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Steve Lopez POINTS WEST

No Thoroughbreds, Just a Bunch of Old Nags Running Recall Race

September 24, 2003|Steve Lopez

So here we are on the day of the Big Debate and Darrell Issa, the loudmouth who got us into this mess, is blaring again like the annoying car alarms that made him rich.

The congressman who bankrolled the recall says maybe we should vote no on dumping Gov. Gray Davis if it looks like Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante will replace him.

Excuse me?

After all this hullabaloo and millions of dollars in taxpayer money, this bobo says never mind?

"As someone who some people call the godfather of the recall, nobody should be more determined to remove Gray Davis from office," Issa said. But "when you vote, if there are still two major Republicans on the ballot, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock, then I advise you to vote no on the recall."

Let me ask you something:

When you hear a car alarm, do you snap to attention, thinking someone's actually stealing a car?

Of course not. It's just noise, and you ignore it as best you can.

Darrell Issa should be dealt with the same way.

The problem is, we're stuck with the recall. Instead of selling you a car alarm you don't need, Issa fooled just enough people into thinking Gray Davis was stealing their wallets, even though the truth is a lot more complicated.

That would have been fine, I suppose, if just one candidate among the 135 caught fire, and you said to yourself: This one's different. This one's got a workable fix for the state's budget mess. This one's a thoroughbred.

But as they head into the backstretch, I don't see anything but mudders and glue horses.

"Here we are, two weeks from the election," says Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California, "and none of the major candidates on the replacement ballot have distinguished themselves as having particularly good and different ideas."

That goes for the budget, the economy, schools, traffic, you name it, says Baldassare. He adds that half the voters he's polling are now saying they don't find the recall process very satisfying.

Maybe that's because the last honest moment was when Warren Buffett blamed a lot of California's money troubles on the revenue inequities created by Proposition 13. But Schwarzenegger immediately threw a net over him, and Buffett has apparently been bound and gagged ever since.

Bustamante timidly took up Buffett's challenge, proposing a more frequent reassessment of commercial property taxes. But otherwise, he's run an idea-free campaign that's beginning to make Bill "Simple" Simon look like a genius.

It began with the MEChA debacle. Bustamante could have gotten rabid critics off his back in 10 seconds by admitting there might be a few bigots associated with an otherwise harmless student organization he briefly belonged to. Instead, he prolonged his own beating by zipping his lip.

Then there's his curious strategy of trying to replace a hugely unpopular governor by acting just like him.

Not only is he a shameless fund-raiser, with a soft spot for labor unions and Indian gaming, but he isn't shy about exploiting campaign finance loopholes, either. When a state court ruled this week that Big Chief BustaMoney had to return $4 million he had funneled through an old campaign fund, his lobbyist/campaign manager said:

"We would certainly return any money that we have."

And how much is that?

"None," he said.

Good thinking. Hubris should work.

Then there's GOP state Sen. Tom McClintock, who suffers from a strange disorder in which he thinks he's living in Montana. The social conservative is so militantly unwilling to compromise on this or that, people in his own party say he can't get anything done.

Don't let that worry you, though. Surely an abrasive conservative can win over the most left-wing legislative body since the breakup of the USSR. Give him a week or two, and McClintock will balance the budget with no new taxes, a few nips and tucks here and there, and the elimination of the ubiquitous "waste, fraud and abuse."

And what can you say about Arnold? Aside from promising to raise no special-interest money and then raking in millions from same, aside from promising not to go negative and then hammering opponents, and aside from promising to be an outsider and then hiring every political hack he can get his hands on, he's a breath of fresh air.

All of this would add up to a persuasive argument for retaining Gray Davis, except for one small problem: Gray has reacted to the heat of recall pressure by indulging all his worst pandering instincts. Gray is being so Gray, in fact, he's almost Charcoal.

Suddenly, despite having sat on the driver's license bill for months, he insisted on wheels for illegal immigrants. And if he's not presiding over a gay marriage these days, it's because he and Jesse Jackson are gettin' down in the 'hood.

But in my book, Davis saved himself this week when he finally quit pandering and took a bold stand, signing a bill allowing churros to be cooked in mobile facilities.

"Churros are popular in California," Davis said. "And everyone who has tasted one knows that freshly made churros taste better than warmed-over ones."

Something's warmed over, all right, but it ain't the churros. Tune into the debate tonight, my friends, and pray that one of those knuckleheads tosses us a crumb.

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