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To Victor Will Go Spoiled Prospects

Whoever the governor is, he'll immediately face harsh budget choices, an impatient electorate and challenges to his ability to lead a divided state.

October 04, 2003|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Few political jobs boast the power and prestige enjoyed by California's governor. But this is no ordinary time, and whoever emerges triumphant in the recall election Tuesday will be capturing a decidedly tarnished prize.

The Legislature remains an unruly mass of partisanship and ambition. State government's fragile fiscal health, menaced by a budget gap likely to reach $10 billion next year, needs urgent care.

And the public? Judging by their eagerness to order up the recall of a just-elected governor, Californians are in an impatient mood. Tuesday's winner had better deliver -- and fast.

"Whoever it is will be in the hot seat right away," said Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Los Feliz).

The winner, whether it is Gov. Gray Davis or one of the three main candidates to replace him, will immediately confront significant challenges to his ability to lead.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the leading Republican candidate, would face suspicion -- even open hostility -- from Democrats who control the Legislature and take umbrage at his claim that he has a magical cure for what ails the state.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, would be welcomed more warmly. But like Davis, he would struggle to woo Republican votes he needs to get a budget passed and could have trouble proving himself independent after a messy campaign financed heavily by Indian gaming tribes and unions.

As for conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock, he would probably be forced to try end runs around the Legislature to get his policies passed. Most of his fellow legislators say McClintock's views are so extreme that he would get nowhere through ordinary means.

"Each of these guys would come in and face all of the problems Davis faced, and more," said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State. "And I don't expect the voters would give them much of a honeymoon."

Davis could, of course, defy the pollsters and hang on to his post. If that occurs, the ensuing months will probably follow a fairly predictable track. His team is in place and his centrist policies are well known.

Davis has said the recall effort humbled him, and he has promised that, if he survives, he will hold two town hall meetings each month to keep him in closer touch with ordinary people. But overall, the wheels of government would continue to spin under Davis much the way they have over the last five years.

If voters turn him out, analysts say, a chaotic summer would bleed into a chaotic fall, as the replacement governor scrambles to translate the campaign conversation into action.

Normally, a new governor has about two months to assemble a transition team and prepare to take office. There is time for an inaugural ball, time to map out priorities, time to pick out new office carpeting and get chummy with legislators before the real work begins. If the recall succeeds, however, what was once normal goes out the window.

Barring a lengthy recount, the victor will have, at most, 39 days -- and perhaps just a few weeks -- before assuming control of the nation's biggest nonfederal bureaucracy.

During any gubernatorial transition, the chief executive's first task is to appoint top advisors and the heads of agencies and departments overseeing everything from highway construction to environmental protection, prisons, the state lottery and health care. In all, the governor controls about 3,700 appointments.

But more pressing is the obligation to produce a state budget, which the governor must present to the Legislature by Jan. 10. This year, budget-making is more complicated than ever, clouded by problems left unresolved by the bitter summertime deal that bridged a dizzying $38-billion spending gap.

Davis aides have been working for months on a budget. A new administration would have to travel at warp speed to get one to the printer by the deadline, which comes in mid-December, about the time the governor lights the Capitol Christmas tree.

A successful transition also requires at least some cooperation between the outgoing incumbent and the incoming successor.

That dynamic could look radically different this year. A governor dumped via recall, after all, might not be in a particularly charitable mood.

Here, based on interviews with legislators, political analysts, veteran Capitol staffers and others, are a few possible scenarios for life after Oct. 7:


Most analysts predict that, after an initial blizzard of national publicity, a newly elected Gov. Schwarzenegger would face a testy reaction in the Capitol. His celebrity status might energize the electorate and land him in office, but once he became California's 37th governor, few in Sacramento would care much about his box office success.

"He'll come in with huge fanfare, the national entourage, all the 'Hollywood in Sacramento' stuff," said state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara). "But we won't be enthralled by all that. What's the guy believe? What's he done? So far, all we know is, he's made monster movies."

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