Money for something

Look for a handful of rich donors to pour tons of cash into Gray Davis’ effort to fight the recall. Be advised: The donations come with strings attached.

Illustration By B.Z.

As the Gray Davis recall moves into overdrive, and the noxious Davis consultant Chris Lehane—who helped Clinton formulate his creepy Monica Lewinsky strategy—gets ready to launch an assault on the truth unlike anything we’ve witnessed in a California election, a phrase keeps circling inside my head: Follow the money.

Most political junkies know by now that Lehane plans to paint the recall as right-wingers stealing an election from liberals. Lehane is said to be the most negative campaigner in the United States, a guy who will shimmy so low to win, that Davis—the most vicious campaigner California has seen in modern times—imported Lehane from back east.

Many voters won’t easily dismiss their own boiling fury at Davis or at the $38 billion in debt that materialized on Davis’ watch after our fibbing governor and catatonic leaders like Democratic Senator John Burton of San Francisco insisted things were under control.

Even so, if you are tempted to buy into any of Lehane’s whoppers—such as the one making the rounds about how a recall “hurts” California’s economy (compared with how rosy things are by keeping Davis)—merely remember this advice: follow the money.

Why, for instance, is Mighty Morphin Power Rangers gazillionaire Haim Saban giving $100,000 to ensure Davis remains governor, and why did spoiled rich kid Stephen Bing fork over $100,000, and why should Zenith Insurance Co. of Woodland Hills have handed Davis $100,000?

Why would John and Rebecca Moores, owners of the San Diego Padres, give $100,000? Why would two Service Employees International Union groups give a total of $200,000? And why would Jerry Perenchio, chief executive officer of Univision, cough up $50,000 for a governor who is clearly incompetent?

Why did the California Professional Firefighters part with $118,000, and why did Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who derive their riches from Teleflora and incredibly garish dust catchers sold via The Franklin Mint, give up $50,000?

Why did Roland E. Arnall, chairman of Ameriquest of Orange County, which lends high-interest dough to bad credit risks, convince his firm to give $50,000; why did Richard S. Ziman send $25,000 from Arden Realty LP and give $25,000 personally; and why did aging Beverly Hills developer Nate Shappel part with $25,000?

For starters, many in this bunch make up the Westside money cabal in Los Angeles, which put Davis in office in the first place. They are far too rich and disconnected from their fellow travelers to experience normal human shame. For them, Davis is a 401(k) from which they are not yet ready to withdraw.

“Good God,” said Shawn Steel, former chairman of the California Republican Party, “these people previously poured millions into Gray Davis, and as they said in Tammany Hall, ‘Once he’s bought, he ought to stay bought.’”

A slightly kinder take comes from Democrat Kathleen Connell, who stepped down as state controller in January after spending months blasting her fellow Democrats for their unchecked overspending, which Connell says clearly caused California’s budget debacle.

Connell was a fiscal toughie who, had Davis listened to her, never would have permitted California to spiral into these reckless “get out alive” budgets Davis and the Democrats keep creating.

“You are going to see eight or so major players behind Gray during this recall, giving directly or through vendors or subsidiaries, and they are Haim Saban, Stephen Bing, [grocery magnate] Ron Berkle, [SunAmerica billionaire] Eli Broad and others,” said Connell.

“The Democrats would lose their political control,” Connell said. “Their greatest fear is if he’s thrown out, it destroys Democratic solidarity, and it would create an opportunity for a Republican to be elected governor.”

If these multimillionaires and billionaires avert what would be the second recall of a governor in the United States, they will gain unprecedented attention from Davis until 2006. That gushing gubernatorial gratefulness could come in awfully handy for wealthy Democrats and Republicans alike.

Take Perenchio, chairman of Spanish-language Univision, who spent more than $1 million a few years ago trying to stop English immersion (Proposition 227). (Why lose all those Univision customers by having immigrant kids in California learn to read and write in English?)

On July 10, Perenchio needs help from Davis appointees on the California Coastal Commission. He finally got caught operating his secret, non-permitted, nine-hole golf course next to Malibu Lagoon, built for his wife behind 8-foot rock walls, erected to mask it from the California Coastal Commission.

In filings long ago, Perenchio told the commission he was using the 10 acres for a “jogging trail.” But the golf course was an inside joke among Los Angeles’ wealthiest, who chuckled as the hated commission dumbly failed to grasp where poisons spewing from a mystery drain into Malibu Lagoon were coming from.

According to Wetlands Action Network spokeswoman Marcia Hanscom, Perenchio has been spewing heavy pesticides, including Roundup, onto his secret greens for two decades while children romped in adjacent sand and tidal pools—directly in the path of Perenchio’s ecologically damaging runoff.

Said Hanscom, “Incredibly, I understand the commission staff is going to recommend July 10 that Perenchio be rewarded with a permit-after-the-fact for a development that exists nowhere else on our coast—because it’s a terrible impact that’s never allowed. The reason for $100,000 going from Perenchio to Davis is pretty obvious.”

Perenchio is hardly the only name on the Grease Gray donor list who may need a delicate personal intervention from the governor.

Look at the growing mess facing Padres owner John Moores, one of Davis’ earliest backers, whom Davis rewarded with an appointment to the University of California Board of Regents.

Moores’ software company, Peregrine Systems, is under Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and is in bankruptcy protection after a massive scandal for cooking its books. Moores resigned as Peregrine chairman recently. Company officials told a San Diego newspaper they are now deciding whether to sue Moores and other directors to recover upwards of $100 million.

Republicans in Congress are drooling to detail the events that led Moores to sell more than 18 million shares of stock, for more than $600 million, while the company’s business health was being faked. Peregrine officials insist Arthur Andersen, their former accountants, cooked the books without their knowledge.

If federal blow-back affects Moores’ many business dealings in California, he could use a powerful Democrat in Sacramento.

A governor would be nice.

Another favorite on my list of purely altruistic givers to stop the recall is Zenith Insurance Co., whose chairman Stanley Zax told The Associated Press the $100,000 his company gave is unrelated to any state business.

Zenith, a major provider of workers’ compensation insurance in California, spent $50,000 on lobbying in recent months.

I was at the heavily lobbied hearings on workers’ compensation. The Democrats wasted hours on foolish bills that, with few exceptions, avoided making true fixes to a crisis that is mushrooming out of control under Davis. (Indeed, workers’ compensation is now becoming the next big Democratic disaster. It will be followed by another Democratic disaster when California’s insanely over-committed pension plans falter.)

During the hearings, the minority Republicans put forth several bills that sought to reform workers’ compensation seriously by copying states in which workers’ compensation is inexpensive and offers good coverage.

Well, duh.

The Democrats killed all but one serious Republican reform. Why? Because deep reform is opposed by the insurance companies, unions and other Democratic campaign donors who were milling about.

Despite grand claims by Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi that he would fix workers’ compensation, I predict the Democrats will utterly fail to reform workers’ compensation in 2003. The Dems simply haven’t got the guts to stand up to their campaign donors. But, as Zax insists, Zenith giving $100,000 to Davis has nothing to do with state business.

Who else is passionate about saving Davis? Stephen Bing, the brat New York heir and sometimes film producer who keeps impregnating beautiful women and getting mired in weird scandals for doing so, gave $100,000.

You may recall Bing’s boorish behavior when he insisted that global beauty Elizabeth Hurley have their child paternity-tested because Bing thought Hurley might be a floozy. Turns out Bing—who also turned out to be the father of the baby in the Kirk Kerkorian-Lisa Bonder paternity battle—is the real floozy. Bing’s the last person you’d place on a list of people worried about good government.

Steel theorizes that Bing “is a huge fan of Gray Davis because he’s a brain-dead, party-down-in-San Francisco, never-worked-a-day-in-his-life, bad-news guy. Bing gives me intriguing socialist thoughts, like, ‘He doesn’t deserve all that wealth.’”

Bing bought his way into social circles in Washington and Sacramento that require huge donations. Now, with the Democrats out in Washington, the shell-shocked rich—Bing, Saban and other political clingers—are focused like lasers on saving their power in Sacramento.

I also see on the Grease Gray list very rich trial lawyers like the brilliant Joseph W. Cotchett of Burlingame, who has good reason to believe that California’s backward tort system, which allows massive verdicts for modest wrongs, will never be reformed under gutless Davis. And I see big developers who know that Davis will say California needs open space but then will allow awful development in the back door.

I’m quite sure these fabulously rich Davis loyalists hope California turns around someday. But priorities come first. And the first question clearly is: What about me?