Recall Was a Progressive Tool—Now It’s a Republican Tactic

When was the last time someone came to your door to ask you not to do something? If the answer is never, wait for a Nevada Democrat to show up.

Democrats are walking in three state senate districts to discourage people from signing a recall petition ginned up by Republicans to get rid of three female state senators over an issue of policy and law that… oh, let’s face it. They’re being recalled for being women in districts where Republicans think they can win, and thus regain control of the state senate and start undoing what Republican governor Brian Sandoval has accomplished.

The three are Democrats Joyce Woodhouse and Nicole Cannizzaro, as well as Patricia Farley, who was elected as a Republican but switched to Independent in part because her fellow Republicans were treating her like a woman of ’17—1917, that is. Democrats, naturally, have criticized their counterparts across the aisle and, unusually, responded with a campaign of their own to dissuade constituents from signing.

State senate minority leader Michael Roberson said the women and their Democratic colleagues were “pro-felon and anti-business.” The law firm handling the recalls is Hutchison & Steffen, and the first name there belongs to the current Republican lieutenant governor, who disclaims any involvement.

The recall is a cherished relic of the Progressive Era, which includes a word that Republicans dismiss with disdain—strangely, since even in Nevada, many of the leading progressives were Republicans. It became part of the Nevada Constitution in 1912 when the voters approved it. That same year Nevadans threw their electoral votes to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, thanks to a national GOP divided between traditional conservative William Howard Taft and the more progressive Teddy Roosevelt, who also happened to be an opinionated New Yorker who was both part of the establishment and an enemy of it (before this goes further, the only comparisons).

Recall petitions have been common, especially in rural Nevada, where the political often becomes personal. But successful ones have been rare. One Las Vegas City Council member, Janet Moncrief, was recalled in 2004. Three of the five North Las Vegas City Council members were recalled in 1976 in a battle over pay for the police, who campaigned ardently on the issue.

Otherwise, recall efforts have largely not accomplished what the progressives intended—to root out corruption, force well-bribed legislators to heed the public and give the people a voice. Rather, they have been like this one: based in disagreement or political gain.

One of the more memorable recall efforts in Southern Nevada involved higher-education regents who had supported then-UNLV president Robert Maxson in his battles with basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Some Tarkanian supporters tried to remove them, but to no avail. It didn’t help that several of the signers lived at nonexistent addresses or boarded-up buildings.

That can happen in any situation, but allow me a personal note.

In the late 1990s, Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates offended Las Vegas Sands mogul Sheldon Adelson (this was long before he owned the Review-Journal, but she was a Democrat, so the R-J didn’t like her anyway). Atkinson Gates often faced ethics charges, as did several other commissioners at the time. She was involved in a frozen daiquiri business she was trying to expand, which is what capitalism is all about. Also, several commissioners got into trouble over how they administered the concessions for the then-new airport D gates. Adelson helped finance a recall drive, as was certainly his right.

At the time, I taught at the College of Southern Nevada’s Cheyenne campus in North Las Vegas. People with clipboards were circling the entrance and ignored me. When I got to my office, our administrative assistant handed me some papers. They were all about the need to recall Atkinson Gates. She said some guy at the entrance handed them to her, but she didn’t live in that county commission district.

Curious, I went out a side door and came around the front. Again, ignored. I circled to another door and came back to the entrance. Once again, ignored. Coincidence? Maybe, except I noticed that those collecting the signatures were stopping only African American students and staff. I am white. Our administrative assistant was African American. So is Atkinson Gates. She represented parts of West Las Vegas and North Las Vegas … and such elite areas as Rancho Circle.

It’s hard to say how the progressive founding fathers of the recall would have felt about such a move. They weren’t all that racially enlightened, but they also didn’t think those in Adelson’s bracket needed help getting the attention of politicians. Whether or not they were always progressive as we define it today, they believed in progress. Certain things are not progress—WiFi on airplanes, pineapple on pizza, trying to thwart the people’s will. Those behind the current petition drive obviously support one of those, and it isn’t WiFi or pineapples. 7

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.