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A Distaste for Recall Could Help Save Davis

July 26, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, Calif. — As Gov. Gray Davis claws for political survival, heading into California's Oct. 7 recall election, he'll be counting on more than a few unlikely friends in the electorate -- like David Savell.

Never mind that Savell, 25, is a Republican and no fan of Davis. To him, the governor is a career politician sadly lacking in scruples and charisma.

But the thought of unsheathing an electoral guillotine less than a year after Davis won reelection gives Savell qualms. Despite his distaste for the governor, Savell says, he will vote against the recall.

"Gray Davis doesn't have the right stuff to lead the world's fifth-largest economy," proclaimed Savell, a salesman at a Concord auto dealership. "But I'm someone who does not believe that recalling him will help fix the problems of the state."

Recent public opinion polls indicate that 20% to 30% of potential voters in the Oct. 7 election share those feelings -- dislike for Davis coupled with distaste for the recall. They constitute a crucial bloc of voters in the strange political calculus of an unprecedented recall election.

His own strategists concede that Davis' job-approval ratings are almost certainly too low for him to win by arguing that he has been a success. Instead, to hold onto his job, Davis needs to persuade detractors like Savell to reject a golden opportunity to yank him from office.

The battle will play out most aggressively in middle-class cities like Concord -- suburban communities sandwiched between the Democratic Party's urban strongholds and the remaining centers of Republican strength in a state dominated by Democrats.

"We're back to the soccer moms, and they'll be key," said Barbara O'Connor, director of Cal State Sacramento's Institute for the Study of Politics and Media. "While most people don't like Gray Davis -- and he is lower than low in the polls -- there are voters who say he doesn't deserve to be recalled, even if he's not so great. They'll hold their noses and vote against it."

On a bright, sunny day in Concord's main downtown square, a grassy product of redevelopment called Todos Santos Plaza, that slice of the electorate could readily be found strolling the sidewalks.

These voters in the middle -- lunching office workers, errand-running moms and a factory employee -- offered bluntly negative assessments of Davis' performance. "Disastrous," said one. "Incompetent," declared another. And yet many were equally firm in rejecting the idea that he should be recalled.

Some argued against the cost of the election, which could soar to $35 million, by some estimates. Davis campaign strategists believe the election's price tag will be a key argument for their side.

Others said Davis, though little loved, simply had not committed the sort of political high crimes worthy of recall. It is an odd mantra: We don't like Gray, but let's keep him.

Jeff Christoff, who has a son in college and a daughter in high school, called Davis "disastrous for the economy."

But despite that, he remains unpersuaded by recall supporters.

"Not that I think the governor's any good," he said, "but this whole thing is just a cheap shot."

Robert Jenner, a 55-year-old Democrat, said he considers Davis incompetent and wouldn't shed a tear if the governor resigned. His irritation erupted during the energy crisis. It grew with the $38-billion budget gap.

Now, Jenner said, he considers Davis a cynical politician who "doesn't represent anyone."

Those might seem the words of a political executioner, but Jenner refuses to go there. In the recall, he said, he'll vote to retain the governor. It is "the lesser of two evils."

"The alternative is just too negative," Jenner said. "We're already the laughingstock of the nation. This would only bring more chaos to the state."

Jessica Tobar, 41, sat on a park bench nearby, enjoying lunch with Jamie Lord, 33. Tobar is dismayed by the cost of the recall election. "It seems a waste," she said. "Think of all the better things that could have been done with that money."

For the governor, Tobar had little good to say. "Gray is decidedly that color -- he's a gray personality," she said. "He doesn't come across as a dynamic leader."

But Tobar, an insurance claims manager, had problems with blaming the governor for the state's energy debacle or its budget woes. "Was the electric crisis really a crisis or just market manipulation?" she asked.

Davis "certainly has a degree of accountability to own up to," she said. "But is the recall really the right way? Besides, what options are there? Do you want to vote for Ahhh-nold?"

Her reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the beefy Hollywood action hero who is considering running in the recall, got Lord laughing.

"I'm sure the rest of the country will be saying that only in California could something like this happen," Lord said.

Across the plaza, computer programmer David Pienta, 56, puffed on a cigar and shrugged over the peculiarities of politics.

"Most high officials take way too much credit when things are going good, and they get too much blame when it's bad," Pienta said. He said he voted last year for the Green Party gubernatorial candidate, Peter Camejo.

"Would another person immediately change it for California? I seriously doubt that," Pienta said.

"If you don't like the way things are going, vote for somebody new the next time a regular election comes along," he said.

Perhaps Latosha Jefferson, who works at a Concord cookie factory, best summed up the ambivalence of this slice of the electorate that Davis must count on.

Jefferson said she had been wholly unimpressed with Davis' performance, particularly regarding schools.

But she said she believes too much blame has been laid on the governor for the energy crisis; she blames President Bush, who she says failed to control energy market manipulation by the big power companies.

"Davis hasn't been very good," Jefferson said. "But this recall is just a big waste of money."

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