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As Foes Press Recall Bid, Davis Again Raises Funds

May 01, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — With opponents pushing for an election to recall him from office, Gov. Gray Davis has resumed campaign fund-raising, an effort that has mired him in controversy for years.

Davis has invited capital lobbyists and other supporters to a $5,000-a-ticket golf tournament May 23 in Carmel. It will be his first fund-raising event since he was reelected in November, Davis campaign spokesman Roger Salazar said.

The governor plans to join donors on the golf course at the height of state budget negotiations as lobbyists are scrambling for favorable treatment from him and the Legislature. Hundreds of lobbying clients are trying to ward off billions of dollars in cutbacks brought on by the state fiscal crisis.

Salazar said the golf tournament is unrelated to the recall effort. Davis, barred by term limits from seeking a third term, plans to use the money for political travel and other expenses that should not be billed to taxpayers, he said.

Salazar acknowledged that Davis could ultimately use the money to fight the recall if it makes the ballot. But he dismissed the effort to dump the governor as "more hype than substance."

Yet while the Democratic governor has taken pains to seem unfazed by the threatened recall, the move to replenish his campaign treasury is the latest of many signs that he and other party members are concerned.

After Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from Vista, spoke out in favor of the recall last week, state Democratic Party advisor Bob Mulholland reminded reporters in unsolicited e-mails of unsavory episodes in the Republican congressman's past. Among them: Issa was indicted for car theft when he was 18. (The charges were dismissed.) Issa is a multimillionaire who could put up all the money needed to gather the petition signatures to get on the ballot, but said he does not intend to do so.

Also, a Davis aide, Eric C. Bauman, has vowed to form a "decline to sign" group to follow people circulating petitions for a recall election and try to dissuade voters from signing.

And some capital insiders suspect that the recall drive is part of the motivation behind Davis' efforts to smooth relations with adversaries. John Hein, governmental relations director for the California Teachers Assn., said Davis recently has been "reaching out like he never did before" to the powerful union that became a staunch critic during his first term.

"Our working relationship right now is what we thought it would be after doing so much to help him get elected in 1998, and I think the recall probably has something to do with that," he said. "In any event, we hope it lasts."

Recall supporters have raised a small fraction of the estimated $2 million or more that experts say they need to gather the nearly 900,000 voter signatures required to get their proposal on the ballot. The deadline for submission of the signatures is Sept. 2. Davis, whose approval rating sank to a record low of 27% in a March Times poll, is widely seen as vulnerable if a recall referendum is put before voters.

As Davis grapples with the complicated politics of the recall, one of the toughest issues he faces is campaign fund-raising. During his three decades in California politics, he has won a reputation as a spectacularly successful fund-raiser. He spent nearly $78 million on his reelection campaign.

Davis' fund-raising has, however, created situations in which he has been accused of giving preferred treatment to donors.

Davis, for instance, accepted millions of dollars from the state prison guards union, and his administration approved a contract with the guards that subsequently has been attacked as overly generous. Davis has said the contract was in no way related to the union's support for his candidacy.

At times, the solicitations of campaign contributions have created awkward political moments for the governor.

In September, he canceled a fund-raiser aimed at railroad-industry donors when his Republican challenger, Bill Simon Jr., questioned the propriety of holding the event just one day after Davis signed legislation putting a high-speed rail bond on the ballot. Davis said that the event would have been inappropriate.

To avoid such controversy during his second term, Davis agreed privately after the election to raise only about $2.5 million a year during his second term, according to a source close to the Davis camp. Davis, who finished his campaign with $1.4 million in the bank, said privately that he would stop soliciting donations until September, when state budget talks would presumably be finished, the source said.

"He wanted to avoid it like the plague for the first nine months of the year," the source said.

After the recall effort was launched in February, Davis confidants urged him to resume fund-raising immediately, but he resisted the advice for months, the source said.

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