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Almost a century ago, three local school board members went on a wartime witch hunt, targeting the superintendent, teachers and even students. Then the voters burned them at the ballot box.

It was the first time San Diegans got a taste of their power to remove their leaders from office, and it wouldn’t be the last. Voters around the county have used the recall to boot dozens of politicians and even a wayward judge from office. Now, it looks like the mayor will be forced to fend off an effort to sack him before his term is up.

Here’s a look back at the first recall in San Diego (it’s a doozy from 1918), the history of local recalls since then and an exploration of why California voters have the right to fire the people they elected.

Eccentric Schools Chief Makes an Enemy or Two

Image via “City of San Diego and County of San Diego: The Birthplace of California”
Image via “City of San Diego and County of San Diego: The Birthplace of California”

The trouble had a lot to do with a man named Duncan MacKinnon who served as superintendent of the little San Diego school district. He was popular, although not everyone was a fan, certainly not the “young women of a tender age” whom he banned from wearing “powder, curls and puffs” in 1911.

He had other critics. He’d supported borrowing $200,000 to build City Stadium (later known as Balboa Stadium) next to San Diego High, but some objected to such big spending. For another, he was a bit of an odd duck in our small town. Some “disapproved of a school leader who smoked cigars and often dined at a restaurant where liquor was served. Others disapproved because he was ‘a bachelor who lived at the University Club,’” writes historian Robert F. Heilbron. (The rest of this tale is based largely on Heilbron’s account.)

In 1917, voters elected three school board members who wanted to sack MacKinnon. A year later, the board declined to renew the superintendent’s contract and fired 18 teachers. Then the real trouble began.

Disloyalty Charges, Student Strike Roil the Waters

Hundreds of high school and junior college students in the district went on strike.

An infuriated school board ordered the students to return. They did not. The board tried to withhold diplomas for graduates. The district attorney said no. And then, in a grim preview of the McCarthy era, things got really nasty with this letter from the three board members:

The question of whether we should have in our schools teachers who are absolutely and unqualifiedly loyal to our government and our institutions and 100% American is not a debatable question. At the time the order was made dropping certain teachers we were informed that several among those dropped were under surveillance by the authorities for Pro-Germanism and these teachers were dropped for that reason.

This was a slur. The teachers were not actually under surveillance.

“The thing for those members is to slide quietly out, resign, quit. It will save a lot of trouble and expense for them to do it as quickly as possible,” The San Diego Union declared, according to a 2009 account in U-T San Diego. The Herald called them “blundering incompetents” and said “their asinine work is becoming a public menace.”

But they didn’t quit.

And Away They Go: Recall Time in SD

The recall came in December 1918 after legal maneuvering over whether school board members could be recalled: Voters fired all three school board members by a margin of 3-1 and replaced them.

The superintendent, MacKinnon, later became a local bank president.

On the Firing Line: Councilwoman, Right-Wing Christians

Voters in our county don’t mind firing politicians, although they don’t do it often. When I last checked the numbers, in 2009, just 30 local elected officials had been recalled since 1979.

They included “a judge who got caught up in a prostitution sting and still refuses to say what actually happened. Two evangelical Christian school board members, a young San Diego councilwoman and more obscure backcountry elected officials than you can shake a ballot box at,” as I explained in 2009.

In 1991, voters in a San Diego council district recalled 31-year-old Councilwoman Linda Bernhardt by a margin of 70 to 30 percent, although fewer than a third of registered voters bothered to vote. The man behind that recall, a longtime enemy of Filner, is heading the main movement to dump him now.

The State of the States

Many states in the U.S. allow voters to recall local and state officials, but some — especially on the East Coast — do not. Those that do allow recalls sometimes require the official to have specifically done something wrong. (The National Conference of State Legislators has handy guides here and here.)

California doesn’t require any grounds for an official to be recalled. The most famous recall in the state’s history was of Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. Several state legislators have been recalled or survived recall votes.

It’s Always L.A.’s Fault, Isn’t It?

Put the credit (or the blame) for the recall idea on our neighbors to the north. Voters in Los Angeles approved allowing recalls around 1903, according to the Los Angeles Times, and it got used a year later to boot a city councilman over a bidding scandal involving the Times itself. (The recall was “freak legislation” that was “conceived in rottenness,” the stung paper declared.)

“The recall, just like the initiative process, is seen as this safety valve,” a Florida professor told me in 2003. “It’s a kind of precautionary measure that can allow the people to speak even when it’s not their proper time to speak [during regular elections].”

Other states picked up on the recall idea, while some folks back East worried about empowering voters — horrors! — and said no.

California stuck with the right to recall, not to mention the pesky initiative and referendum. And here we are, waiting to see if voters will exercise a right born a long time ago.

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Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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