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Election May Signal a New Era of Governing

From out of the chaos there will be benefits for the state's voters, some observers believe.

August 11, 2003|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

We're doing it again. Acting like Californians -- trying to throw out a governor we just elected so we can replace him with ... an action hero? A skin-magazine publisher? A former child actor?

An election field as orderly as a mosh pit can be funny -- and to judge by media coverage, a lot of America is laughing. But at least some political analysts are beginning to suggest some serious lessons that could come out of Recall 2003.

A few see the contest as a harbinger -- foreshadowing a wave of unconventional campaigns they predict will sweep America in the coming years. Others say the unprecedented threat to a sitting governor could lead to reforms in California government -- perhaps inspiring such anti-gridlock reforms as a ballot measure that would make it easier to pass a state budget.

The huge and disparate field of candidates -- Gov. Gray Davis' chief strategist called it "like a bar scene from 'Star Wars' " -- also promises to engage voters via the Internet and other nontraditional forums.

One of the lessons so far from the fast-changing recall is that the first draft of history is messy. Early in the week, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt said he would tax lap dances to help balance California's budget. Movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger dodged a standard campaign entrance by coming out on the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

That was enough to leave Kevin Starr, respected author of a multi-part California history, proclaiming earlier this week: "This is a society melting down into deliberate self-parody."

By Friday, however, Starr had reversed course. The stature of many of the candidates helped persuade him that more was at work than California kookiness, he said.

Perhaps, he suggested, the recall extends a trend of Californians seeking solutions outside traditional channels. Voters in the Golden State use ballot measures to settle many sticky issues and call on private foundations to prop up school district budgets and buy land for open space.

"We are transferring sovereignty that we had vested in our legal institutions -- parliamentary, executive and judicial -- and we are increasingly, as Californians, expanding the bandwidth of what constitutes governance," said Starr, who also serves as state librarian.

Many political observers said the recall has been a debacle for good governance. The beleaguered Democratic governor and Republican opponents turned away from spending cuts and taxes, for instance, that could have produced a balanced budget on time and without risky borrowing.

Not all is bleak, however, said Bruce Cain, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies. The recall gives a "charisma-starved" state the chance to select from a smorgasbord of candidates, Cain said, including 44 nonpartisan entrants in a state tired of bickering between the parties.

"You will get an array of independent and quasi-independent people because of this, an election with a lot of voices," Cain said. "We tend to get two middle-aged white men running against each other. Now you have two immigrants, a Greek [Arianna Huffington] and an Austrian [Arnold Schwarzenegger], a Latino front-runner for the Democrats [Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante] and a few women. You have something that looks a little more like California.... A lot of people are very jazzed about this."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a student of political history, sees a political uprising like none in California since Proposition 13, the property tax-slashing initiative approved by voters in 1978. He said such political insurgencies may be repeated in other places -- perhaps, for example, a powerful showing by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race.

"I think there is a lot more to this than most people give it credit for," Yaroslavsky said. "This whole spectacle is being fueled by a fundamental disaffection by real people and real voters about the failure of the political establishment in Washington, in Sacramento and at the local level."

The current mood of the voters recalls the early 1990s, when billionaire Ross Perot mounted a powerful presidential challenge to the two major parties and, on the local level, venture capitalist Richard Riordan was elected mayor of Los Angeles, Cain said. The common condition then and now -- a swooning economy.

What has become even more potent over the last decade is the ability of candidates to reach around newspapers, TV news and other traditional media. Organizers jump-started the recall by using the Internet to gather the first 300,000 of the 1.7 million signatures they needed to force the Davis recall onto the Oct. 7 ballot; Dean amazed the favorites in the Democratic race for president by getting nearly 100,000 people to contribute online, the experts noted.

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