The total recall picture

The Republicans don’t know what to do with their apparent success. Hint: Find a moderate candidate who can win.

Illustration By B.Z.

In chaotic Sacramento, few seem to realize that the Democrats’ strategy against the recall of Gray Davis probably will parallel the Dems’ surprisingly successful fight last year against the San Fernando Valley’s attempt to “throw the bums out” by seceding from the city of Los Angeles.

But if those who want to recall the governor don’t take notice soon, I predict Davis will be safely ensconced for the rest of his term, and the recallers will end up with a massive omelet on their collective faces.

San Fernando Valley voters were disgusted by longtime control of their taxes by flagrant over-spenders at Los Angeles City Hall, 20 miles away. By early 2002, secession fever was so strong that the possible loss of the Valley and resulting slippage of Los Angeles from second- to third-largest city in the nation sent those in power into a controlled panic.

A huge coalition was formed to protect the status quo, led by entrenched business interests, unions, race-based identity groups and highly partisan Democrats. Their strategy was to use every imaginable legal roadblock to keep the question of San Fernando Valley city-hood off the ballot. Thus, the legal shenanigans would use up the energy of the secessionists and then would be followed by a campaign that played on race and fear once the city-hood question finally made the ballot.

You will see there are eerie similarities to the Gray Davis recall defense.

The other day in the Capitol, I bumped into political consultant Kam Kuwata as he emerged from the doors to the private “horseshoe” where top aides sit arrayed around the embattled Davis. Kuwata oversaw the defeat of Valley city-hood. His sudden appearance in Sacramento is no accident.

“I’m just offering whatever help I can because I think this is wrong, and it’s going to create a whole new era of recall attempts and put California into a risky new scenario that nobody wants,” Kuwata told me.

That tracks what Kuwata used to say about secession, which he argued would create a costly new world of frightening risks that voters simply could not permit.

Arnold Steinberg, a Republican consultant, believes (and I agree) that the Democrats’ strategy will work this way: The Dems will use every trick possible to stall the Gray Davis recall vote until spring 2004. Then, Steinberg predicts, “they are going to spend a lot of money, via the special-interest and pressure groups who are all in the race industry, to fight Ward Connerly’s Racial Privacy Initiative. At the same time, they will turn out those same non-white voters against the Davis recall. It will be sold to those voters as a package deal.”

Why haven’t you heard this probable scenario? Because the media are focused on the record pace with which signed recall petitions have been collected ever since Congressman Darrell Issa poured more than $965,000 into a petition-gathering drive recently mailed to 2 million Republican voters.

I’m not saying the petition response is irrelevant. I stood in the tiny offices of the Rescue California headquarters in Sacramento the other day and watched as college students went through stacks of returned envelopes filled with signed recall petitions and modest checks from everyday people.

One woman had enclosed three stamps because she could not afford to send money. Another had enclosed a signed blank check; she was too frail to make it out and had asked organizers to fill in $5 for her. Rescue California has collected $150,000 from 7,000 small donors in this manner. Some experts say this is the largest participation by small California donors since voters stormed local post offices with checks during the Proposition 13 property-tax revolution of 1978.

But the current excitement is a meaningless snapshot in time.

I would love to see Davis recalled if he were replaced by a moderate Democrat who was a fiscal conservative, or by a moderate Republican who wouldn’t be a lightning rod for far-right social causes. Republicans, however, are making two grave errors that I believe could spell disaster for the recall effort.

First, Republicans, displaying an almost willful cluelessness about how to challenge the spineless Davis, are failing to put forth a moderate Republican candidate. Second, they are failing to recognize the Democrats’ emerging campaign, based on the powerful combination of race and fear they used to stop the San Fernando Valley secession.

The Democrats closed ranks around Davis in recent days as many viable top Democrats, including U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante announced they would not run on the recall ballot. (Voters will pick a new “instant winner” governor the same day they vote on the recall.)

Even as the Dems did this, the Republicans were discussing a passel of not-ready-for-prime-time candidates who may be seasoned enough to run in 2006 but look pretty bad today.

Of the top three—Issa, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and multi-millionaire Bill Simon—two immediately stuck their feet in their mouths.

Issa, speaking of his views on Proposition 187, which restricted benefits for illegal immigrants, boldly declared, “I was on all sides of that issue!” Schwarzenegger was quoted in a magazine casually using the “t” word to describe women’s breasts, as he miserably flailed around while trying to discuss female intelligence.

For his part, Simon was on the radio explaining that he is wiser now than he was last year, though he sounded exactly like the naive and vague public speaker voters rejected then.

Don’t the Republicans get it? You can’t rely on dislike for Gray Davis alone to get voters to the polls. Yet Dave Gilliard, the lead consultant at Rescue California, told me, “The one thing doubters don’t accept yet is there’s a huge level of anger directed at one person: the governor. That is why people are lining up who will vote in the recall election.”

Inside the Capitol, Republicans are also in denial about the ugly new role the recall is playing in the state budget debacle.

State Assemblyman John Campbell, a lead Republican on budget matters, insisted to me that the $10,000 he gave to the effort to recall Davis has not affected his ability to work with Davis or Democrats on the budget.

Campbell said, “It’s just like any other election, like last year when, I believe, the governor came out for my opponent and, I am sure, would have liked to have seen me gone. Yet we still worked on budget matters and did business like adults.”

Except it’s nothing like any other election year.

Davis fired the first volley in this battle when he meddled, big-time, in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2002. On the suggestion of former President Bill Clinton, Davis spent millions to turn voters against moderate Republican Richard Riordan, whom the Davis camp feared might later beat Davis in the general election.

Davis’ push into the Republicans’ primary domain created a supercharged partisan atmosphere in Sacramento that grew worse as Davis failed to reign in costs for 18 months and refused to heed Republicans’ fiscal warnings.

Now, everything in Sacramento is weighted with the hypersensitivity of the recall.

I attended a recall debate one evening, but at the last minute, the Democrat debaters canceled. The Republicans, consultant Sal Russo and state Senator Rico Oller of San Andreas, were the only participants.

The Democrats cited a strike by Justice for Janitors against the building owners, but, in all likelihood, the Democrats knew long before the debate that people were striking at the building. I suspect a play for media coverage to win public sympathy. (You know: We Democrats are so decent, we do not cross picket lines, unlike those other people.)

As Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown told me one day, after a press conference at which Brown came off as moderate by calling not just for taxes but more cuts: “The recall is a catalyst for more intense partisanship, like adding in a chemical ingredient that speeds up the mechanical reaction. It is making things much tougher.”

It’s going to get worse. The Democrats are about to launch a series of widely anticipated legal maneuvers to prevent the recall from making the November ballot.

The Democrats want to delay the vote to coincide with the Democratic presidential primary in 2004, to give Davis more Democrat votes. Steinberg, the Republican political consultant, expects the Democrats to heavily push a baldly racial strategy of appealing for Davis support among non-whites who oppose the Connerly initiative.

The victimologists will be easy to attract to the polls next spring because they deeply despise Connerly. Connerly’s Proposition 209 ended racial preferences in college admissions and horribly embarrassed the left by resulting in higher minority admissions to the University of California system. As Connerly predicted, black and Latino enrollment has fallen by several hundred students at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the University of California, Los Angeles, which have extremely tough requirements, but has surged by roughly 3,000 at other schools. The racial-identity types, so sure the kids needed a crutch to prop them up, hysterically had predicted a return to the days of “whites only.”

So, as we lurch toward this potentially historic vote, there’s a fine chance California will be put through a pressure-cooker campaign filled with the Democrats’ divisive race claims and scare tactics that are about everything but the record budget deficit caused by Davis and his overspending Legislature.

On top of that, with the Republicans being ill-prepared, it doesn’t look like we’ll be given any good choices for governor.

And that, of course, includes the governor who’s sitting there now.