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California Loses in a Recall

June 08, 2003

Is Gov. Gray Davis anyone's favorite politician? No. Not in this lifetime. But let's think for a moment about the potential consequences of the recall effort building against him.

Supporters have until Sept. 2 to collect the nearly 900,000 signatures needed to put the issue on a ballot. If backers of the effort in the Legislature want to really embarrass Davis, they may block passage of a budget until then.

The legal deadline for passing a budget is June 30. Go two months beyond that without a budget and the state's fiscal reputation would look like New York's in the 1970s. State government might shut down almost entirely. Do you think two parties locked in a fight to the death over a recall can come together to pass the most difficult budget in decades? That's the too-likely scenario even if Davis were ultimately to beat a recall, which would probably be decided in an election next March.

No modern recall has ever succeeded, but this time there's money in the pot to pay for petition signatures. If Davis were recalled by a majority of voters, his successor would be chosen at the same election by a plurality of the vote, not a majority. If 10 or 12 candidates filed, certainly a possibility, a new governor might be chosen with barely 10% of the vote. Taking office amid a fiscal and political crisis could defeat even the most competent public servant.

Worse, an inexperienced mischief-maker could become governor. That category might include Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from north San Diego County who has donated $450,000 to the recall and is a potential candidate. Issa or any other Republican elected would have to contend with a Legislature that is controlled by Democrats.

Early on, Republicans in the Legislature prudently remained above this fray. Dave Cox of Fair Oaks, the Republican leader in the Assembly, said in February that the recall was not a good idea. But now, the recall has won the crucial public support of Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine), the lead Republican in budget negotiations in the lower house.

Campbell donated $10,000 to the campaign and signed a letter blaming Davis for causing the state budget deficit by "overspending and then lying about it" -- the identical words used by the "Rescue California ... Recall Gray Davis" campaign in a form letter seeking support.

Unfortunately, the state Constitution sets no standard for recall of elected officials. The recallers accuse Davis of "gross mismanagement" of the energy and budget crises. It's true that Davis was slow to react to both problems, but he has at least proposed two budget solutions this year that, although unpleasant and calling for considerable sacrifice, at least dealt with the problem.

The Legislature has been the major roadblock, with Republicans unwilling to support any tax increase and Democrats balking at some of Davis' proposed cuts. California might even have solved most of the budget crisis by now if legislators, including a few Republicans, had agreed to a modest temporary tax increase last year.

There is no honest cause for undoing an election that occurred seven months ago; the risk of putting the state into a deeper fiscal hole and partisan political chaos is too great. Californians might want to think twice before signing a recall petition thrust in their faces by a paid signature gatherer.

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