Recall Death Match Ready 2 Rumble

What happens when two of the most knowledgeable and aggressive politicos in Sacramento square off to debate the issue of the recall? Let’s put it this way: It isn’t pretty.

Photo Illustration by Andrea Diaz

The recall may be fun to watch, like a reality-TV show that has the Golden State walking a tightrope, blindfolded, above a pit of poisonous snakes as the rest of the world applauds and guffaws. But the stakes are higher, and there’s a sadness to the spectacle, not so much because of what it portends for the state—California can survive anything—but for what this sudden race says about the depths to which politics have sunk here: At this point, there doesn’t appear to be a good choice. Californians are forced to choose between endorsing a governor that few support or siding with his political rivals, who are willing to put the state into turmoil to serve their own ambitions.

Now, with two months left before voters head to the polls to choose a governor for the second time in a year, California is an international political spectacle. It’s impossible to keep up with the story, which changes with every daily news cycle as past electoral losers come out of the woodwork to join publicity seekers (and maybe even a celebrity muscleman) on a ballot that could list hundreds of names.

The accompanying name-calling campaigns, legal challenges and minor scandals are playing out in fluid, uncharted political territory. And no one predicted any of this. The recall was limping along until a roguish character materialized to invest the cash the recall needed to succeed: Darrell Issa.

Faced with such confusing events and apparently unappealing choices, we called representatives from both sides of the recall battle to make their case, defend it and set us straight.

We got Bob Mulholland, the fire-breathing spinmeister for the California Democratic Party, to come in and spar with Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Recall Gray Davis Committee. Mulholland is an unabashed partisan with more zeal for mudslinging than anyone else in Sacramento. Russo was the Republican political consultant for Bill Simon’s failed campaign for governor. Russo’s recall committee is one of three squabbling factions that aim to depose the governor. (Russo also told us unequivocally during his visit that he won’t be running Simon’s campaign this time around.)

Getting these two representatives to come in, however, was easier than getting them to address key issues and answer questions head on. Both were willing to steer the debate back to their own talking points and make more attacks. What they said, or didn’t say, however, is illustrative of the way this political debate will play out. Both sides want it to be about the other side.

In any case, just like reality TV, it at least makes great drama because no one knows how it will end.

SN&R: The governor said, “This recall is just a bunch of sour grapes by a bunch of losers.” Is it? Mr. Russo, you and Simon lost last year, and now you’re both back again.

RUSSO: This is the 32nd recall of a California governor. Thirty-one have failed. The only reason this one is succeeding is that people are angry at the failed leadership of Gray Davis. It doesn’t matter who started it or why they started it or who financed it, it matters now that 2 million people have signed recall petitions and that 75 percent of Californians think Gray Davis is a failed governor. That’s what the driving force is. If Davis did his job, he wouldn’t have a recall.

SN&R: But this is right after an election. Can’t Republicans accept losing?

RUSSO: Recall is like the lemon law. Voters bought a product called Gray Davis on Election Day, and shortly thereafter, they found out that in a fundamental way, he lied to get re-elected and denied that we had a budget problem with the consequence we had. And when voters found that out, by the governor’s own admission in early December or late November, they became enraged, and that fueled what started out as a grassroots thing on talk radio.

SN&R: The legislative analyst, who is independent and nonpartisan, estimated the size of the deficit would be smaller than what the governor predicted last fall. Did she lie?

RUSSO: She said we had a catastrophe. The press, the legislative analyst, Bill Simon, Republicans in the Legislature and some Democrats said we had a catastrophe, but it was only Gray Davis who had the bully pulpit and assuaged the public that there wasn’t a problem.

MULHOLLAND: Hogwash. Florida Governor Jeb Bush should be recalled under this rule. Jeb Bush on October 23, two weeks before his election, told the people of Florida he had no deficit. Two weeks after, he said they had a $2 billion deficit. Two months later, he said they had $4 billion.

SN&R: Now that the recall election is set, it’s fair to say that we got to this point because the governor has done such a poor job, right Mr. Mulholland?

MULHOLLAND: Almost every governor in the country has opinion-poll problems. It all rests on a national economic mess put together by Bush Jr. and his fools running the economy. The second point is California got abused by Texas energy thugs led by Ken Lay. That’s why Governor Davis suffers more than the others.

SN&R: Other Democrats acknowledge Davis isn’t a good governor, that he hasn’t engaged in anything, that he’s coin-operated. A lot of people seem to believe that. In that sense, approval ratings for governors in other states don’t matter.

MULHOLLAND: Only California has Darrell Issa with $2 million. Is Gray Davis the most charismatic person? No. He wasn’t when he served his country in Vietnam, either. This is a race by Republicans led by Bill Simon, and now Darrell Issa, who think they can sneak into the governor’s mansion through the back door on some right-wing agenda. It’ll fail.

RUSSO: Californians disapprove of the job that Gray Davis is doing. This isn’t a Republican Party effort; the Republican Party initially wasn’t even for it. Big business, big labor and big political parties are against this recall. It’s the people that are for it.

SN&R: Mr. Mulholland, the governor didn’t distinguish himself in the electricity crisis. During the budget crisis, he was accused of being missing in action, putting out a budget and then hiding in his office. He wasn’t fighting. Now that there’s a threat to his political career, he’s going to fight like a “Bengal tiger"?

MULHOLLAND: Gray Davis was elected by the voters to work with the Legislature on the budget, and the Republicans held up the budget deliberately. That’s what his job is. Now, we’re being challenged by these mobsters led by Darrell Issa.

SN&R: The question is: Why does the governor fight only when his career is on the line?

MULHOLLAND: He’s been fighting these bastards all along. Republicans on day one this year said they wouldn’t raise the taxes on Malibu millionaires. Democrats said we needed a Ronald Reagan approach. Ronald Reagan raised corporate tax, sales tax and other taxes and made budget cuts.

Republican strategist Sal Russo, left, engages Democratic spokesman Bob Mulholland on the governor’s shortcomings and defends the motivations of the recall backers.

Photo By Larry Dalton

RUSSO: The governor has not led, whether it’s the electricity crisis, water, roads, schools or the budget. The only time the governor leads, is when he gets money from campaign contributors.

SN&R: Mr. Russo, isn’t the recall turning the biggest state in the union into a political circus and creating uncertainty that delays an economic recovery just because some wannabes want a shot at being governor? Doesn’t this hurt the state?

RUSSO: We have three means of removing a governor in this state: by operation of law for conviction of certain felonies; impeachment for misconduct in office; and recall when we have a governor, as the ballot argument stated in 1911, who is dishonest or incapable or unsatisfactory.

SN&R: Then the question is: Isn’t this an abuse?

RUSSO: No, why would you say that? The ballot argument makes very clear the purpose: dishonest, incapable, unsatisfactory. Californians believe he’s dishonest, incapable, unsatisfactory, and that’s what recall is for. Recall is the one reserved for the people. And it’s the people that sign the petition and vote on Election Day.

SN&R: Is it the people in this case, or is it these people like Darrell Issa, who come along with a couple million dollars?

RUSSO: You could have anybody come along, but it takes 2 million people that sign the recall petition.

MULHOLLAND: Let’s make clear, it’s 1.3 million signatures, not 2 million. Second point is Darrell Issa financed this. Ronald Reagan also had three recall attempts against him. Ronald Reagan saw his opponents as abusing it, and we agree.

SN&R: Mr. Russo, people have called this a right-wing coup attempt. Is it?

RUSSO: No, it is truly a grassroots effort, or we would not have gotten the 2 million signatures. If you look at the last Los Angeles Times poll, a majority of Latinos support the recall. A third of all Democrats support the recall. A fourth of all liberals support the recall.

SN&R: What about the recall rally last weekend at the Capitol? Speakers called the centrist governor a socialist, everyone was white, and there was an anti-abortion guy running around holding up a huge photograph of a severed fetus head.

RUSSO: I think there was a tremendous amount of diversity there. The Pledge of Allegiance was said by a disabled veterans’ activist, who’s a socialist, who belongs to the Peace and Freedom Party. We had Miguel Araujo there from Centro Azteca, an immigrants’ rights group. Support for the recall spans the ideological spectrum.

SN&R: If it’s not extremist-driven, why are the state’s top Republican leaders, Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox and Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte, not involved? And just today, President Bush said he’d stay out. Why won’t they endorse this?

RUSSO: Political insiders never like it when the people get involved and are active and exert their will. It’s a cozy club, the big business, big labor, big politicians are quite content to have it as their playground. They resent it when the people get involved.

SN&R: The president resents people’s involvement?

RUSSO: Well, the president doesn’t get involved in state issues, ballot issues, in any event, so I wouldn’t expect the White House to be supportive, or big business, or big labor. This is definitely grassroots-driven.

MULHOLLAND: I took special note of Sal’s criticism of Bush.

SN&R: Mr. Mulholland, what about what Mr. Russo said, that there are a ton of Democrats, independents and liberals who support the recall? Why are people like Peter Camejo and Arianna Huffington talking about running?

MULHOLLAND: Those folks didn’t vote for us last November.

SN&R: But they’re progressives, like the governor now says he is. Why are they supporting this? Why are they involved? And why did so many Democrats sign the petition?

MULHOLLAND: Collecting the signatures is easy if you’ve got the money. The key factor is that these people are saying, “Look at this guy we got.” Well, they didn’t vote for Gray Davis last November. This is driven by the people who lost last November.

SN&R: And the Democrats who signed the petition?

MULHOLLAND: Absolutely! Let’s talk about that on October 7, when over 90 percent of Democrats will vote against this recall because they’re going to see the opposition.

Sal Russo said the recall is a device that gives the people a voice in government—and that it’s not being abused by rich egomaniacs.

Photo By Larry Dalton

SN&R: Look at the front-page headline in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Democratic unity on recall shatters.” Representative Loretta Sanchez may get in. Are Democrats divided?

MULHOLLAND: She’s not going to get in. Loretta and the others, five weeks ago—all 33 California Democrats in Congress—condemned this recall. There will be no major Democrat on the ballot except Governor Davis. The Republicans will have three to six candidates, and we will work with each one of them to discredit the others.

SN&R: Are Democrats scared?

MULHOLLAND: No. It’s just headlines. No Democrat is really scared. We know that we won, and we know that when the liberals and other progressives see who is driving this recall—homophobes, anti-choice zealots and Darrell Issa—they’ll vote against them.

RUSSO: You can’t find a Democratic legislator in the state Capitol who thinks Davis is a good governor. Privately, they’ll all tell you he’s a horrible governor. Almost every time you hear from an opponent of the recall, they have nothing good to say about Gray Davis because he’s such a failed governor.

SN&R: Let’s talk about the governor’s reputation as a contribution-driven governor who takes a ton of money and gives supporters what they want—

MULHOLLAND: Complete horse manure.

SN&R: But isn’t that a reasonable—

MULHOLLAND: Absolutely not. Bush Jr. raised $100 million in 2000, way more than Governor Davis, and he’s going to raise $250 million from the corporate scoundrels and the people he’s given all these tax cuts to. The real financial issue in this campaign is the $60 million cost for a Darrell Issa recall campaign—and that’s money taken out of our schoolchildren’s lunchboxes.

SN&R: What about the prison guards? The union gave Davis a lot of money and then got a raise and avoided budget cuts.

MULHOLLAND: The people who help contribute to candidates are not the people who hate you. Your friends and supporters give contributions.

SN&R: Also about money: Part of your argument against the recall, Mr. Mulholland, is that it costs the state a lot of money. But it’s a done deal; we’re having an election. So, how’s that still an issue?

MULHOLLAND: It’s an issue for voters in the middle who say to themselves, “Are we going to start a trend here that Republicans, who lost all eight statewide races last November, are going to do a recall and force the voters of this state to pay a lot of money?” That’s what’s of concern to voters.

RUSSO: The cost of the election is a complete red herring. Under Gray Davis, our budget deficit grows by $30 million a day. So, it’s one day of deficit. We spend $30 million in about three hours in the state of California. So, to get rid of Gray Davis and his $38 billion budget deficit, it’s the best bargain taxpayers have ever had.

SN&R: Mr. Russo, the recall procedure was created as something to give people who aren’t powerful and rich a voice in government, to give them power. But now it’s being taken advantage of by millionaires like Darrell Issa and Bill Simon. Do you think Hiram Johnson, the Progressive Era governor who created the recall, would approve?

RUSSO: I think that at the end of the day, what matters is who’s signing. You can’t get voters to sign something they don’t believe in. So, there’s the reality that 2 million people have signed the recall petitions so far. This is clearly a grassroots effort, and it’s enjoying very popular support.

SN&R: What about that issue, though, that these guys are some unbelievably wealthy Republicans who can afford to toss a few million out—

RUSSO: A lot of initiatives have been financed by special-interest groups. But at the end of the day, it’s the voters that get to make the choice. That’s how democracy works.

SN&R: What if Governor Simon takes office, and Democrats start another recall?

MULHOLLAND: In 24 hours.

SN&R: Wouldn’t that be an abuse?

RUSSO: It would be abuse, No. 1. But No. 2, it’d be silly because the voters would never support a recall unless you had a failed governor.

SN&R: Mr. Mulholland, a senior Davis adviser was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “If it’s Davis vs. Davis, he loses. He spent millions trashing other people, and he’s never spent any time and money telling people why he’s a decent guy. How can you rehabilitate the guy at this point? You have to move him off the scene and make this about something bigger.” Can’t anyone defend the governor? Does that mean the governor’s team will just go on the attack again?

MULHOLLAND: Well, it’s simple. We’ve got an election; now, it’s Governor Davis vs. the Republican thugs, who are homophobes.

Bob Mulholland loves talking trash about Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Darrell Issa and Bill Simon, but he’s not really willing to address the anger and disappointment many Californians feel toward the current governor.

Photo By Larry Dalton

SN&R: But his own team member said the governor is beyond rehabilitation.

MULHOLLAND: That’s complete baloney. Notice they said “somebody,” so there’s no name there. This is going to be a really easy campaign for us. First of all, the Republican candidates, all five of them, are going to be in a hockey fight from day one. You already see that in the papers. These guys hate each other’s guts.

SN&R: Can the governor defend himself? He’s trying to frame this as a debate about swapping a progressive agenda for a far-right-wing agenda. Why can’t he just stand up and say, “Hey, I’m a good governor. Leave me alone.”

MULHOLLAND: Elections are about ideas and people and records, in the case of an incumbent. We have a good record. And we have some ideas for the future. And we’re going to compare them to the Republicans, who want to put a woman in jail if she seeks an abortion.

SN&R: The Democrats’ plan is not to run a Democratic candidate, but doesn’t that refuse to acknowledge that there’s some valid anger at the governor and that maybe he isn’t suited to the job?

MULHOLLAND: No, no, no. Davis was elected by the people of the state. And we don’t have a white flag in our arsenal.

RUSSO: Well, I think it’s ridiculous that Gray Davis is pretending to be a progressive now because he’s not a progressive. He’s not anything but out for himself.

SN&R: One of the arguments that you made today, Mr. Russo, and that a lot of the other recall proponents have made, is that part of the reason we need to recall the governor is this huge budget mess that he got us into and this huge hole and that it was all his overspending. But how could that be? The governor has no leeway under Proposition 98, which dictates spending on education, plus Proposition 13. And all the other governors in the country are in the same mess. So, how does the budget get pinned on Davis?

RUSSO: The whole country suffers from a recession, but no state comes close to being in California’s predicament. USA Today did a study that showed California—

SN&R: California has the biggest budget—

RUSSO: In percentage. USA Today did a study that showed California had the worst record of responding to the economic problems facing the country. We’re the only state that literally did nothing for the last three years. If you fixed our spending, as of three years ago, and indexed it to population and growth and inflation, we’d have a surplus today. The problem is that Davis spent the one-time revenue spike that we had from capital-gains taxes and stock options, when everybody, including his own department of finance, said that’s a one-time revenue source.

SN&R: The liberals in the Legislature can be blamed for spending, so can Republicans, who also wanted more money for schools, roads—

RUSSO: There’s plenty of blame to go around, which is why the Legislature’s poll numbers are about as bad as the governor’s. But the governor is the person we look to be the leader. Everything Gray Davis does is for special-interest groups. He never does anything for the people.

MULHOLLAND: Davis served his country in Vietnam, and yes, it’s true, he’s done everything he can to help veterans in the state. On the energy thing, Pete Wilson has recently said, in the Contra Costa Times, that he takes full credit for the energy deregulation of California, and I think Sal should stand by his former governor.

After quizzing both sides, we then asked how they’d make a successful case to voters.

RUSSO: I think the winning case is that we have a failed governor. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, whether it’s the economy, the budget, education or the environment. It doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. There’s unanimity that he’s a failed governor, and if we don’t remove him and get a governor that will lead, the Golden State is just going to continue to get tarnished.

MULHOLLAND: Democratic voters and independents who lean Democratic will hear that the Clintons, the Gores, nine presidential candidates, eight statewide Democratic officials, some chambers of commerce, Democratic mayors, union leaders, some Republicans, and probably 75 percent of the editorial writers in this state will be against it, and for a very simple reason: Republicans led by Darrell Issa, with a criminal background, have not met a simple criteria in the voters’ minds. The reason recall has never been used for a statewide official is Hiram Johnson didn’t want it to be used just for some political agenda by one element of the Republican party.

Then, we let each cross-examine the other.

RUSSO: Other than the symbolic issues you talk about, about which the governor has absolutely no say, like global warming and abortion, which are total non-issues for a governor of this state, is there anything substantive that Gray Davis has done in California that anyone can be proud of?

MULHOLLAND: Absolutely. He’s protected workers, he raised the minimum wage over the Republicans’ opposition, and he signed a bill that’ll give the people of this state paid family leave, which is similar to unemployment insurance. Republicans were opposed to paid family leave.

MULHOLLAND: Aren’t you guys wrong to abuse the process to force the voters to spend $60 million on a recall, which you’ll lose?

RUSSO: I never think it’s wrong to let the people have a say in their government, and California has a proud progressive tradition of letting voters participate through initiative, referendum and recall. It’s a precious right, and it’s not abused by the people. Do special interests abuse it from time to time? Yes. But the final check always is that voters have to approve. So, the reason that we have 2 million signatures, the reason a majority support a recall, the reason voters disapprove of Gray Davis’ performance in office is because he’s a failed governor. And that’s going to be the driving force in the recall election.

And then we gave them a chance to make closing arguments.

MULHOLLAND: On October 7 at 8 o’clock, it’ll be known probably within an hour that the voters said no to the recall, and the only question will be what finishing order each of the Republicans is in as they all jockey for their next failed race. It’ll be interesting to see if Darrell Issa, who’s got nowhere to go but up, since he’s at 4 percent in the polls, will now spend millions to build himself up or spend millions building himself up by attacking the others. Reporters should keep an eye on this. There’s going to be an awful lot of nighttime work in this campaign—computerized phone calls and mail going to voters by Republicans attacking each other.

RUSSO: I just hope that the counties will process the election results quickly because we need the transition to be a week, not the whole 28 days that the secretary of state’s talking about. The sooner we get Davis out, the better the people of California will be.