As a candidate for mayor of Omaha, Jim Suttle vowed to lower property taxes. But when the Democrat took office in June 2009, his plans changed. Required by law to balance the budget and facing declining revenues thanks to the recession, Suttle, 66, hiked property taxes and imposed a surcharge on restaurant and bar tabs to help erase a $34 million shortfall. It didn't go over well. Citing "broken promises," business leaders unhappy with the new taxes circulated a petition to recall Suttle. Jeremy Aspen, a real estate executive who helped lead the challenge, says Suttle "demonstrated that he was not the person we put into office." In January, Omaha voters went to the polls to decide whether to keep Suttle or bounce him.
Traditionally used as a check against corruption or cronyism, recalls are on the rise. Fifty-seven mayors faced recall fights last year, up from 23 in 2009, according to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit organization that tracks recalls. Fifteen more face the chopping block so far in 2011. One, Carlos Alvarez, the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County, Florida, was ousted last month. Sixteen Wisconsin state senators are up for a vote in the wake of the Badger State's brawl over the rights of public employees.
The recall explosion has been driven by a combination of factors: voter anger at the sour economy, the rise of the Tea Party movement and the organizing potential of tools like blogs and other social media. "This is different than anything we've ever seen before," says U.S. Conference of Mayors CEO Tom Cochran. Many of the recall attempts have been triggered by policies designed to heal ailing balance sheets. Others are merely frivolous, like a recent vote in Johnstown, Colo., spurred by the mayor's decision to change the city's parking from diagonal to parallel. Recalls have become "the new instant-gratification pill" for antsy voters, says Don Plusquellic, the Democratic mayor of Akron, Ohio, who survived a 2009 challenge driven by an attorney and political rival with whom he's long feuded.
Just 26% of mayoral recall attempts last year were successful. But they can be costly distractions. Omaha's Suttle narrowly survived his recall challenge but says he spent two months and some $750,000 to keep his seat. "If we want this country to survive," Suttle says, "we need to be able to deal with tough issues."
Suttle won 51% of the 82,000 recall ballots cast in Omaha