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Abusing democracy


The decades-long political war between liberals and conservatives intensified in the mid-1990s, when President Clinton earned the undying enmity of Republicans for repeatedly outdueling House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Bent on revenge, Republicans -- led by the likes of bare-knuckled Texas Congressman Tom Delay -- seized their opportunity when Clinton was reckless enough to fool around with a young female intern in the Oval Office and then lie about it under oath. Perjury, claimed Delay and his cohorts, was an impeachable offense.

Of course it wasn't. The fact that the man occupying the White House tried to hide an extra-marital affair from the nation in no way threatened the country's constitutional form of government. But that didn't matter to Republicans. They saw an opportunity to wound a president they hated, and they took it. It was a new twist in American politics -- the use of impeachment as a political weapon.

Fast-forward to December 2000. The nation is in the throes of a full-fledged political crisis: a presidential election has been held, and it is so close it's impossible to say who won. After a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that favored Democrats and the Al Gore campaign, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and reversed the lower court's ruling. By a 5-4 margin, the politically conservative court handed George W. Bush the presidency -- and damaged its image as a non-partisan legal body.

When historians write about the rise and fall of American democracy, those two events -- the impeachment in 1998 and the 2000 election -- will surely be seen as turning points. For in both cases, constitutional principles were sacrificed to political gain.

Democracy is also falling by the wayside in California in 2003, a year that both in Humboldt County and statewide is proving to be politically tumultuous.

Gov. Gray Davis, just eight months after being elected to a second term, is facing a recall effort that seems to be gaining momentum each day. It is of course being led -- and funded -- by Republicans, who are using the budget crisis to scapegoat the governor. Never mind that a recall would cost taxpayers millions, or that Republicans are trying to redo the election they lost last year. And never mind that Davis isn't guilty of the kind of serious misconduct that would make him subject to a legitimate recall effort. He is unpopular, and is therefore politically vulnerable. Call it using recall as a political weapon.

Similar hijinks are going on here in Humboldt, where political opponents of District Attorney Paul Gallegos are trying to oust him. Just as with Davis, Gallegos hasn't committed any egregious acts while in office. Instead, he simply had the temerity to sue the politically powerful Pacific Lumber Co. for fraud before he'd even been in office two months, and thereby became -- in theory -- politically vulnerable. That's the real reason for the recall, not the ridiculous claim that Gallegos is soft on crime (he simply hasn't been on the job long enough for anyone to determine that definitively).

We were encouraged recently when the Times-Standard editorialized against the recall. We were also glad to learn that the recall won't be on the November ballot as not enough signatures have been gathered. But it is probable that it will come before voters after that. That's regrettable, not least because a recall election will cost Humboldt taxpayers an estimated $100,000. It's also unfortunate since the recall drive is nothing less than an attempt by those who supported Gallegos' predecessor, Terry Farmer, to undo the results of last year's election. Let them wait and run a candidate in three years; that's how the rest of us behave in a democracy.

Meantime, vigilance -- in Humboldt, the state and across the country -- is needed by those who care about democracy. This is indeed a war, and so far the power-hungry are winning.



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