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The Buzz Is About the Ballot

August 08, 2003|Mike Anton and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

Southern California voters, who usually complain that elections offer them few choices, were buzzing Thursday over the upcoming gubernatorial recall ballot, which is shaping up as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

For some, the wide-open race -- essentially a primary and general election wrapped into one -- has energized their interest in politics. Others are just embarrassed or confused.

Can you say Gov. Larry Flynt? Gov. Gary Coleman?

"It's kind of like driving by a car accident -- you've just got to look," said small businessman Steve Wolcott, 35, a Republican from Dana Point.

"It is a bit of a circus, a bit of entertainment."

But, Wolcott acknowledges, it's also important. "The people running the government now have the state's checkbook open and they keep writing checks even though there's no money in the account."

To some voters, the move to recall Gov. Gray Davis can only hurt the state -- risking a shaky economic future, a leadership vacuum and a role as the nation's laughingstock.

"I think it's ghastly. A blight on the state," said Jean Burdge of Pasadena. She isn't crazy about Davis, but thinks the recall campaign is even worse. The governor is "incompetent, but there are lots of incompetent politicians we aren't recalling. Namely the president."

Among the major political figures who have declared their interest in running to succeed Davis in the event he is recalled are Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), former Olympics organizer Peter Ueberroth, columnist Arianna Huffington and state insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

But one other name on the list -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, a bodybuilder-turned movie star best known for his role as the robotic "Terminator" -- clearly drew the most attention. Ah-nuld, they called him, echoing the Austrian native's accent. The former Mr. Universe will re-engage voters who have lost interest, some said. Or embarrass the state.

"The last time we had an actor-politician as governor and president he didn't do too badly," said retired engineer John Gurney, referring to Ronald Reagan as he toured that former president's library in Simi Valley on Thursday. Gurney, a Newbury Park Republican, believes Schwarzenegger is almost a shoo-in. "He's got it."

But Nancy Pham, a 29-year-old Santa Ana pharmacist, cringed.

"New York has Hillary Rodham Clinton, and who do we have? The Terminator. It's a big, stupid joke," she said. "The candidates are turning this into something comical or laughable. Spout off any name, and it might be on the ballot."

Laugh if you must, but the long list of candidates probably will heighten voter interest, said Mike Eng, a Monterey Park councilman and Democrat.

"I think it's going to excite people," Eng said.

"It's like going to restaurant: Are you going to be more excited by a place that serves one dish, or a buffet? I think the buffet. If you get more people excited, you're going to get more people at the table.

"This election has radically democratized California. Even though there is a circus effect, anybody who runs or votes can affect the outcome."

Some voters yearned for even more choices. Banker Eric Del Prado, 27, of Fountain Valley thought only one person could save the state: Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But she's not running.

"I have mixed feelings," said Brian Engstrom, 32, a Newport Beach stockbroker.

"Gray Davis has done a horrible job running the state. But he's also being used as a scapegoat."

Engstrom wants to vote for Republican Bill Simon Jr. But he hasn't announced his candidacy -- yet.

He fears the tumultuous recall effort may turn the political process into performance art. "It's scary," he said.

"I think the masses are a little ignorant. And with all the chaos, if people don't take this seriously, who knows what could happen?"


Times staff writers David Pierson, Gregory W. Griggs, Jia-Rui Chong and Seema Mehta contributed to this report.

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