surprised to hear, I’ve come to believe that my experience in the recall, of having taken the blame for a bill I didn’t write and a tax I didn’t singlehandedly raise (at least not singlehandedly, as was asserted), will make me a better, more thoughtful, and more accessible legislator during the next phase of my public service.

Read more about the recall here.

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