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Commentary | ON THE RECALL / Peter H. King

Burning Down the Statehouse

September 14, 2003|Peter H. King | Peter H. King's column runs twice weekly through the recall election.

I had wanted to write about Peter Ueberroth's candidacy for governor while he was still in the race, but for some reason I held back. It had been no small moment, that Olympic triumph, and Ueberroth, tough, clever and charismatic, was its main author. Those same talents, I was willing to suggest, might have made him a great governor -- had he managed to stay in the race. Only after his withdrawal last week did I figure out why I had resisted singling out Ueberroth: He was, in a way, no different from so many of the other candidates. I mean, they all bring something to the dance.

Arianna Huffington is smart on her feet, a terrific wit: No doubt her columns about why she did not become governor will make great reading in the weeks that follow Oct. 7.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has a great body and loads of money, he loves children and seems to be quite good at reading the lines Pete Wilson and company provide him -- the man can act.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, the oak from Thousand Oaks, has stood tall by his convictions -- egged on alike by true conservatives and wily Democrats seeking a split of the GOP vote.

Cruz Bustamante? Who can't love a plugger from Fresno?

Mary Carey? Who has offered better ideas to lift the state's fortunes? Tax breast implants? Yes!

It is, indeed, quite a field: Even the unknowns who rarely get written up often seem motivated by heartfelt convictions about how to make California a better place.

But that is not the point. The point is this:

To size up all these pretty horses, to continually handicap the race on the ballot's second question, is to dismiss, to take as a given, the first question: Should a dull but duly elected governor of the state of California be hurled out of office?

This is new ground for California. The question ought to be fully vetted.

The debate I want to hear is not Cruz versus Arnold. The debate I want to hear would pit Gov. Gray Davis against the Republicans who paid for the gathering of signatures required to put the recall on the ballot. I want to hear from the historians who can describe California's long-standing predilection for what Carey McWilliams described as "perilous remedies for present evils."

We Californians thrill to direct democracy, love going over elected officials to make our own laws. But the one law we can't seem to override is the law of unintended consequences.

Term limits installed by initiative turn out to be full employment for ex-legislators turned lobbyists. School-funding minimums, set the same way, instead turn into school-funding maximums.

What will be the consequence of rolling out recall as the latest battle tactic in statewide politics? From this point forward will every major candidate be advised to keep $1.7 million in the kitty for after election day, in order to finance the recall in case he or she is defeated? What I want to hear is one clear reason to go down this path -- other than the fact that Davis' unpopularity makes it possible.

Yes, even many Democrats held their noses when they voted last fall to reelect Davis. But a vote cast with nose clamped shut counts the same as one cast with a joyous yelp. The man was reelected governor of California and has committed no great crimes since. He has not taken to mainlining narcotics. Puppies, small children and even interns can still walk safely in his presence.

Those who promote recall offer as many and as various reasons as the Bush administration did for invading Iraq. They cite the budget shortfall, the electricity crisis -- both of which were in the books before reelection. Or the "car tax," the groundwork for which was laid on Pete Wilson's watch. Or they complain that there are too many illegal immigrants still coming over the border. Or that taxes and workers' comp premiums are too high. Or that Sacramento is a joke and isn't it about time "we" send "them" a message?

Well, teenage firebugs, the shrinks tell us, also are "just sending a message" when they burn down the family home. In the end, that doesn't resolve the problem of where to sleep, now that the house has been reduced to cinders.

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