Hounding Gray

Recall Gray Davis volunteer Donald LaCombe figures there’s nowhere to go but up

Volunteer Donald LaCombe works the K Street Mall on behalf of the effort to recall the governor.

Volunteer Donald LaCombe works the K Street Mall on behalf of the effort to recall the governor.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Donald LaCombe has a serious case of buyer’s remorse.

For LaCombe, a 32-year-old father and vending-machine operator, the “purchase” was his November 2002 vote that helped return Governor Gray Davis to office.

“I thought he was the least of two evils,” LaCombe said recently. “I regret the decision.”

As if to atone for his sins, LaCombe has joined the Recall Gray Davis movement (www.recallgraydavis.com) and volunteered to collect some of the 897,158 signatures of registered voters needed to qualify the recall for a statewide ballot by September 2. (Organizers say they’re aiming for 1.2 million signatures to ensure the measure qualifies.)

On a recent Tuesday, LaCombe’s volunteer work led him back to the K Street Mall between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. for a shift of soliciting signatures. With his 8-year-old son, Chris, in tow, LaCombe walked down 7th Street until he got to “his spot”—a patch of sidewalk in front of the Hard Rock Cafe’s rotating guitar and across from the Men’s Wearhouse. It’s just this side of the line that invisibly separates the start of Downtown Plaza, which is private property, and the west end of the city-owned K Street Mall. Volunteers who do not know it is illegal to circulate petitions on private property are quickly acquainted with the law by helpful security guards.

It was a good time of day; the foot traffic was steady in both directions and diverse in its makeup: Bank tellers, fast-food workers, state workers and retired couples mingled with students, tourists and a handful of self-proclaimed convicted felons.

Wearing a “RecallGrayDavis.com” T-shirt, baggy jeans and black tennis shoes, and with his sunglasses wrapped around his neck, LaCombe looked less the part of political rabble-rouser and more like your next-door neighbor, the guy you’d invite over for a barbecue and a Kings game.

With clipboards extended in both hands, LaCombe began his pitch: “Are you a registered voter? Are you interested in recalling Gray Davis?” He’s fast—quickly dispensing anyone who declines, with a pleasant “thank you anyway” before turning to reach the next batch of afternoon commuters.

One thing became evident early on: A majority of people LaCombe encounters in his volunteer work are unfamiliar with the term “recall.”

“Do you want to recall Gray Davis?” LaCombe asked one woman as she rushed by.

“No, I hate the man!” she responded. “He needs to go!”

“But that’s what it means—we want to remove him from office,” LaCombe said, his face brightening.

“Well, in that case, where do I sign?” she said and walked back to him.

Two blond banker-types powerwalked past LaCombe at 3:15 p.m.

“You ladies interested in recalling Gray Davis?”

“Not this minute,” one replied, over her shoulder.

An African-American man, in answer to LaCombe’s questions, said, “The only thing I’m interested in doing right now is getting home.”

LaCombe could have been home. His almost-eight-hour shift at the Greyhound bus terminal had ended at 12:30 p.m., after which he went home, grabbed lunch and a catnap and then picked up his kid from school. He would go back to Chris’ school that night for an open house.

So, why was he spending his off time working to recall the California governor he just voted for six months ago?

“At first, I was skeptical,” LaCombe said of the recall campaign. “I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I was thinking it was a big Republican thing. But it’s not, really. I mean, he’s let Democrats down, too.”

It is that sentiment that recall organizers claim will put their cause over the top. “If this were just conservative Republicans, this wouldn’t be happening,” said David Pegos, co-coordinator for the Recall Gray Davis campaign. “It’s incredible that we just had a general election and this is happening. I think that pretty much tells you how marginalized people across the political spectrum feel.”

With professional signature-gathering firms declining to get involved in a politically charged proposition, Pegos said the campaign opted to use the Internet to disseminate information and downloadable petitions.

Since the Web site launched on March 25, more than 61,000 signatures have been collected statewide, and organizers claim those numbers will “at least double” monthly as the campaign picks up steam.

“When people see this is really going to happen,” Pegos said, “then we’ll see a flood of people come forward. Then, the money will come, and [potential candidates] will start to jockey for position.”

Pegos said traffic to the Web site jumped noticeably within 48 hours of U.S. Representative Darrell Issa’s April 23 announcement that he would lend both personal and financial support to the recall effort as well as consider running to replace the governor himself. Issa since has indicated he’ll devote time and energy but not money to the cause.

“This isn’t about turf,” Pegos said. “As long as he’s getting people to sign petitions, it only helps and adds credibility to our cause. I came into work this morning and had 40 new e-mails from people wanting to volunteer.”

Whether or not this new flood of volunteers actually materializes, LaCombe said there are plenty of reasons for him to stay out on the street. He feels most “betrayed” about education issues—especially the governor’s proposal to raise community-college fees from $11 to $24 per unit.

The issue of college tuition hits close to home for LaCombe, whose girlfriend, Marcey Cordova, was hoping to jump from part-time to full-time enrollment at Sacramento City College in the fall. If the proposed increase goes through, LaCombe said, that won’t happen.

The proposed education cuts seemed to account for at least half of the 36 signatures LaCombe got that Tuesday. Others came from people who were angry about the state’s record-breaking budget deficit—a fact that LaCombe doesn’t tire of pointing out.

“What’s he done?” asked one woman in response to LaCombe’s standard query.

“A 35 billion deficit under his leadership,” he replied excitedly. “That’s what he’s done!” Though LaCombe concedes that the Democrat-controlled Legislature had a hand in passing previous budgets, he nevertheless holds Davis responsible for not leveling with Californians about the expanse of the actual deficit before last year’s election.

“He downplayed it to get elected. It’s just one more example where Gray Davis has shown he’s not for the working people,” LaCombe asserted. “People say Republicans are for the rich. Well, Gray Davis isn’t for the rich or the poor—he’s just for himself.”

Although LaCombe’s rhetoric was long on emotion and short on specifics, that’s what works best in this type of situation. LaCombe wasn’t really out to educate or engage in debate; he just wanted names.

Gauging by the response he got, supporters of the recall seem to fall into two camps: those whose lives have been personally touched by the budget deficit or education cuts and those who simply have a visceral dislike of Davis—even if not all of them are exactly sure what he does.

“Hell yes, I’ll sign that,” said one man after hearing LaCombe describe the campaign for others. Having just admitted to being an ex-felon, he seemed crestfallen when told that only registered voters could sign the petition. “Damn! Gray Davis is the biggest prick in Congress!”

Others were less excitable, but equally upset with Davis.

“I have three children who are state workers,” said one woman, declining to give her name. “Why am I signing? Just his antics … the whole ball of wax.”

Lenina Sanchez and Camila Bastidas, both 18 and registered to vote, were visiting Sacramento from Burbank High School. Both said they were angry about the cuts in education and insisted that in their district alone, 250 teachers had been terminated. In town for Latina Leadership Day, they both said they would download petitions off the Internet and sign them when they got home.

“We really shouldn’t do it right now,” Sanchez said, explaining that they were due to attend a dinner where the governor was the keynote speaker.

Some people stopped long enough to give LaCombe encouragement but begged off signing, saying they couldn’t because they worked for the state, apparently fearing that LaCombe’s petitions would fall into the hands of the administration.

One state worker not afraid of retaliation was Bob Higday, a 61-year-old employee of the California Conservation Corps. He’s still smarting over Davis’ handling of the energy crisis, and he specifically criticized the governor’s decision to enter into contracts with energy brokers who later would be found to have gouged the state.

The second part of the recall equation—whom voters would want to replace Davis—seemed largely to be an afterthought in most people’s minds that afternoon.

“It’s not like I’m willing to just have anyone in there,” Higday said. “But I just know I want him out.”

LaCombe was in complete agreement. While expressing enthusiasm for a probable run from Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, LaCombe was fervent in his “anyone but Davis” mantra.

“When you hit rock bottom, there’s no way up but up, you know?” he said.

And if Davis’ replacement were Bill Simon or Arnold Schwarzenegger?

LaCombe winced noticeably but recovered. “It doesn’t matter; he’ll be better than Davis.”

Sorting through his petitions before heading home, LaCombe counted 36 signatures. Combined with the results of two previous two-hour stints, those signatures meant he had gathered about 150.

It seems a long way from 897,158. Then again, LaCombe really wants redemption.