Recalling History

Yesterday, Wisconsin activists turned in more than one million petitions supporting the recall of Scott Walker. It was almost double the number they needed to turn in. The Republican governor prompted mass protests last year when he slashed public-employee benefits and then began dismantling collective-bargaining rights in the state. Unions, Democrats, and others affected by the policies were all eager for political payback.  "This is the most participated major recall in American history," Meagan Mahaffey, executive director of the coordinating group United Wisconsin, told me with evident pride.

But that's not saying as much as you might think; only two governors have ever been recalled. The recall of former California Governor Gray Davis is relatively well known, but I, for one, wasn't familiar with the first official gubernatorial ouster, which took place 90 years ago in North Dakota. Deciding to put that liberal-art history degree to use, I dug around a bit to discover the story of Lynn Frazier, the governor whose recall occurred under almost opposite circumstances from those of Scott Walker.

Frazier was part of the Non-Partisan League (NPL), a group that controlled the state between 1916 and 1921. He was a well-liked farmer drafted by the party to run for governor. According to one anecdote, when the party phoned to say that he was their gubernatorial nominee, his wife explained, "He's outside slopping hogs." As governor, Frazier and the NPL began spending large amounts of money—on things like education and roads. They created programs and institutions including a state bank, state hail insurance, low-income housing loans for those in cities, and an overarching industrial commission run by the governor, attorney general, and secretary of agriculture. In other words, pretty much the opposite of Scott Walker's cut-government, cut-benefits policies.

"Spending money is the key issue," explains Kimberly Porter, a history professor at the University of North Dakota. "North Dakota had fallen into a deep postwar depression … and a lot of farmers were having tremendous difficulty."

According to Porter, those out of power saw their chance, teaming up to begin the recall effort. Farmers facing hard times weren't happy that the government was spending so much money while they struggled. "The NPL also was tarred with the brush of socialism," Porter says. "They weren't true socialists but they got the word thrown at them quite a bit." Luckily, no one calls people socialists unfairly anymore.

When the recall time came, voters received a ballot with eight questions. The first three offered recalls of the Governor Frazier as well as the attorney general and the secretary of agriculture. The other five offered to end the new state programs. But while the voters tossed out all three incumbents, they kept the programs, which were grown and improved by the NPL's political opponents, the Citizens Economy League. As for Frazier, he was soon sent to the U.S. Senate, where he served as a progressive through the 1930s. According to Porter, the gubernatorial recall came alongside other major reforms of the era, like public referenda and the expansion of education funding.

"These folks were actually on top of the game," Porter says.

Now 91 years after Frazier faced his recall, Wisconsin GOP spokesman Ben Sparks called the effort to recall Walker "baseless and expensive." Many have argued that the recall isn't worth pursuing based solely on the cost. But something tells me that those are the same folks who would have supported tossing some "socialists" out of office all those years ago.