California State Capitol

The recall of a sitting governor in California has occurred once since World War II, in 2003 when incumbent chief executive Gray Davis was successfully removed. The California Constitution, through Article II, Section 17 assigns the task of overseeing the recall of a sitting governor to the lieutenant governor. Specifically, that section states, “if a recall of the Governor or Secretary of State is initiated, the recall duties of that office shall be performed by the Lieutenant Governor or Controller, respectively” (California Secretary of State, 2014). Over time, that rather broad mission has narrowed to one task: setting the date for the recall election. And, what will be briefly reviewed here is how that process was carried out by Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante during the recall of Governor Davis in 2003.

The dilemma faced by Cruz Bustamante in 2003 was one familiar to those who face a two-term limit in California’s plural executive constitutional offices. Bustamante was planning to use his platform as the state’s second-in-command to run for governor in 2006 when Davis was termed out, a long-term timetable that, with the fast-moving recall of Davis in motion throughout early 2003, was left in shambles. And, when Kevin Shelly, the Secretary of State, verified that enough signatures had been gathered in July of 2003, it fell upon Bustamante to set the date of the recall election, a task he tried for a short time avoid making.

First, Bustamante tried to sidestep the issue, by indicating he would ask either the state supreme court or a rather vague state body, the Commission on the Governorship, to rule on the issue about whether to call an election. (Broder 2003). But, this commission’s mission is directly related to currently existing vacancies in that office, not the issue of whether or not to call a special election to potentially replace a sitting chief executive. (California Government Code, 2015…Division 3, Part 2, Chapter 1, Sections 12070-12076).

Proponents of the recall were very vocal in their insistence that an election had to be called, and not punted to an obscure state commission indirectly related to the decision Bustamante was faced with making. And election law experts were almost unanimously opposed to his thinking about deferring the decision. Taking these awkward steps appeared to make the lieutenant governor look weak and indecisive, at the very time the office needed to project an image of efficient executive decision-making. After a few days of wavering and obfuscating—apparently as he weighed his own chances of succeeding to  the governorship—Bustamante relented and set the date for the recall election (Gonzales 2003).

The lieutenant governor’s office is not often in the spotlight and is rarely forced to lead in a time of political crisis in the state. The hesitation of Bustamante at a time when a simple decision was needed may have had two ramifications. First, it may have reinforced a political stereotype that those who hold this office may not be ready when forced to lead. Second, his reluctance to lead in this situation may have played a part when Bustamante decided a few weeks later to run unsuccessfully for Governor in the recall.


Broder, John. “Questions and Assumptions Surround the Recall Process. New York Times. July 24, 2003, A14.

California Government Code. Division 3, Part 2, Chapter 1, Sections 12070-12076.

Gonzales, Richard. “Analysis: Recall election in California to be held in October.” Morning Edition. National Public Radio, July 25, 2003.