Ten years ago, California erupted in an anti-government, anti-establishment convulsion unlike any ever seen. Disgruntled voters seized the chance for a rare do-over, recalling their staid and serious governor, Gray Davis, and replacing him less than a year after his reelection with one of the most famous and exuberant personalities on the planet. It was only the second time in U.S. history a sitting governor was booted from office. The spectacle — a snap election featuring a color wheel of 135 candidates, including a former child actor, a porn star and a handful of professional politicians — shook California from its usual political slumber and captivated an audience that watched from around the world. A decade on, the effects are still being felt, albeit subtly, and not the way proponents imagined, or the way actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the chief beneficiary, so grandly promised.
Fundamental changes in the way California elects its leaders — a top-two primary system aimed at pushing candidates to the ideological center and an impartial redrawing of the state’s political boundaries — will almost certainly change how Sacramento operates for years to come. Neither would likely have passed without Schwarzenegger sitting in the governor’s office.
10 memorable moments from the recall
The upheaval helped deliver the state its current governor, Jerry Brown, a decades-long officeholder and scion of California’s great political dynasty, whose worn-shoe familiarity appealed to voters in part because he was so unlike the upstart Schwarzenegger.
Less tangible, but also important, many say the historic election heightened awareness of state government and gave Californians a greater sense of empowerment, even if it failed to extinguish the flickering animosity toward Sacramento. For good or ill, the recall served notice on California’s political class, and still looms as a threat over all those holding elective office.