- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003

Defenders of California Gov. Gray Davis say the recall process is a right-wing plot to use an obscure constitutional quirk to “steal elections that Republicans can’t win.”

California’s voters, however, have instituted recall campaigns 117 times, including attempts aimed at three of the last four governors, then-San Francisco mayor and current Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and a successful sacking of state Supreme Court Justice Rose Bird.

The difference this year is that the recall against Mr. Davis has garnered widespread bipartisan support, giving the effort its first chance of success against a politician holding a statewide elective office.

And that prospect is scary to everyone in California’s political establishment — Republicans and Democrats. A nuclear political weapon has been wielded, and no one knows who the next target may be.

“We took a good idea and ruined it by being way out on the end of extreme,” said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

George “Duf” Sundheim, chairman of the California Republican Party, said there is nothing extreme about what began as a “grass-roots revolt” against a governor whom he accused of misleading voters about the size of the state’s $38 billion deficit.

“I think that this shows the governor still isn’t listening to the people of California,” Mr. Sundheim said in reply to Mr. Davis chalking up the recall to “the right wing.”

“To say that this is a right-wing conspiracy I think is an insult” to the 1.6 million voters who signed the recall petitions.

Since the recall was instituted in 1911 by reformist progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson, it has been used liberally — more than once per year on average — but seldom bore fruit. Signatures must be collected from 12 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the most recent election to prompt a recall.

That was a difficult task in the early 20th century, when voter turnout was much higher than today. Only seven previous attempts made it to the ballot, all local state representatives and Justice Bird.

As governor in 1968, Ronald Reagan, then a rising star among Republicans, was the subject of a recall campaign by members of his own party. But the effort fizzled when they failed to gain enough signatures, collecting only 500,000.

Mrs. Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco in 1983 when a recall campaign was started against her. She recently told the San Jose Mercury News that the experience was “humiliating.”

Justice Bird, who was recalled as the chief justice of the California Supreme Court in 1986, is the biggest catch of the recall efforts to date, tossed out by a vote of 2 to 1. But the recall of a governor who gained the approval of voters less than a year ago would top that.

Democrats say the attempt to recall Mr. Davis is different than past efforts against other officials because this one was well organized and — more important — well financed.

Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, put up more than $1 million to pay political consulting firms to secure the signatures of 1.2 million registered voters.

“No other recall effort had that much money behind it or was carried out by a man who had an interest in being governor,” said Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party.

Mr. Torres said it’s telling that Mr. Issa shed “poor tears” at the press conference at which everyone expected him to announce his candidacy, but he instead bowed out.

“I’d be crying, too, if I spent $1 million and couldn’t run,” said Mr. Torres, guessing that Republicans “had something” on Mr. Issa to get him out of the race.

“[San Francisco Mayor] Willie Brown said, ‘I want to know who gave him the head of that dead horse,’” Mr. Torres said.

That “Godfather”-like warning could be coming to any number of politicians in the near future, said Democratic political consultant Phil Giarrizzo.

“The sincerity of the recall is real,” Mr. Giarrizzo said. “And if it could happen to Gray Davis, it could happen to anyone. Most public officials understand this is a new danger.”

The political-consultant business has “exploded” in California in the last 15 years, Mr. Cain said, and any one of them would like to have a recall contract to keep the revenue flowing.

“This state is run by consultants,” Mr. Cain said, “and they’re paid to be clever. It’s not that the recall mechanism is being used inappropriately, it’s just that the whole idea of paying for signature gatherers is now born.”

Mr. Torres, who said he introduced a bill to change the recall statute when he first entered the California Assembly in 1974, said both parties have to look out. Either extremists from within one’s party or one’s political enemies can rip the rug out from under any public official for relatively little money.

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