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Recall experiment proved unsuccessful

The state's situation is eerily like that of '03, but voters who ousted one governor see little to gain by trying again.

December 15, 2008|Mark Z. Barabak | Barabak is a Times staff writer.

YUBA CITY — Five years ago, Donnette Shaffer was one of nearly 5 million Californians who did something unprecedented: she voted to fire Gray Davis, just months after he had been reelected governor.

Now she wonders why she bothered.

"I was thinking that we needed to do something before the ship totally sank," the 35-year-old postal carrier said last week as she ended her shift at Yuba City's downtown post office. A Republican, Shaffer voted to recall Democrat Davis and replace him with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. For a time, she was pleased with the new GOP governor, who made vague but vivid promises to transform Sacramento and the way it operated.

"Now it just seems either the system got to him or he just gave up and has gone with it," Shaffer said as evening fell on the northern Sacramento Valley. As for the recall, she said, "I don't think that it made a difference, because we're still in the same boat we were in then, only worse."

The recall -- a first for a governor in California and only the second in U.S. history -- was a massive convulsion meant to cure what ailed the state and its dysfunctional government: the gridlock, the partisan backbiting, the massive budget deficits.

It rid the state of the unpopular Davis, and for that some remain grateful.

"We've stopped a heck of a lot of bad things that would not have been stopped under a Democratic governor," said Doug LaMalfa, a rice farmer and Republican who just finished six years representing Yuba City and Sutter County in the state Assembly. Sutter County, rural and deeply conservative, was a hotbed of pro-recall sentiment in 2003; nearly eight in 10 voters here supported Davis' ouster, the highest percentage in the state.

But looking back, many are disappointed that for all the excitement -- the millions who registered to vote, the grab bag of 137 candidates vying to replace Davis, the worldwide audience that watched, amused and agog -- the recall seems to have changed little. Among the disenchanted are some who were most intimately involved in the effort.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," quipped Don Sipple, who was a top Schwarzenegger strategist. Turning serious, Sipple said, "The virtue of the recall, or so it seemed, was putting politicians on notice they were going to be held accountable. And for a time, maybe a year or so after, the political class took note. But then it reverted back to the same old same old."

Ted Costa, the small-government crusader who drafted the Davis recall petition, was similarly discouraged. "It was a wake-up call," he said. "But after they woke up, everyone went right back to sleep."

The parallels between then and now are striking. Five years ago, the state economy was recovering from the bursting of the dot-com bubble. Today, the state economy is reeling from the bursting of the housing bubble. In 2003, California faced a projected $38-billion budget deficit. Today, the figure is $42 billion and growing.

State lawmakers were stymied then, dug into their party trenches and estranged from a governor perceived as placing his personal and political interests ahead of California's needs. The situation today is the same, and the mood among voters is just as sour. At the time of the recall, 67% of Californians believed the state was headed in the wrong direction. Last month, the number was 66%, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

"I think we're going around in circles," Republican Joan Comrey, 77, said last week outside a Yuba City supermarket. "Arnold started out with the right idea, but he got sidetracked and we're paying for it now."

A series of random interviews in this agricultural town, an island in a sea of peach orchards and nut trees, turned up many of the sentiments that fueled the recall, not least a deep contempt for the Legislature as well as the man in the governor's office.

"If this was a company, we'd be kicking them out and putting new people in," said Sterley Davis, 65, a Republican and retired pastor who backed the recall but opposed Schwarzenegger because of the actor's moderate social views. Over his shoulder, in the newspaper rack, a headline about the state budget shrieked: "Financial Armageddon."

The litany of complaints was familiar: too many taxes, too much spending, not enough services, too much money lavished on the wrong kinds of programs for the wrong people. Several mentioned the vehicle license fee, or "car tax," whose tripling under Davis played a big role in his ouster. Schwarzenegger vigorously opposed the hike during the recall and rolled it back as soon as he took office. More recently, however, he has not ruled out raising the fee to help balance the budget.

"Repealing it was one good thing Arnold did," said James Reemts, 26, an independent who has seen the economy rise and, lately, fall and fall from the showroom floor at Yuba City Honda. "I think it's insane they're trying to raise it again."

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