Oregon lawmaker faces rare recall attempt

Most recalls in the U.S. target local officials.
The Oregon state Capitol in Salem. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)

Oregon Rep. Paul Holvey (D) on Tuesday will join an exclusive club when he becomes just the 40th state legislator in American history — and the first since 2018 — to face a recall election.

Holvey, the chairman of the House Committee on Business and Labor, represents a heavily Democratic district covering parts of Eugene and Lane County. His vote this year against a measure barring cannabis industry employers from interfering with unionization efforts spurred a backlash from a powerful local labor group, which mounted the recall effort. Other labor groups throughout the state are supporting Holvey.

Nearly all recall elections in the U.S. target local officials — school board members, city council members and district attorneys — and those recalls are usually policy focused, such as over firing school superintendents or land use development. Additionally, most local offices, in Oregon and across the country, are nonpartisan. The Beaver State is no stranger to local recalls; more than 150 officials have faced voters in the middle of their terms over the last 12 years; only Michigan has held more recall elections.

Most of these recalls succeed. Nationwide, about 60% of those who have faced a recall have lost their bids to keep office, and another 6% resigned before a vote was held.

Recalls of sitting legislators are rarer, though they are becoming more frequent.

Of those 40 recalls, two-thirds of them will have taken place in the last 30 years, a time that has also seen three of the four gubernatorial recalls in U.S. history. Slightly more than half of the legislators who faced recalls lost their votes (a number skewed by 10 recalls survivors in Wisconsin in 2011-2012), so they definitely work.

Oregon’s recall rules, are different than California, Wisconsin or Michigan, which may offer Holvey a good measure of hope.

The rare legislative recall are often cast in more of a partisan light. Even when there is a policy issue at play, as when two Colorado state senators were recalled in 2013 over gun policy, and 15 Wisconsin Republicans, including Gov. Scott Walker (R), faced recall votes in 2011 and 2012 over changes to public union laws, partisan politics takes center stage.

In four cases — Michigan in 1983, California in 1995, Wisconsin in both 1996 and 2012 — partisan control of the legislature actually changed hands when a sitting legislator was recalled. Six other recalls, twice in California and once each in Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin and Colorado, specifically targeted legislative leaders.

Due to their rules, voters in Holvey’s district will be asked to cast a simple yes or no vote on whether to boot him from office. If they decide to oust him, he would be replaced by Lane County commissioners who would chose from a list of candidates provided by the county Democratic Party.

That means Holvey’s win or loss would not alter the balance of power in the state legislature, where Democrats already hold an overwhelming majority, potentially robbing Republicans of the motivation to cast their vote.

Oregon legislators have faced recalls only three times in the state’s history. In 1935, a state representative was recalled over his refusal to back the Townsend Plan, a precursor to Social Security. Two legislators in the 1980s were recalled over bad behavior. All three lost their seats.

That makes Holvey’s recall — driven by an angry local political faction within his own party — unique in state history. Interest group recalls, including those led by labor groups, have failed more often than recalls driven by other factors, like bad behavior or even straight partisanship.

Labor groups led recall drives against California Sen. James Owens (D) in 1913, and against 13 Wisconsin Senate Republicans, as well as Walker, in 2011 and 2012. Owens kept his seat, as did Walker, his Lieutenant Governor and 10 of the 13 Wisconsin senators.

Another labor-led recall effort, against Michigan Rep. Paul Scott (R) in 2011, succeeded in booting him from office — though Scott was replaced by a fellow Republican.

Holvey’s recall is a real challenge for the veteran pol. But thanks to Oregon’s rules and the fact that his opponents seem to be a specific interest group, he may have caught a break.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform ad Wagner College and an expert on recall elections.