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Effort to recall Arizona’s Douglas seeks to turn Facebook likes into political power

It began after the November general election with a website and Facebook page carrying a battle cry shared by two young men: “Diane Douglas is not fit to lead as the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Arizona.”

“It was a form of protest initially,” said Max Goshert, a Red Cross aquatic safety instructor. “We were protesting her election. We didn’t think the people of Arizona really knew who they were electing.”

The message caught on quickly after Douglas, a tea party Republican running on a platform of repealing Common Core, narrowly won election.

Almost overnight, the Facebook page had 1,000 likes. As Douglas generated controversy by attempting to fire two staff members of the State Board of Education and then sparring with Gov. Doug Ducey when he overruled her, that number climbed to more than 11,000.

What started as a protest by Goshert and Anthony Espinoza, a public school teacher, became the Coalition to Recall Diane Douglas, which has registered as a political committee with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.

“We believe that Diane Douglas is unqualified to lead Arizona schools, and we need someone who is qualified and ready to lead,” Espinoza said. “She has no experience in regards to public teaching or working in a school.”

But can this grass-roots effort become a political movement that succeeds in bringing about a recall election for a holder of statewide office? That hasn’t happened since 1988, when Arizona voters filed enough signatures to trigger a recall election for Gov. Evan Mecham, who was impeached before the election could be held.

Under state law, Douglas must hold office for six months before opponents can circulate a recall petition. So it couldn’t start before July.

And the task then would be daunting: collecting signatures of registered voters equaling at least 25 percent of the total votes cast in the general election – in this case, 366,000 – within 120 days.

Espinoza said his group is aiming for closer to 400,000 signatures, as some inevitably will be deemed invalid.

Gathering petition signatures is an arduous task often handled by paid circulators. Even well-funded efforts often fall short of gathering enough signatures to place citizens’ initiatives on the statewide ballot.

Goshert said the Coalition to Recall Diane Douglas will rely on donations through its website and proceeds from selling $15 T-shirts bearing its logo.

According to a post-general election report filed with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office and covering Oct. 24 to Nov. 24, the group hadn’t raised any money.

Goshert declined to say how much money the group has received since or who was donating, but he said he expects to raise enough to make a recall happen.

Arizona has seen a successful recall effort in recent years, with East Valley residents voting in 2011 to oust Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, author of SB 1070 and other measures targeting illegal immigration.

Bruce Merrill, a political analyst with Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said a statewide effort to recall Douglas could succeed if it does make the ballot.

“She has very little support except for the extreme right wing,” Merrill said. “If this goes to a recall election, it would be a very good chance that she would lose that election.”

Kristin Borns, an independent public policy consultant, said recalling a public official is a difficult undertaking, especially for a grass-roots movement relying heavily on social media to get its message across.

Regardless of funding, she said, a movement such as this needs manpower to help with tasks like distributing petitions and organizing events.

“A recall effort can be effective if it is able to lock into voter sentiments,” Borns said. “However, social media is a relatively new tool, and I’m unsure how 11,000 Facebook likes can translate to more petition signatures.”

Brad McQueen, a Tucson elementary school teacher who opposes the Common Core standards, contends that the effort to recall Douglas is about politics rather than performance.

“It is very telling that they announced the recall effort days after Diane Douglas won showing, that the recall has nothing to do with Douglas’s job performance but has more to do with politics,” said McQueen, who agreed to an interview on the condition that it be conducted via email. “They would have had more legitimacy if they waited a year and were able to point to actual actions taken by Douglas as a basis for recalling her.”

Goshert and Espinoza said Douglas is failing in her duties by not saying what she would do to improve education in Arizona.

“Talk to everyone, give an earnest effort to improve education for Arizona students and show us that,” Goshert said. “And honestly do it. Don’t just do flashy actions for political gain, but do honest things to try and improve the lives of kids.”