- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2003

A makeshift group now impetuously trumpets its intention to remove California Gov. Gray Davis. California is a state in the progressive tradition. We have referenda to overturn state laws we don't like and initiatives to pass state laws we want. And we can use the ballot box to change the state constitution itself.
The trends start here, especially when we amend our constitution. For example, California's Proposition 13 (1978) began the national taxpayer revolt. And our Proposition 209 (1996) inspired national repudiation of race preferences.
And that same state constitution provides for the recall of the governor.
For recalling state legislators, there is a six-month wait. After all, how can you recall someone who has barely started his job?
But for governor, there is no such caution.
Recall proponents must announce their intention and their particulars, and serve notice on the governor. He can respond. They must publish his response. Then, they have 160 days to gather signatures.
Last year's voter turnout for governor in the Gray Davis-Bill Simon race was barely 50 percent. That's eight points below the record low 58 percent turnout in 1998 (Gray Davis vs. Dan Lungren). That means the number of valid signatures needed for a recall election is relatively low. The required 12 percent of turnout for governor yields fewer than 900,000 valid signatures. Collecting perhaps 1.4 million total signatures would provide the requisite number.
Once the signatures are validated, the lieutenant governor must call a special election 60 to 80 days later. The recall requires a majority of those voting, the successor to Mr. Davis only a plurality.
Remember "Network," the satire on television news? The people said, "We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore."
Is that the rallying cry against Mr. Davis?
Surely, recall is an extraordinary step. Opponents claim it's a bad precedent. But it may be the only recourse.
Term limits prohibit Mr. Davis from running for a third term. So, voting against his reelection is not on the table.
Why not let him serve out his term? After all, he was reelected, despite his acknowledged incompetence. Not that he won fair and square against Bill Simon. But just because other statewide Democrats received more votes than Mr. Davis did, is that a reason to recall him?
And voters knew, when they voted to reelect Mr. Davis, that he had mishandled the energy crisis. It was widely reported that his serious miscalculations had cost the state dearly that he had mortgaged the state for a generation. But in an era when bumbling CEOs get golden parachutes, Mr. Davis spent $70 million for his soft-landing reelection.
Yet, there is at least a metaphorical indictment here. Sure, many politicians abuse fund raising. Mr. Davis is, arguably, different. He seemed to make extortion an art form. Do we punish him because he excelled?
Do we exorcise Mr. Davis, because he perversely enjoys soliciting? Is it that he hustled money, rather than governed? Was the seeming nexus between public policy and political contributions rigid?
The Davis administration routinely failed the smell test. For example, his largest contributor ($3 million) was the prison guards union. It received the biggest pay raise, hundreds of millions. The teachers union turned down his $1 million campaign demand. Now, teachers are paid less than prison guards.
Is Mr. Davis worse than other politicians? Or is it a matter of degree?
Politicians routinely obfuscate in their reelection campaigns. But, afterward, the Davis budget deficit magically increased, in a few weeks, by double-digit billions.
Mr. Davis would blame it on September 11, on the recession, on George Bush. He does not accept responsibility. That troubles us.
People know he lied about the numbers.
And the effects of such fiscal manipulation are profound. His postponement of the day of reckoning has made it a hard day's night for California.
And should we reckon with Mr. Davis?
So far, though, the recall is tactical, not strategic. It misses the point.
The movement must be broad-based. It should involve Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, gays and straights, and people who think differently on abortion, and lots of other issues.
This cannot be narrow. This should be a consensus. It can involve people who disagree on almost everything, except "the Davis."
People must send a message that they are not to be manipulated.
The recall can be punitive. That's OK. It would repudiate politics-as-usual nationally.
Finally, the recall implies this truism. Mr. Davis could still do more damage.
But a failed recall is worse than no recall at all.
Should this recall be recalled, then promptly reinvented?

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist who created the successful campaign for Proposition 209, the California constitutional amendment that prohibited race preferences.

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