- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

LOS ANGELES California Republican activists are supporting an effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis, a move that Democrats say would lead to political revenge against Republican officials across the state.
Two groups of Republican activists are trying to use California's unusual century-old recall law to oust Mr. Davis, an unpopular Democratic incumbent who won a second term in November by narrowly defeating a weak and disorganized Republican candidate.
Polls show that Mr. Davis' popularity has fallen to new lows due in large part to the state's budget deficit, now projected at $35 billion.
"Plenty of people will be more than happy to sign a recall petition on Gray Davis," said former Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum. The latest polls show Mr. Davis with an approval rating as low as 24 percent.
But Democrats are clearly not willing to let Mr. Davis go down lightly, despite widespread distaste for the governor within his own party.
"We're not going to take bullets on this without a response," said Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland. "Several local Republicans could find themselves the target of recall efforts.
"We are not going to spend 2003 on the defensive," he said. "We didn't do it in 2002; we won't do it in 2003."
Mr. Mulholland described the recall leaders as "kooks," who are "homophobic, anti-choice extremistsfl" upset by the loss of Bill Simon, the conservative businessman who challenged Mr. Davis in the 2002 election.
"We're going to make it a referendum on them," Mr. Mulholland said.
The recall petition was filed with the secretary of state on Feb. 5, after which Mr. Davis issued a response calling the organizers "a handful of right-wing politicians [who] are attempting to overturn the voters' decision."
The two organizations pushing the recall effort are led in part by Ted Costa, the head of People's Advocate, an anti-tax activist group, and by Sal Russo, a Sacramento political consultant associated with Mr. Simon's campaign.
Despite Mr. Davis' comments, political observers of both parties say the effort should not be dismissed lightly.
Under California law, organizers need to gather just less than 900,000 signatures out of 15 million registered voters to trigger a recall more than required for other kinds of ballot questions, but still only 6 percent of the registered voters in the state.
Organizers say they already have a list of 50,000 volunteers willing to distribute petitions and they say they could have 100,000 workers before the petition drives begin this summer.
If they can collect enough signatures, the state would be required to hold an election this fall. At the same time voters decide whether to dump Mr. Davis, they also will decide on his potential replacement, which could lead to unsettling political developments.
The rules for recall elections are much more permissive than a normal election anyone who can come up with at least 100 signatures on a nominating petition and can pay the modest filing fee would be on the ballot. There is no limit on the number or party affiliation of the candidates and the top vote-getter wins.
That means a recall election could be a perfect vehicle for mavericks, outsiders and third-party candidates to seize an office they would have no chance of winning in a regular election.
Already the Libertarian Party has said it will participate.
The Green Party is trying to distance itself from the recall campaign, but has said it will field at least one candidate if there is a special election.
This puts Democrats in a potentially awkward position. If they ignore the campaign and stick with Mr. Davis, they risk losing to Republicans or a minor party. If, however, they put another Democrat on the ballot, they could be seen as dumping Mr. Davis.
Republicans, meanwhile, are already beginning efforts to make sure that there aren't too many of their own candidates on the ballot.
The winner "depends on which team is the smartest," said Mark Abernathy, a political consultant from Bakersfield who is heading the main recall effort. "It depends on which team is the best strategist and which team is most unified."
But before the complicated end game begins, organizers have to collect enough signatures, and that effort appears to be struggling in its early stages.
The Republican Party establishment is deeply split over the issue. Senior Republican strategists and officials complain that the recall effort may distract from other important projects, such as attempting to unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is up for re-election next year.
Some Republicans also say privately that they are dismayed by the participation of Mr. Russo, widely seen as the architect of Mr. Simon's disappointing campaign in 2002.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley rejected the recall petition on technical grounds.
Petition organizers and Mr. Shelley's office agree, however, that once those technical errors are corrected, there will be nothing to stop the petition drive.
Perhaps most disappointing to organizers has been the reluctance of Republican Rep. Darrell Issa to join the recall movement. Mr. Issa, a wealthy businessman based in San Diego, has been widely touted by recall supporters as a potential financial backer and gubernatorial candidate.
On Thursday, however, Mr. Issa said in an interview that, although he would love to be governor, he is reluctant to support the recall.
"I'm rather pessimistic" about the success of the effort, he said. "I think the odds are against success. And if there is a recall, I hope it is not led by my party. Let that be a groundswell of Democrats and Republicans alike."
Despite the early blows, organizers remain optimistic. They say they can collect enough signatures, and are confident that they can field a single, credible candidate to defeat Mr. Davis.
"It's going to be darned interesting," Mr. Russo said. "That's all I can tell you."

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