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Davis Is Paying for a Big Transgression

His deception of Californians on fiscal issues is intolerable.

August 06, 2003|Julius Wachtel | Julius Wachtel is a lecturer in the political science and criminal justice division at Cal State Fullerton.

It is not surprising that the liberal media, Democratic officeholders and academics vociferously oppose the California gubernatorial recall. This misguided but predictable point of view is invariably preceded by a severe scolding of the officeholder whose job his apologists seem determined to protect.

Gray Davis, they concede, has failed miserably at virtually everything but raising funds. But turning him out only one year into his second term would supposedly shatter what is left of California's economy or, even worse, threaten the foundations of democracy itself.

In these times of financial crisis and political gridlock they come not to praise Caesar but to defend Rome.

In teaching research methods, I spend much of the semester on cause and effect. There is a difference, we know, between causation and correlation. The recall did not land California in "BBB" bond territory. It got there, in part, because passive regulators weaned on the elixir of market forces and politicians dependent on corporate sponsors allowed greedy energy traders to plunder the state treasury.

Private and public blunders and self-dealing -- much of it taking place during the governor's first watch -- helped lay waste to one of the world's leading economies. One could reasonably argue that installing a strong, well-respected leader might be the best news that Wall Street could hope to hear.

But forget the millionaires. An aspect of the crisis that gets little play is Davis' failure to honor his commitments as the state's CEO.

As head of California's executive branch, he is our day-to-day leader, an architect and a foreman. We expect him to shape and implement policy to promote the public welfare and to provide timely, unbiased information that helps government employees and private citizens make the right decisions in their personal and public lives.

When Davis withheld information about California's declining finances before an election, not from lack of knowledge but for the most selfish of reasons -- his political future -- he acted in a way that we might expect from a legislator but cannot tolerate from a chief executive.

Keeping the bad news to himself, he pulled the rug from under state agencies on whose services we depend.

Consider, for example, the Cal State system. Had it known that the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train, would it have spent hundreds of millions on unessential computer upgrades? Had it been able to implement cost-control measures in a timely manner, would it now be necessary to raise tuition and fire employees?

By keeping the lid on, our chief gatekeeper also disenfranchised the electorate. Davis would have received fewer votes had he squared with us about the state's finances. But taking the blame for situations not wholly under their control is one of the burdens that elected executives must be willing to bear. Silence and prevarication are not options when the buck stops at your desk.

Naturally, we should view the motives of recall proponents with suspicion. Imagine how delicious taking a second bite of the apple must be.

Still, blaming the recall on anyone but Davis and his party misses the point. We would not be in this sorry place had the governor paid more attention to his duties than his ambitions. Conducting the people's business with fingers crossed behind one's back has diminished confidence in government and stripped old-fashioned terms like "voter choice" of their meaning.

As a liberal, I am appalled. For myself and the many others who felt misled and cast an uninformed vote, and for those who must suffer the consequences of political gamesmanship, the recall hardly seems an assault on democratic values. On the contrary, it represents an opportunity to rise in their defense.

Why be surprised that citizens have turned to the state law for relief? At the very least, we will get to find out how choice is exercised when all who wish to be informed are informed.

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