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Twists and Turns

California's recall journey has everyone taking note

September 28, 2003|Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writer

In a feat rarely accomplished in American politics, the California recall has offered something for everyone.

By the time all 135 candidates had paid their $3,500 fees, gathered their 60 signatures and filed at local registrars' offices by Aug. 9, the cast of characters had captured a national audience.

Diminutive Gary Coleman, beloved as a child actor playing an orphan on "Different Strokes," was on the ballot -- fees paid by a radio station. A $5,000 donation to the campaign of adult film actress Mary "Mary Carey" Cook would buy you a dinner date (and nothing else, thank you). Larry Flynt, a pornographer and staunch 1st Amendment defender, vowed to spend serious money if polls showed he was a contender. He quickly faded into the background.

But the people behind the recall of Gov. Gray Davis never meant it as a joke. At stake is the leadership of the nation's most populous state, one with an economy larger than those of most nations.

State law allowed for the recall of a governor, no reason required, but did demand the gathering of nearly 1 million signatures. Once on the ballot, the recall called for two questions to be posed to voters. First: Should the governor keep his job? Second: Who should replace him if he was removed from office?

The idea of recalling Davis began circulating in conservative political circles and on talk radio shortly after he was reelected in November.

By early February, former GOP Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian and Ted Costa, from the taxpayer group People's Advocate, formally launched campaigns to get the possible ouster of Davis on a special ballot.

In more than 31 attempts over the years the recall of a California governor had never made it from the petition phase to reality.

Never before, though, had someone like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) been willing to open his multimillion-dollar checkbook and pay for petition collectors.

With the petition drive going slowly, Issa formed a committee in March to explore a run as a replacement gubernatorial candidate and began spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to collect the required 900,000 signatures .

By mid-July, petition gatherers had 1.7 million signatures. California's first gubernatorial recall was set for Oct. 7. The mad rush to run was on -- punctuated most dramatically by Arnold Schwarzenegger's surprise "Tonight Show" declaration of his candidacy.

In the end, Issa exited the race before it began, tears running down his face, just moments before he had been expected to make his candidacy official. He said he had been persuaded that, with several other prominent Republicans in the race, the governor's removal was assured.

Issa's non-run for governor had cost him $2.96 million.

In the early polls, Davis' fate seemed almost sealed. Some polls showed nearly 60% of likely voters wanted him out of office. Fewer than 40% were saying they would vote for him to keep his job. Davis must win support from a simple majority of voters to defeat the recall. Anything less and the candidate who garners the most votes in the replacement race gets his job.

Democratic Party leaders at the national level vowed to defeat the recall and stay out of the replacement race, fearing that offering another choice would erode the governor's support.

But California Democrats, increasingly concerned about Davis' vulnerability, moved to recruit an alternative candidate. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein declined to jump into the race, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante stepped forward. Soon, nearly all Democrats seemed on the same page, urging voters to vote no on the recall, and hedge the bet with a vote for Bustamante.

Meanwhile, fissures had emerged among state Republicans.

The recall election seemed their best hope of regaining a statewide office, all of which the party had lost in the last election. But several well-known Republicans remained in the race, splitting the party vote.

On the ballot, in addition to Schwarzenegger, a political neophyte but big name: state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks); multimillionaire businessman Bill Simon Jr., who had lost to Davis in November; and multimillionaire Peter Ueberroth, the former commissioner of Major League Baseball and head of Los Angeles's 1984 Olympic games.

Simon and Ueberroth eventually withdrew, though their names will still appear on the ballot. With Schwarzenegger garnering the bulk of official Republican support -- and millions of dollars in contributions -- pressure built on McClintock to drop out. A longtime elected official with one of the most conservative voting records in the Legislature, McClintock refused, saying he had given his word to stay in the race to the finish.

In the weeks leading to the election, Schwarzenegger remained the Republican front-runner, but McClintock gained in the polls. Aside from Bustamante and Schwarzenegger, McClintock was the only candidate to poll in the double digits.

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