Second Chance

Gray Davis: Wisconsin Recall Election Was Appropriate Bid to Remedy State’s Ills

Former California governor Gray Davis, ousted in a 2003 recall, urges Scott Walker to use victory to unite his state behind more comprehensive and balanced reforms.

Phil McCarten / AP Photos

There is nothing pleasant about a recall election. They are expensive, distracting, and hyperpartisan. Now that the election is over, it is time for Gov. Scott Walker, the legislature and the people of Wisconsin to go back to work and find more balanced solutions to their problems. Governor Walker’s challenge to public pensions and collective bargaining can be seen as a part of the larger national conversation about sensible entitlement reforms.

This conversation will be painful, but it must begin because the country is on a path that is not sustainable. However, the solutions to our challenges must require shared sacrifice. America is not about picking winners and losers, we are about upward mobility, hard work, and playing by the rules. This conversation should be all about math, not politics. The country is on a fiscal path that simply does not add up. If we don’t alter course, we will go the way of Greece.

Taxes must be raised on the rich and those of us doing well. Similarly, we need to take a more realistic approach to public-employee pensions, entitlements, and corporate loopholes. As much as we might wish, we cannot provide benefits that exceed our revenue.

In this difficult time, leaders have to make unpopular decisions that come with potential consequences. Three months before my recall, I raised car taxes, which were used entirely to finance local fire, police, and public-safety agencies. I refused to short-change public safety and argued that the legislature and I had reduced the car tax in the preceding four years by 50 percent, but lower state revenues forced us to return the car tax to the level that it was when I took office. That argument was spectacularly unsuccessful, and people said: “Hasta la vista baby!”

So, clearly this national conversation will be difficult. My generation has benefited from the sacrifices and investments of the World War II generation. Further, we were given opportunities our parents could not dream of. The least we can do for the next generation is to avoid the coming fiscal train wreck in a balanced and responsible way. If we get it right, our children and the country will be better for our efforts.

Some have argued that the recall was not the appropriate remedy for Governor Walker’s proposals. According to exit polls, most of the people of Wisconsin agreed, believing that a recall should be for misconduct in office, not for policy disagreements. Wisconsin, however, does not have a referendum process, and thus had no other remedy available to it.

As someone who did not fare as well as Governor Walker, during my recall, I had no reservations about the recall process. I believe that voters should have the first and last word. In our state, initiative, referendum and recall provisions have been in our Constitution for the last 100 years. If public officials in California don’t like that, they should find another line of work.

My hope is that Governor Walker will view his victory on Tuesday as a second chance to bring the people of Wisconsin together behind more comprehensive and balanced reforms.