MODESTO — Donald Benart runs a business in Rialto, hundreds of miles from the Central California district of state Sen. Jeff Denham, and has never met the Republican lawmaker who represents this farming area.
But Benart recently wrote a $100 check to help save Denham's political career. So did Russell Alston of West Covina and Jeffrey Skinner of Northridge and Jay Garacochea of Santa Monica, none of whom lives within 200 miles of Denham's district.
The decision by state Democratic leaders to bankroll a recall campaign against Denham, after he refused a request to vote for the state budget to break a prolonged stalemate last summer, has galvanized Republican activists throughout California.
State Republican leaders are organizing buses so activists from Southern California can walk precincts for Denham in Merced, Turlock, Salinas and other areas of the 12th Senate District.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 08, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 106 words Type of Material: Correction
Recall: An article in Monday's California section about a Democratic recall effort against state Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater) said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supported the state budget that Denham refused to vote for last summer and traveled to Denham's district to pressure him. Although the governor spoke in the media market for Denham's district, he was in Fresno, and not within the district lines, when he said of the senator: "He should get a lot of heat. . . . If you think of one person who can make the budget pass, Sen. Denham could do it. I hope everyone here today calls the senator. Call him."
"I don't know the gentleman, but I felt what they are doing to him is unfair," said Benart, who has a manufacturing firm in San Bernardino County.
Denham's Senate seat is in the cross hairs of Don Perata, the powerful Democratic leader of the state Senate from Oakland, who believes taking it back for his party will head off embarrassing budget stalemates like the one last year that had voters from San Diego to Yreka heaping scorn on state lawmakers.
Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supported the budget Denham refused to vote for and even traveled at the time to Denham's district to pressure him, has disparaged the recall that's on the June 3 ballot.
"Obviously, it is political," Schwarzenegger said when asked about the effort at a recent Sacramento news conference, adding that the budget vote as "a reason for recall I think is ludicrous."
Some Republicans are threatening retaliation.
Jon Fleischman, vice chairman of the California Republican Party, said Perata was misusing the recall process, which is meant to boot people from office for serious misconduct. Fleischman and other activists in Orange County said that if the Denham recall succeeds, a similar campaign might be launched against Lou Correa, a Democratic state senator from Santa Ana.
Denham, a 40-year-old from Atwater, Calif., with the strapping build and easy manner of a farmer, seems an unlikely focus for so much political discord. But with his Republican Senate colleagues backing him and Democrats infusing the recall campaign with cash, Denham finds himself at the center of a battle that has implications beyond the length of his political career.
Last summer, with one moderate Republican supporting the Democrats on the budget and one more Republican vote needed to pass it, Perata called on Denham to provide the second vote.
Denham's refusal infuriated Perata, who was already upset with him for voting against a flood-control bond the Senate chief had crafted. A campaign committee flush with cash raised by Perata and headed by his political advisor, Sandi Polka, soon began hiring people to circulate recall petitions.
"It's payback," said Jaime Regalado, who heads the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.
A Democratic win in Denham's district would be a significant boost to the party and to Perata's legacy, Regalado said.
Perata said he merely wanted to avoid a divisive and lengthy battle over the budget this year, and has been given an opportunity because the latest voter registration figures show that Democrats now have a 12% edge in Denham's district.
"As much as it has been portrayed as my personal pique at Jeff, the fact of the matter is he made it very clear he believes that we should be cutting more out of the budget and doing it without any benefit of any kind of a balanced approach," Perata said. "I simply don't want to go through again this year what we went through last year."
But Denham, campaigning one recent day in a blue button-down shirt and no tie, told 50 supporters at a rally in downtown Modesto that the budget was the issue.
"I will not be pressured or bullied into voting for something that doesn't make sense for the district I represent," Denham said. "None of our elected officials should ever feel intimidated by somebody else coming into our district to pressure their political will."
Like Fleischman, Denham says Perata was abusing the recall process, which is meant to remove from office people who act illegally. But backers of the recall effort note that Denham contributed $17,000 in 2003 to the Republican-led effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis, who was under criticism for the budget mess but had not been accused of criminal conduct.
Simon Salinas, a Democrat and 10-year veteran of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, is the only candidate on the ballot to replace Denham if he is recalled. Salinas noted that more than 31,000 district voters signed petitions to put the recall on the ballot.