To recall, or not to recall, that is the question

After months of controversy, residents of Scarborough voted Tuesday — by a wide margin — to recall three members of its school board. Ejected were members Donna Beely, Cari Lyford and Jodi Shea.

For those unaware of the insurrection that had been brewing in the town, the reason for the recall basically came down to a dispute between the superintendent of the school district, Julie Kukenberger, and the principal of the high school, David Creech.

In April, Creech “resigned” from his post as principal of Scarborough High School. I put quotes around the word resigned because, he claims, that he was actually forced to resign by the superintendent over disputes about school start times and the implementation of proficiency based education.

Then-Scarborough High School Principal David Creech high-fives a student at the high school in February.
Robbie Feinberg | Maine Public

Creech, a well liked principal in town, quickly changed his mind and decided that he wanted to stay, attempting to “unresign,” but Kukenberger said no, infuriating the residents of Scarborough. She was supported in that decision by school board members Beely, Lyford and Shea, which is what ultimately launched the recall effort. By ejecting these board members, residents could install new candidates who would vote to fire the superintendent and ultimately keep Creech in his job.

Once the recall initiative began, it became clear Kukenberger was in trouble. She didn’t exactly help her case when it was learned that she attempted to stop a student voter registration drive in the school that was being engineered so that the newly registered students could vote against her.

The teachers union supported the recall. The students supported the recall. The parents supported the recall. And in the end, two-thirds of Scarborough residents voted to recall the school board members, paving the way for Kukenberger’s dismissal.

I’m telling you this story, because in my mind, this is one of the things that makes recall elections attractive, and good for democracy. There was a substantive dispute about policy, an unelected bureaucrat making decisions that nearly all of the town disagreed with, and members of an elected body failing to respond to the overwhelming, informed opinion of their constituents.

The recall was driven entirely by parents and families inside the town. It was organic, and it represented the pure, grassroots reaction of everyday people in a town who sought a new path.

If that was what recalls typically would, I would be far more comfortable with them. Unfortunately, that isn’t what we usually see.

In Waterville, for instance, there is another recall brewing, this time targeting Mayor Nick Isgro.

In contrast to Scarborough, this recall is entirely political. Those behind the effort are partisans who seek an opportunity to eliminate a political opponent they don’t like without waiting for the next election. They are making use of outside money, and are importing partisan signature gatherers from other — often times far away — towns.

And ultimately the reason for the recall boils down to a small cadre of angry liberal activists in town being offended by something Isgro said.

This is the recall I’m used to seeing. I personally worked on one of the most famous examples of this, the 2012 recall election in Wisconsin, where democrats, fueled by tens of millions of dollars of union money, attempted to recall Gov. Scott Walker a year and a half after being elected.

Why? Because Walker pursued restrictions on collective bargaining as part of a budget stabilization package, which was something he ran on, and promised to do if he was elected.

That’s important, because it highlights legitimacy — or illegitimacy — of recalls. Walker ran for office and asked for votes, telling those people exactly what he wanted to do if he got elected, and they voted for him.

Trying to use the recall election provision for political purposes because you don’t want to wait for the next election to make your case for why your ideas are superior is a rather disgusting, partisan abuse of the recall provision.

Something Republicans are guilty of too. I’m sure you all remember the 2003 recall election in California which brought down Gov. Gray Davis, and installed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Partisans are partisans, and they all behave the same no matter what party they belong to.

Which brings me to my ultimate point. Recalls, like referendums, were born of noble purposes, and used properly by people for the right reasons — as it was in Scarborough — may in fact serve an important purpose.

Unfortunately, the power to do good things inevitably ends up being perverted by those who seek to use it for all the wrong reasons.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.