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Voters' Opinions Are All Over the Map

Consensus is rare, but Californians reveal both anger and uncertainty over the state of affairs.

September 01, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

California is crabby this Labor Day, with a list of complaints nearly as long as the state itself: crowded freeways, a budget deficit, higher electricity bills, a tripling of the vehicle license fee.

Little things rankle, too. Denise Kilcrease recently showed up for eighth-grade orientation at her daughter's financially strapped school in Brentwood, a Bay Area suburb, and was asked to donate Kleenex, so the kids could blow their noses.

The recall election little more than five weeks from now is seen as the ultimate solution -- or yet another problem on the pile. Faced with something no one here has ever experienced, California is conflicted.

For many, the vote is a cause for celebration, a pageant of we-the-people democracy in all its ragged glory.

"I think the recall is one of the best things that has happened in this state recently, because it is finally going to send a message to politicians that they are accountable for their actions," said Tony Lucich, 51, of Manhattan Beach, who signed a recall petition outside the local supermarket early in the qualification drive.

For many others, it is an embarrassment, "a three-ring circus," as Palm Springs' Raymond Velez put it, and a colossal waste of money.

"It makes a mockery of the whole voting process," said Paula Canale, 41, who lost her hotel management job in the Bay Area as a result of the tourism industry's post-Sept. 11 slump. "It's not like you elect a new governor and they get in office and all of a sudden the economy changes."

Scores of Californians shared their views on the recall election and the state of their state in a series of interviews conducted last week from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to downtown San Diego. The sampling is not a scientific survey. But together, the street-level snapshots present a portrait of a state at once angry and uncertain, captivated by the spontaneity of the hurry-up campaign, but also confused by the unwieldiness of the multiple-choice ballot.

Consensus, which everyone seems to crave, is in meager supply.

There is little agreement on how California reached this sour state, or whom to blame for the droopy economy, deep budget hole and partisan warfare that divides Sacramento.

There is scant affection for Gov. Gray Davis, even among those fiercely opposed to booting him from office. For every backer of Arnold Schwarzenegger, there seems to be someone else who laughs at the mere thought of the action movie hero as governor.

There is even less agreement on how to turn things around or whether, like time and tides, the economy is something that moves to its own rhythms.

For Susan Ellis, dumping the governor would be a good way to start perking things up. "He misrepresented the state's situation when he was running" for reelection last year, said the 53-year-old Republican and marketing director for a San Diego law firm. "I feel we were lied to. I don't think we can afford three more years with Gray Davis."

Nonsense, said H.R. Norwood, a 57-year-old Democrat and community activist up the coast in Carson. "When you see it takes two-thirds of the Legislature to get things done, you can see that he is not just doing this by himself."

If there is a single area of broad accord -- reaching across divisions of class, color, party registration, north and south, coast and inland -- it is the notion that the state's political establishment has failed its people. To the good fortune of the rest of Sacramento's elected leaders, only Davis faces the prospect of being recalled on Oct. 7.

Dennis and Diana Golden, both 46, live in Rocklin, a prosperous suburb just over the county line from Sacramento. She is a Democrat and he a Republican, though neither is deeply partisan. They see the two major political parties equally corrupted by the sway of special interests.

"Whoever can come up with the most money wins," said Dennis Golden, who opposes the recall campaign as "a whole lot too late."

About a hundred miles southwest, outside a grocery warehouse in the Bay Area community of Concord, Jack Mannering said much the same thing. Hefting cases of bubbly water, beer and wine into the back of his red hatchback, the strapping 45-year-old in shorts and a T-shirt said the politicians in Sacramento -- every last one of them -- "are always jockeying for short-term political advantage, to serve their own ends. They're so disconnected from the reality of our lives, they could care less."

Still, he opposes recalling Davis -- the first part of the ballot -- because he fears "it would just open the door to an endless series of recalls by whatever party finds itself on the wrong end of the ballot box."

"Just being unpopular or making a few bad decisions is not reason enough to throw someone out of office," said Mannering, who is undecided on the second half of the ballot, which asks who should replace Davis if he is ousted.

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