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In Chicago, Seeing the Good and the Bad in the Vote

October 09, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writers

CHICAGO — In the midmorning wake-up hour of an old Chicago tavern, two women drank coffee Wednesday and, after some discussion, came to the conclusion that the recall of Gov. Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger was not a degradation of democratic principles, but neither was it democracy's finest hour.

Aurora Burke, 49, the owner of Burke's Web Pub, called the ousting of Davis overly political and shortsighted. "Do people realize there was 9/11, a market crash, and millions of people laid off -- and that it wasn't all Gray Davis' fault?"

Bartender Debbie Czajkowski, 45, who was laid off last year by United Airlines, found the race to replace Davis an immature exercise in politics-by-popularity. "What, they would have voted for some guy named Arnold Schwarzenegger if he wasn't a movie star? Come on."

Less than three years after hanging chads and the U.S. Supreme Court helped decide who would be president, the recall has again prompted voters across the country to ponder the simple beauty and sometimes confounding messiness of American-style democracy. And this time, they've had to factor in California -- a state where stereotypes are easy but often misleading, and the birthplace of many political movements.

"That's what California is all about -- you can change every week," Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said, weighing in on the recall at a City Hall news conference. "You can change a red light to a blue light, a blue light to a green light if you want to."

Some non-Californians deemed the recall a disaster, others called it a triumph of direct democracy. Most, it seemed, viewed it as something in between, terrifically chaotic at times but perhaps a worthy experiment, with the results unlikely to be clear for some time.

"I don't know if it says anything grand about democracy or our society, or even California, but it certainly is weird," said Justin Carmichael, 32, a Seattle furniture salesman, as he waited for a bus. "You can't really argue that it isn't the will of the people. They turned out, they voted, and they elected Schwarzenegger."

Seldom, if ever, has a statewide election attracted so much national attention, and most people Wednesday had at least some understanding of the hows and whys of the recall -- and virtually everyone had an opinion.

Monroe Zalkin, a Miami salesman, sipped a latte at a paper-strewn desk and decried the recall as a slap at the architects of American democracy.

"This is not what the Founding Fathers intended," he said. "It prevents [politicians] from carrying out their agenda, serving the time period for which they were elected."

And, Zalkin predicted, "This successful recall will spawn others."

Nancy Olson of Decatur, Ga., said that was precisely the outcome she hoped for.

"I think it's going to open up the door, as the other states realize this is an option," the 48-year-old secretary said over lunch at a restaurant called Sweet Melissa's. "To elect somebody doesn't mean you have to necessarily be stuck with them for the whole term."

Indeed, the effort that ousted Davis has triggered nascent recalls in several states. In Nevada, activists are gathering signatures to recall Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn over tax hikes, among other things. Some New Jersey physicians who want caps on malpractice awards are trying to recall Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey. In Wisconsin, long known for squeaky-clean politics, several local and state officials are being targeted for removal following allegations of bribery, misuse of campaign funds and other misdeeds.

In most of those cases, recall proponents face a much higher bar than did supporters of the Davis recall who under state law had to gather signatures from fewer than 900,000 of the state's 15.4 million registered voters to put the issue on a ballot.

That Davis could face a recall under California law simply because some voters believed he wasn't very good at his job -- rather than for committing a crime or for malfeasance -- was the primary sub-topic of discussion for many.

Barry Wanger, a former Angeleno who now works as a public relations executive in Boston, said the ousting of Davis set a dangerous precedent.

"I think recalls should be considered for serious cases of malfeasance, not for poor performance," Wanger said. Alluding to the funding of the recall by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista Calif., Wanger added: "Democracy takes it on the chin when an election can be overturned when a rich member of the opposing party personally finances a recall."

James Ewing, 28, an insurance salesman from Burien, Wash., argued that California voters had shown foresight and initiative in launching the recall and carrying it through.

"People were unhappy with Davis and they went the extra mile to recall him -- to do something about it three years" before Davis' term would have ended, Ewing said. "It doesn't matter who started it, or where the money came from; people cared enough to go out and vote on it."


Times staff writers Elizabeth Mehren in Boston and John J. Goldman in New York, and Times researchers Lynn Marshall in Seattle, Anna Virtue in Miami and Rennie Sloan in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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