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THE STATE

Target Of Anger

Recall backers are critical of Gov. Davis' fund-raising, attack ads and response to the budget and power crises.

August 31, 2003|Peter Nicholas and Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writers

The California recall campaign took root on a day best remembered for something else.

On Feb. 1, Ted Costa was keeping to his Saturday routine. He went outside to feed the small flock of chickens he raises on his one-acre property near Sacramento, then back in to switch on Fox News.

The financial show he was expecting had been preempted by reports that the space shuttle was lost. Costa began watching.

The phone rang -- a friend from Bakersfield talking about an idea they had been kicking around for months: pushing the governor out of office.

The head of a conservative, anti-tax group, the 62-year-old Costa pulled up to the home computer he had built himself with parts purchased from Fry's. Glancing over his shoulder from time to time at the shuttle coverage, he tapped out a one-page, double-spaced recall petition. By the time television announcers confirmed that Columbia had disintegrated, he was finished, ready to submit a document that would upend the political order in California.

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In its infancy the movement was propelled by the accusation that Gov. Gray Davis had mismanaged the state's finances and concealed the true dimensions of the problem when he ran for reelection last fall.

But the recall soon morphed into something broader -- an expression of deeper misgivings about the governor and grievances toward the state's political leadership.

In Davis, the recall forces found a vulnerable target.

He is widely seen as an indecisive leader who stumbled badly in the two major tests of his tenure: the energy shortage and the budget crunch. Through both crises, Davis made time to raise campaign money at a record pace, much of it from donors who stood to profit from his actions. And after nearly five years in power the governor is associated as much with his vitriolic campaign ads as any of the health and education initiatives he has embraced.

Yet the slashing campaigner is proudly bland and somewhat aloof. For all his success in politics, Davis, 60, has never built much of a rapport with the electorate or a relationship with colleagues whose backing he now needs.

Forty-seven states faced major budget shortfalls this year, and polls show widespread voter anger toward governors, legislators and state officials alike. But only California has a recall on the ballot.

That has as much to do with the peculiarities of California law as it does with Davis.

A California governor can be recalled because voters think he stole money or because they don't like the way he combs his hair.

While 18 states permit the recall of elected officials, seven demand specific grounds, such as incompetence, malfeasance, corruption or neglect of duties, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In California, there is no standard. What's more, California requires petition signatures from only 12% of the number of people who voted in the last statewide election -- the lowest threshold of any state.

Introduced in the early 20th century by Progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson, the recall was seen as an exercise in direct democracy. If people wanted the governor out, they didn't need to wait until the next election, nor did they need to prove high crimes and misdemeanors.

As with any political controversy, the recall has more than one side.

Davis dismisses it as a Republican power grab with parallels in the 2000 presidential election and the redistricting fight in Texas.

Opponents in both parties condemn it as a dangerous precedent that could trigger fresh attempts to boot politicians prematurely -- an unwarranted effort to unseat a duly elected governor.

But architects of the recall present a case against Davis that hinges on four broad themes: lack of leadership, bungling of the state's finances, excessive fund-raising and negative campaigning.

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The energy crisis was complex, but many blame Davis for not acting sooner.

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Leadership

It was December 2000, and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher was lecturing Gray Davis about how to be a leader. The two men were huddled with utility executives and state legislators in the Capitol's Ronald Reagan conference room, trying to map out a strategy to deal with the first crisis of the Davis administration, the destabilizing power shortage.

Conditions were so bad that the state shut off the lights on the official Christmas tree half an hour after Davis had ceremoniously turned them on.

Christopher, a member of Southern California Edison's board, spoke to Davis about the need to be decisive. To illustrate just where the buck stopped, state Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) took out a dollar bill and tossed it near Davis.

But the message didn't take.

The governor noted happily that the bill actually landed closer to one of the utility executives.

The reasons for the electricity shortage are complex, and investigators eventually concluded that power companies had manipulated a flawed system adopted by Davis' predecessor, Gov. Pete Wilson.

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