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Question Of Fairness

Many voters who aren't Davis fans are deciding that ousting him would be undemocratic. There might even be enough of them for him to survive.

September 14, 2003|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Gray Davis is far from popular. But with the recall campaign at its midway point, a substantial portion of Californians -- perhaps enough to save the governor's career -- appear to have come around to the argument that the effort to oust him violates basic standards of fair play.

"I don't think someone should be voted out of office because the voters don't like them any more," said Barbara Pavey, a Republican from Hollywood. "It's petulant."

That, in a nutshell, is what has become the main rationale against the recall: Even if you don't like Davis, he has done nothing so terrible that it justifies such a drastic act. A recent Los Angeles Times Poll showed that the view had been embraced by roughly half of California's voters -- mostly by Democrats, but by many independents and a few Republicans too. Davis needs to barely top 50% of the vote on Oct. 7 to stay in office.

"I think the tide is moving in our direction," Davis said in a recent television interview. "I think people realize that a recall is an extreme reaction, should not be taken except in cases of criminality or in impeachable offenses or gross abuse of office, none of which exist here."

Other arguments exist, of course. Many opponents of the recall cite specific issues on which they prefer a Democratic governor. Labor unions point to laws protecting workers, conservationists single out environmental laws, civil rights advocates point to measures that aid minorities. Other recall opponents say they flirted with supporting the recall, but decided that none of the candidates to replace Davis promised a clear improvement.

For most, however, the case against the recall rests on an elaboration of Pavey's objection: The recall is baldly partisan; threatens the civility that allows American democracy to work; has become a "circus" that mocks the electoral process; is inherently undemocratic; and has exposed serious flaws in a nearly century-old law that had never before been put to the test.

The opposition reprises many of the arguments made against the impeachment of President Clinton. "That's really what a recall is, it's an impeachment," said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who helped draft a proposed constitutional amendment that would revise California's recall statute.

Just as in the Clinton impeachment, the recall campaign has aroused strong feelings and considerable bitterness on both sides. Many critics of the recall point out that the law allows citizens to attempt to recall an elected official for any reason, no matter how petty.

And just as in the impeachment fight, the perceived faults in the recall process have given many Democrats an argument for supporting a leader despite what they see as his fundamental flaws.

For many recall opponents, the vote should not be taken as a referendum on Davis' record. Many agree with recall backers that Davis bungled California's electricity crisis, spent the state into a $38-billion budget hole and devoted himself more to fund-raising than to governance. Their point: It doesn't matter.

The governor broke no laws, and those who want to oust him had their chance last November, when he won reelection over Republican Bill Simon Jr., these recall opponents say.

"We elected him," said Susan Gerson, 56, an independent in Pleasant Hill, in the San Francisco Bay Area. "It was not that long ago, and if these guys didn't want him in, they should have done something then."

Davis himself sketches the recall effort in starkly partisan terms, drawing a line directly from the Clinton impeachment to the current state campaign.

"This recall is bigger than California," the governor said in a speech at UCLA last month that kicked off his fight for survival. "What's happening here is part of an ongoing national effort to steal elections Republicans cannot win."

This effort, Davis said, "started with the impeachment of President Clinton when Republicans could not beat him in 1996. It continued in Florida, where they stopped the vote count, depriving thousands of Americans of the right to vote" after the presidential election in 2000. It has continued, he said, in redistricting fights in Colorado and Texas, and in "this recall to seize control of California just before the next presidential election."

Republicans and some others criticized Davis for those remarks. But they seem to have struck a chord among many California voters, especially Democrats. In a recent Field poll, more than half the voters who planned to vote against the recall agreed with the statement: "Republicans are engaged in a systematic effort to steal elections from Democratic officeholders."

"Davis has got a point," said Roy Jensen, 55, a carpenter and registered Democrat in the Bay Area town of Cupertino. Jensen said Davis was making the same point that Hillary Rodham Clinton, talking about the impeachment, made "about the vast right-wing conspiracy, and I think she was totally right."

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