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Office Throws Lifeline to Deluged County Clerks

'Recall Central' helps election officials from throughout the state prepare for balloting.

August 08, 2003|Marcelo Rodriguez | Special to The Times

MARTINEZ, Calif. — This picture-postcard town near the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers is famous for two things: baseball and a bar drink. It is where Joe DiMaggio was born and where the martini may have been.

And among nervous California election officials, it has a new claim to fame as Recall Central.

In a converted furniture store on Martinez's narrow Main Street, Contra Costa County Clerk Steve Weir is helping California's 57 other county election chiefs stay sane as they prepare for an election that threatens to exceed their annual budgets and the capabilities of their ballots.

"We are in totally uncharted waters," said Weir, sitting in his orange-carpeted, street-front office, frequently glancing at his computer screen for e-mail updates and questions from his counterparts across the state. "There's nothing more expensive than screwing up an election."

Officials are scrambling to find new ballot formats that can accommodate dozens of candidates' names -- more than they have ever seen in a single contest. Some, who once expected this to be a quiet season, are rushing to implement untested, high-tech voting systems for which their employees have not been trained.

"Steve is helping us figure out the layout of our ballots, how many pages it's going to take and that sort of stuff," said Shasta County Clerk Ann Reed, who lamented the many unknowns that she and other county clerks face in preparing for the election.

"What he's been doing is vital," Reed said. "We now have some idea of what's going to happen, and we can start taking appropriate action."

Weir has been canvassing counties daily to keep track of how many people have taken out candidacy papers, and how many have filed completed documents. More than 600 had pulled papers as of Thursday, he said. But he estimates that 50 or 60 will end up on the ballot.

That is far short of the 100 or more that some were predicting, but, Weir said, "way more than what many of the ballots can accommodate."

Weir, treasurer of the California Assn. of Clerks and Election Officials, volunteered to run Recall Central. Last year he gathered data as part of a successful association effort to prevent the adoption of "bifurcated primaries." Under such a system, there would have been two primaries in a presidential election year, one for presidential candidates and one for everybody else.

The cost of separate primaries would have been astronomical, Weir said, "and in a way this is similar. I volunteered because I had already done this type of statistical gathering."

And "after [Saturday's] filing deadline," he said, "we're out of the chute and out of time."

Weir's office looks like he hasn't had a lot of time for upkeep. On each wall hang oversized ballot samples, some marked with changes. Yellow Post-its dot his desk and the edges of his computer screen, bearing tallies from registrars.

He knows all his counterparts in other counties now and, since the recall qualified for the ballot, has memorized most of their phone numbers.

"We're talking all the time," he said, shuffling binders on his desk. "As soon as we knew about [the recall], it popped into all our heads at the same time: 'My God, what are we going to do?' And we're still trying to determine that."

Weir has been a player in East Bay politics for more than 30 years. He was an aide to former state Sen. Dan Boatwright, a powerful Democrat in the region in the 1970s and '80s. Weir was elected to the Concord City Council in 1980 and was the city's mayor in the mid-'80s.

When Contra Costa County Clerk James Olsson died in 1989, Weir was appointed to replace him. Since then, he has been reelected without opposition.

In 1994, while opposing then-Gov. Pete Wilson's veto of legislation that would have provided insurance benefits to state employees' domestic partners, Weir disclosed his homosexuality. He is the only openly gay elected official in Contra Costa County, home of the anti-gay Traditional Values Coalition.

"I used to be very political," Weir said. "But as the registrar, I take a pledge of absolute neutrality.... So I need to be, for lack of a better word, Caesar's wife and above reproach."

Outside his inner office, however, partisan politics is in full swing. Two potential candidates to replace Gov. Gray Davis if he is recalled are being served by a couple of Weir's 19 staffers, several of whom are plainly tired as they attempt to verify yet more nomination signatures.

Gerald Lee Gorman, a Democrat from Martinez, has turned in the 65 signatures he needed to qualify for the ballot, and is reading the candidate's oath aloud. Gorman said he is running on a platform "of public safety" and said he supports the recall effort because it offers "a lot of new faces in politics."

He and Betty Jean Leboe, a 70-year-old Republican from Walnut Creek who is running to "represent the interests of seniors" and to oppose abortion, are two of the 21 people who have taken out nominating papers in Contra Costa County. As Gorman becomes the first local filer to be certified by Weir's staff, he promises a better showing than in 1991, when he received 127 votes as a mayoral candidate in San Bruno, in San Mateo County.

Weir, oblivious to the whir outside his door, takes yet another phone call from a harried registrar. He runs his fingers through his hair, leans back in his well-worn vinyl chair and sighs.

"I was supposed to be on vacation right now," he said. "But I guess democracy always takes precedence."

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