Phil Mastin recall, Michigan (1983)

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Phil Mastin, a Democratic state senator from Pontiac, Michigan, was the first-ever Michigan state legislator to be recalled from office by his constituents.[1] He was serving in the first year of his first term in the Michigan State Senate when the recall occurred. The election to recall him took place on November 22, 1983. Sen. David Serotkin, D-Mt Clemens, was recalled eight days later, on November 30.
  • Votes cast to recall Mastin: 26,700
  • Votes cast to retain Mastin: 15,990

The recall effort against Mastin was part of a tax revolt that developed in the state in 1983 after the state legislature passed, and Governor James Blanchard (D) signed, a $675 million state income tax hike. Adjusted for inflation, that tax hike in 2008 dollars would be a bit more than $1.4 billion. In his election campaign for governor, Blanchard had promised that he would only turn to a tax hike as a last resort. However, he proposed the 38% state income tax hike before serving a full month in office. Democrats held both chambers of the state legislature when the tax increase was enacted.

Mastin served in the Michigan House of Representatives for three terms, winning election in 1970, 1972 and 1974. He did not seek re-election to the state house in 1976, running instead for the position of Oakland County executive before running for and winning a seat in the state senate in 1982.

The recall of Mastin, combined with the recall of David Serotkin, flipped the party with majority control in the Michigan State Senate from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.[2]

Recalling Mastin

In order to put the question of recalling Mastin on the ballot, recall organizers turned in 28,360 signatures on July 26, 1983. The signatures were collected within 90 days and were 42% more than the minimum necessary to force a recall election.

The leader of the recall effort was Dan Powers. In 1983, he was a 25-year-old GM assembly line worker from Sterling Heights. He presented Sen. Serotkin, his senator, with a statement signed by 6,000 constitutents opposing the tax increase before it was enacted--to no avail. The name of the recall organization was "Citizens Against Unnecessary State Expenditures."

The campaign strategy adopted by Mastin and Serotkin to ward off the recall was to persuade their constituents that one vote on one bill should not decide their fate. Mastin said, "There have been a number of things that I’ve done that have sort of built a total, broader record that I hope the people will judge me by."

Mastin recall supporters rejected this line, urging constituents to focus on the tax hike. Mick Steiner, head of the Mastin recall effort, said, "I am a capitalist and I feel that Blanchard, Mastin and the others are a bunch of socialists. They want to take from the haves and give to the have-nots."

Political aftermath

Republicans won both of the special elections to replace the recalled senators and took a 20-18 majority control of the senate on Feb. 6, 1984. A little-known Republican state senator, John Engler, became the Senate Majority Leader and the primary political rival to Gov. Blanchard. Seven years later, in the 1990 campaign for governor, Engler narrowly unseated Blanchard in an upset election still shadowed by the events of 1983.[3]

After the recall, Mastin went to work in government relations. He established retraining programs to help workers displaced by plant closings or layoffs.[4]

Lessons from James Blanchard

Commenting on the 1983 recalls in 2007, Blanchard told a supporter, "Everybody recognized that something had to be done about revenue, even though a lot of people were mad about the tax increase. The big political mistake was not going after the recall petition drive once it got started - challenging the signatures and so on. Once the recall got on the ballot, Mastin and Serotkin were toast."[5]

Right after the 1983 recall, speaking to the New York Times, Blanchard described the successful recall of Mastin as "a great political tragedy."[6]

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