- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

It wouldn’t be the best thing for Gov. Gray Davis, but his resignation might ultimately prove the safest course for the California Democratic Party.

If Mr. Davis were to resign in the next few weeks, before a date for a recall election is set, he would be succeeded — at least immediately — by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. That could hold the governor’s office for the Democrats for the remaining three-plus years of Mr. Davis’ term.

Otherwise, the party faces the real possibility that Mr. Davis will lose his seat. No Democrat has called on Mr. Davis to fall on his sword for the sake of the party — at least not aloud — but the speculation refuses to die.

“It makes the most sense,” said Dave Gilliard, director of Rescue California, the largest of the three recall committees. “If the Democrats could pull off a resignation, it would definitely be in their best interest.”

Last week, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters fed the resignation scenario by arguing that even if Mr. Davis were to survive a recall, “he will still be a very lame-duck governor who lacks the public credibility or the demonstrated ability to lead.”

The three recall committees say they have turned in about 1.5 million signatures, 600,000 more than required, to force a special election. If the signatures pass muster with county election officials, Mr. Davis could face a recall as early as October or as late as March.

A Los Angeles Times poll released last week found 51 percent of respondents would vote to recall Mr. Davis. Even so, Democratic leaders are having no part of a resignation option. The chances of the governor stepping down are “zero” according to Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser to the California Democratic Party.

Democratic strategist Darry Sragow agreed. “To me it’s absolutely inconceivable. He’s too tenacious, too tough, too focused,” Mr. Sragow said. “And it’s arguable that resignation is the best thing for the Democratic Party. The best thing would for there to be no recall, or to win the recall.”

If Mr. Davis resigns, experts aren’t entirely sure what would happen under California election law. The prevailing wisdom is that Mr. Bustamante would succeed him, but some argue that the recall and special election would go forward anyway.

“There’s some dispute over whether it’s too late [for a resignation] already,” Mr. Gilliard said.

Mr. Davis himself has ruled out a resignation.

“Why should he? Eight million people voted for him in November. That’s eight times as many as signed the [recall] petition,” said Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio. “So bring it on.”

Most people take the governor at his word. “If Gray Davis were concerned about the long-term future of the Democratic Party, resignation would be a strong option,” said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont-McKenna College. “The state would have a Democratic Latino governor for the first time, and the Democrats would be in power for three more years.

“But Davis has no more loyalty to the Democratic Party than the Democratic Party has to him,” he said.

Analysts describe Mr. Davis as a political loner who’s won five statewide elections with little assistance from the party. He hasn’t hesitated to run negative ads against other Democrats during primary campaigns, a tactic that has won him many foes and few friends within the party.

“If there’s one thing we know about Gray Davis, it’s that he has no allies,” Mr. Pitney said. “Nobody loves Gray Davis, but he’s always been able to make people hate his opponents more.”

In the 1992 Senate primary, for example, he burned his bridges with Dianne Feinstein by running ads comparing her to Leona Helmsley, the hotel magnate jailed for income-tax cheating. The tactic backfired and Mrs. Feinstein won the primary and the election.

His tense relationship with Mr. Bustamante also weighs against a resignation. “He and Bustamante are actually bitter rivals within the party. I don’t think he would do anything to help Cruz,” Mr. Gilliard said.

These things make the party’s unity on Mr. Davis’ behalf all the more impressive. So far, talk of resignation is verboten and all obvious successors to Mr. Davis are insisting they have “no intention” of running on the recall ballot to replace him.

If Mr. Davis’ favorability ratings continue to hover in the low 20s, however, analysts predict that Democratic candidates will soon decide they have no choice but to jump in.

“The recall has forced a lot of Democrats back in his corner, but they’re all saying they have ‘no intention’ of running,” said Republican strategist Dan Schnur. “The Democratic Party can’t hinge its future on a governor with a 20 percent approval rating. Once this gets on the ballot, you’ll see them get into the race.”

Under those circumstances, having Mr. Davis resign would save the party from the awkward position of opposing the recall while supporting any Democrats who place their names on the ballot. But those who’ve followed Mr. Davis’ long political career in California say it would take a dramatic gesture to persuade him to leave office voluntarily.

“If there were a Bill Clinton or a Democrat in the White House who could fly out and say ‘You need to resign for the good of the party,’ that would be one thing,” Mr. Gilliard said.

Then again, Mr. Pitney said, “It’s hard to imagine Bill Clinton advising anyone to resign.”

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