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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

They Want Their Issues Recognized

Relative unknowns, some candidates hope to draw attention to a cause. None envision winning -- and one won't vote for himself.

August 18, 2003|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

But seriously...

That could be the campaign catchphrase for many of the political nobodies vying for governor in California's recall election. Their prospects of winning might be a joke, but their reasons for running are as serious as a civics lesson.

They view the drive to oust Gov. Gray Davis as a unique opportunity to have a voice in the arena of big-dog democracy. With no primary election to weed them out, they get to contend directly for the end prize, head to head against the major candidates.

All it took for most of them were 65 petition signatures, a $3,500 filing fee -- and their willingness to risk association with the clowns in the contest.

"I'm not one of the loons," said Ronald Palmieri, a Bel-Air attorney who is making his first bid for elected office. The Democrat joined the race mainly to rail against the recall as a threat to gay rights.

Palmieri said removing Davis could land a Republican in office who is less sympathetic, or even hostile, to AIDS treatment programs and measures outlawing discrimination against gays. He wants no votes.

"Winning is an illusion of grandeur that is almost psychotic," he said of his prospects and those of the other unknowns on the Oct. 7 ballot. "But my campaign is very serious. My goal is to educate voters that this is a very dangerous election."

The sideshow elements of the recall campaign are inescapable. The 135-candidate field features Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, adult film actress Mary Carey, former sitcom star Gary Coleman and melon-smashing comedian Leo Gallagher.

Even the front-running Republican, movie muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger, is tabloid fodder. And among the no-names are those who were inspired to run by a comet sighting or who hope their candidacy will promote sales of their micro-brewed beer.

But there are plenty of sober-minded types like Palmieri. Their ranks extend from physicians to laborers, small-business owners to community activists, retired civil servants to twentysomethings barely on the career path.

They have similarly varied political philosophies -- and ambitions. Some say this could be their only campaign; others seem to be treating the recall as top-down training for a future shot at the state Legislature.

Few expect to run much more than a token campaign, waged largely on Web sites.

"The thing is, will their voice be heard?" said Steven Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego. "Will it be picked up by the media? If not, they'll be invisible candidates."

Erie wonders whether the legion of candidates, however earnest, serves the common weal: "I don't know what difference it makes, except that it might discourage people from coming to the polls because of the long ballot."

Palmieri, 53, insisted that his candidacy will have the opposite effect. He said he will use his contacts in gay political circles to drum up turnout against the recall, though he is vague on the details.

The attorney, whose celebrity clients have included Zsa Zsa Gabor and Cary Grant, is a financial benefactor of Democratic officeholders. He has given money to former President Clinton and his wife, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

"There are enough people who owe me enough favors that my message will get out," said Palmieri, as he sat in the dining room of his marble-floored home, which sprawls across a ridge overlooking the Getty Center. The house is filled with art and antiques, including 12 Federalist-era dinner plates bought at an auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' estate. A Rolls Royce sits in the driveway.

Palmieri said he has buckets of money to spend on a campaign, but it will be low-budget. So far, he has paid the $3,500 fee plus $2,500 for his 250-word ballot statement -- the maximum length allowed, at $10 a word. He said he would lose about $50,000 in income by scaling back his law practice for the next 50 days to focus on the campaign.

He has no professional staff. Hiring one, he said, would be foolish.

"Ninety-five percent of the candidates can't be elected, and people should not waste their votes on them," said Palmieri, a tall, balding man who smiles easily and smokes a great deal, plucking one cigarette after another from a gold monogrammed case.

"I will not vote for myself," he added. "Everyone asks me, 'Why are you wasting your money and your time on this?' Then, when they realize that I consider myself a non-candidate, they are enormously positive. They say, 'Thank you for doing something to protect gay rights.' "

Heather Peters says she also encountered initial skepticism about her candidacy. The 37-year-old Santa Monica mediator and moderate Republican had never been politically active.

"But I'm not crazy," she said.

She decided to jump in after her choice for governor, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, opted out.

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