When Arnold Schwarzenegger made the science fiction film “Total Recall” in 1990, little did he know that 13 years later he would be part of a real-life recall, one that would make him governor of California.
In 2003, California’s voters recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and put the Republican bodybuilder and actor in his place. It was the second time a US governor had ever been recalled. The first was in 1921 when Republican Gov. Lynn Joseph Frazier was removed in North Dakota.
The current governor of California, Democrat Gavin Newsom, faced a recall last year that he handily defeated.
Recalling Mayor LaToya Cantrell is now an issue in New Orleans. A committee has formed and petitions are being signed. The mayor’s popularity, once high, has plummeted. Voters — including some who once supported her — are increasingly angry.
Cantrell won reelection last November at a time when many voters didn’t even realize there was an election going on. There were few ads or mailers. Worse, there was a lack of debates, issue forums and tough media questioning.
The mayor was lucky that perceptions of deteriorating city conditions — from rising violent crime to collapse of the trash collection system to street repair delays — didn’t jell until after the filing period to run for mayor had ended. Cantrell’s opponents were largely unknown and had neither the money nor organization to seriously compete.
Consequently, many voters felt deprived of an opportunity to express themselves at the ballot box.
The mayor easily won a second term, but only 75,000 registered voters showed up to vote; 192,000 stayed home. Cantrell received fewer votes (less than 49,000) than any mayor since T. Semmes Walmsley, and that was 88 years ago.
Recall efforts at the municipal level are nothing new. Mayors from Miami and Los Angeles to Port Allen have been recalled. In 1978, Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich came within 236 votes, out of 120,000 cast, of being removed from office.
In Louisiana, any “state, district, parochial, ward or municipal official” is subject to recall. Judges are excepted.
Once the recall committee begins gathering signatures on a formal petition — the required first step to having a recall election — it has 180 days to sign up 20% of the city’s registered voters. That’s about 53,000 names, and each must be handwritten and include the voter’s address and date of signing.
The clock on the Cantrell recall petition is already running.
Getting enough signatures to put the recall question on the ballot is possible, but logistically difficult, just as the second step — winning the recall election — would be possible, but politically difficult.
Recall campaigns require grassroots organization, special expertise and an efficient signature-gathering process that can pre-validate petitions to keep an accurate count. Much of that expertise resides on the West Coast, where citizen-sponsored initiatives are more common.
Once the recall committee gets enough valid signatures, the petitions are submitted to the registrar of voters for checking and certification. Then the governor sets the date for an election that will determine whether the mayor stays or goes.
If the mayor resigns before the referendum, the matter would be resolved. But if the mayor stays in office, the recall election would be held on the next scheduled election date after the petitions are certified.
Once all that happens, the city’s entire electorate would then vote “for” or “against” recalling Cantrell. If a majority votes for it, then the mayor is immediately removed from office.
Given that the vacancy in the mayor’s office would be for more than one year in the current situation, it would be temporarily filled by one of the two City Council at-large members (Helena Moreno or JP Morrell), who would be selected as acting mayor by the five district council members.
The council would then call a special election to elect a new mayor to serve out the term. Cantrell, by law, could not run in that election.
Recall is a process that takes time and effort. But if enough voters want change badly enough, it’s the only way they can terminate a public official’s job contract. Just ask Arnold the Terminator.
Ron Faucheux is a nonpartisan political analyst based in New Orleans. He publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a free nationwide newsletter on public opinion.