SACRAMENTO — Drama is never far offstage in a political town. But this week has been a doozy in the steamy, cash-strapped capital of the great Golden State, climaxing Wednesday in a decision that sets the stage for a historic election.
On Monday, 11 Assembly Democrats met privately to discuss prolonging the budget crisis to advance their political goals -- only to learn that their chat had been broadcast publicly and taped by Republicans.
On Tuesday, the governor's finance director erupted in anger in a crowded Capitol hallway, berating a Republican lawmaker for engaging in "histrionic, comic-book extremism" and blocking a budget deal. Adding to the tension, a small fire broke out in the governor's office that night.
Then came Wednesday, when the California secretary of state announced that activists had gathered enough signatures to force a vote on recalling Gov. Gray Davis, even as legislative leaders reached agreement on the framework of a deal to end the budget deadlock. By then, the already substantial media horde had morphed into a small army.
On one block, Judy Woodruff anchored CNN's "Inside Politics" beneath a white tent on the Capitol lawn, drawing a gaggle of wide-eyed onlookers. Around the corner, a cavalcade of satellite trucks cluttered an intersection outside the secretary of state's office, beaming live shots of ground zero and analysis of the historic moment to viewers far and near.
Spicing the scene were the ever-energetic recall rivals. As a seven-day heat wave broke and a few raindrops fell, the partisans held dueling media events and photo ops, yelped slogans at one another and waved signs at pedestrians trying to thread through the throng.
"It's wild," said legislative aide Laura Brazelton, eyeing the spectacle as she passed by on her lunch hour. "Look at all this. No wonder my relatives back East are calling and wondering what we're doing out here."
Perhaps it was the break in the 100-degree heat, but Wednesday seemed to mark a crescendo of sorts in this strange political season, which has its roots in the high-stakes budget stand-off and has turned more bitter with the recall drive.
Although most analysts had predicted that the effort to oust the governor would qualify for a public vote, the historic nature of the event made the national media sit up and take notice.
Usually the only news cameras in town belong to Sacramento stations, with the networks mostly ignoring politics in the state capital.
"What's going on in California is unprecedented," Woodruff said in an interview after her midday live shot. "You have a governor just elected eight months ago now facing the very real prospect of being recalled.... That's extremely rare, and that's good enough for us."
Wednesday's events also proved to be fertile ground for talk radio, beginning with "The Eric Hogue Show" on Sacramento's KTKZ at 5 a.m. Set up under a tent across from the secretary of state's office, headquarters for the recall signature count, the conservative Hogue interviewed a string of recall leaders in person and by phone while other activists marched nearby, shouting, "Dump Davis now."
By 7 a.m., the noise had lured workers in the secretary of state's office to their windows. Spotting them, Hogue shouted, "Free the petitions now!" -- referring to the voter signatures submitted to qualify the recall for the ballot.
For Sacramento denizens, the theatrics were not unprecedented. Rarely a day goes by without some sort of rally on the Capitol steps. Just last week angry truckers circled the building blaring their horns.
But with the governor's job hanging in the balance, and the $38-billion budget shortfall still unresolved and threatening new victims by the day, this week's events carried more weight.
Gwynnae Byrd, who works in the legislative counsel's office, said that although it's not a surprise to see reporters and satellite trucks around town, "the fact that CNN chose to broadcast live from the Capitol grounds is significant. It shows that the rest of the country is watching to see what happens with the recall."
"California has always been a trendsetter -- for better or for worse," Byrd added.
As his adversaries chanted and marched and strategized around town, Davis continued the work of being governor. He signed 20 bills into law, talked about the budget by phone with legislative leaders and spoke at a San Francisco child-care center.
He also discussed the recall and the budget deadlock in two radio interviews and on "Inside Politics." Among the questions was a stinging one -- whether it is difficult to continue going to work when polls show that only about one in five voters believes he is doing a good job.
"Well," Davis told one interviewer, "I said from the very beginning: If the recall got serious, I would get serious. I've had to fight for everything in my life, and trust me, I've had more political obituaries written about me than you could possibly imagine."