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The State | CAPITOL JOURNAL

A Davis Recall Election Would Shake Up Political Landscape

June 16, 2003|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO--U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein probably won't run.

If she doesn't, Arnold Schwarzenegger very well might.

And if he does, Richard Riordan definitely won't.

But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) will -- unless the recall election is in Democratic-friendly March, rather than this fall.

Assume the voting on whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis is in November and Schwarzenegger and Issa are running on the Republican side. Does Bill Simon jump in too? Probably not, but who could have imagined him running last year?

State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who almost won last year's race for state controller? Has little money, but he'd be tempted in a crowded field. The one true conservative.

Former Secretary of State Bill Jones? Naw. Can't raise money and won't spend his own. A man of integrity and common sense.

A wild card: national security advisor Condoleezza Rice? In your dreams, Republicans. She's booked up by President Bush.

But the former Stanford provost reportedly is interested in running for governor in 2006. Dynamite potential: brainy, articulate, social moderate, a classical pianist and football junkie, who would be the first woman and African American California governor. She'd resurrect the GOP.

A recall could muck it up, however. There'd be an incumbent running for reelection as the odds-on favorite. If the governor was a Republican, it's doubtful Rice would even run.

Out of curiosity, GOP consultant Ray McNally tested Rice in a hypothetical Republican primary matchup against Schwarzenegger. The result of the April poll, by Moore Information: Rice in a landslide -- 66% to 17%.

In general election races, Rice beat Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante 42% to 36%, and Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer 44% to 31%.

A poll more relevant to the present, however, was released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California. It showed Davis sliding toward a cliff. Only 21% of likely voters approved of his job performance; 75% disapproved.

Voters were more divided on the recall: 51% would boot the Democrat, 43% would keep him.

Davis' fate could hinge on when the election is held -- it does seem certain to be held -- and who's running. Voters will be asked two questions: Should Davis be dumped? And who should replace him?

Recall sponsors are pushing for a fall special election when the turnout is likely to be dominated by voters who are passionately anti-Davis. Organizers say they're optimistic about turning in the required 897,158 voter signatures by mid-July, which should ensure a fall ballot.

The closer they get to the petition deadline, Sept. 2, the more likely it is that the recall election will be held with the March primary. That's when Democratic voters will be turning out for their party's hot presidential primary. Like Davis or not, this electorate probably would be reluctant to hand over the governor's office to a Republican.

Voters will assess not just Davis' record, but their alternatives.

Politicos generally agree that if Feinstein places her name on the ballot, Davis is dead and she's governor. She's California's most popular pol. No other Democrat would bother to run.

And neither would Schwarzenegger, tuned-in Republicans say. But his political advisor, George Gorton, contends that's not necessarily so:

"One thing about 'The Terminator': He thinks he can beat anybody and win anything. It's been his experience in life."

Doesn't matter, say people close to Feinstein. She doesn't want to run and it's highly unlikely she could be talked into it.

Sure, she has always wanted to be governor -- or at least used to before the state sank into a $38-billion sump. And she has never had a warm spot for Davis.

But she smells a strong stench in this recall and recoils. Wants no part of it. She herself was the target of a failed recall as mayor of San Francisco.

It's "mean-spirited," Feinstein recently wrote. "A waste of [tax] money" -- $30 million.

Besides, she loves the Senate and plans to seek reelection in 2006.

So why doesn't Feinstein just flat-out declare she won't run in the recall? Quash speculation?

Maybe the strategy is to keep Republicans rattled -- scared they could be trading an unpopular governor for a popular one. Keep the White House wary of the recall. And discourage donations to the effort, now bankrolled principally by Issa.

Does any Democrat run in case Davis is dumped?

All eyes will be on Bustamante. As lieutenant governor, he's a logical successor to Davis. And this may be his best shot.

But if Bustamante runs, Lockyer and Treasurer Phil Angelides -- each with $10 million stashed -- also will be greatly tempted. Especially Lockyer. He's 62 and can't wait in line behind another governor. Angelides is only 50; Bustamante 49.

Feinstein is almost 70. This surely is her last chance. Maybe she'd run, after all, to save her native state from "the Barbarian." Maybe.

That's a Republican nightmare and, most likely, only a Democratic fantasy.

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