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Area Seems in Rush to Oust Davis

One out of five Placer County voters signed the recall petition. Many eagerly criticize the governor.

September 10, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

AUBURN, Calif. — Recall fever has spiked in this onetime Gold Rush town in the heart of Placer County.

Just a half-hour hop up the hill from the state Capitol, this conservative bastion is philosophically a world away from Gov. Gray Davis. Placer County draws Republicans the way it did gold prospectors back in 1849. Hereabouts, yanking the embattled Democrat from office would be like striking a political Mother Lode.

The county, which straddles the heavily forested Sierra Nevada, saw devout conservatives pour from the woods to support the gubernatorial recall effort. One of every five registered voters put a pen to the petition calling for Davis' ouster. With the highest GOP registration in the state, Placer County is expecting a big vote against the governor on Oct. 7.

The election holds such a grip on the community that many folks are happy to recount when and where they got to vent their ire by signing the recall petition. For Vickie Fowler, born and raised in Placer County, it was at the local Home Depot.

"I was probably one of the first ones. Couldn't wait to get my hands on it," said Fowler, 55, from behind the front counter of her antique shop in Auburn, the county seat.

Fowler, a Republican, recited all the anti-Davis themes: The governor doesn't keep his word; he's put us in a hole financially; he's tripled the car tax and flip-flopped on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

He's not even amiable, Fowler said. "He reminds me of a cat I picked up, a stray with a sour face."

Lemon mug or not, the governor has worries aplenty in this GOP territory.

Stretching from the fast-growing suburbs and farmland of its flat western edge to the conifer forests bumping Lake Tahoe, Placer County has shown a conservative bent since the days of the forty-niners.

A population explosion over the last few decades has transformed cities such as Roseville and Rocklin into booming suburban satellites of the state capital.

Last year, Placer was the fastest-growing county in California, edging out Riverside County. Subdivisions sprawl on what was forest and farmland. Nearly every new monster-sized house seems to have an SUV in the driveway. Tile roofs sizzle in the Central Valley summer.

Newcomers range from high-tech workers to a flood of gray-haired refugees pouring into the region's two Del Webb Sun City developments. Four of five residents of this county of 275,000 are white.

The mix of golf courses and big homes, just beyond the Sacramento swirl, has made it particularly alluring to conservatives, who have turned the area into a sort of Orange County north.

Chris Jones, a GOP campaign consultant based in Placer County and former chief of staff to retired state Sen. John Lewis, an Orange County Republican, characterized the growth as a "self-selected migration" -- a peppering of newcomers from San Francisco and the coast "dissatisfied with the cultural liberalism of the Bay Area."

Church membership is rising. Gun ownership is anything but uncommon.

"It's a very rock-ribbed Republicanism, similar to Orange County in its 1960s John Wayne heyday," Jones said. "Conservatives can find a cultural comfort zone in Placer County."

Hugh Staples of Auburn toyed with volunteering to help the recall effort early this year, when it was just getting off the ground and being ballyhooed on conservative talk radio. But kids and work got in the way -- he's a youth soccer coach and the fifth generation to run his family's machine shop.

If Davis survives, Staples talks of pulling up stakes and moving the family business out of state. California's problems -- a sagging economy, a growing cultural and spiritual divide -- lie as much with the Democrat-dominated Legislature as with Davis, he said. "But the governor is a good place to begin."

Partisanship reigns supreme in these parts. George W. Bush lost California during the 2000 presidential race, but won big in Placer County. From Assemblyman Tim Leslie (Tahoe City) to Rep. John Doolittle (Rocklin), Republicans fill the region's top elected offices.

A simple rule seems to apply: the more conservative, the better. Thousand Oaks Assemblyman Tom McClintock, a gubernatorial aspirant who tilts as far right as anyone in Sacramento, showed up at the county GOP's annual barbecue a few weeks back and scored two standing ovations. Arnold Schwarzenegger, though invited, chose not to appear.

The actor is too liberal for Jennifer Entz, a 33-year-old mother of three. She doesn't like his pro-choice stance and support of gay rights. When he won the backing of Rob Lowe, a former "West Wing" television star with a bad-boy past, Entz signed off. "That ruined it for me," she said.

Placer County has California's highest percentage of Republicans -- more than 52% of its 204,000 registered voters. It's also the only county in the state where Democratic registration has fallen below 30% (Democrats outnumber Republicans 44% to 35% statewide.)

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