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Lessons from the 2003 recall

Yanking career politician Gray Davis from office was a bad idea, even though Arnold Schwarzenegger probably would've become governor eventually anyway.

October 09, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Then-Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, right, walks into the conference room in the governor's office, with then-California Gov.Gray Davis, left, after the two met privately on Oct. 23, 2003. The recall that had just been held replaced career politician Davis with Hollywood action hero Schwarzenegger.
Then-Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, right, walks into the conference… (Los Angeles Times )

This is the 10th anniversary week of California's first and only recall of a governor. But no one is celebrating.

We replaced a career politician, Democrat Gray Davis, with a Hollywood action hero, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Big mistake.

It was like calling in an inexperienced repairman who made things worse and cost us a lot.

Yes, he championed a couple of sorely needed political reforms — nonpartisan redistricting of congressional and legislative seats and a top-two open primary system. Give him credit for that.

Together, these voter-approved changes should ultimately move some elected officials toward the ideological, pragmatic center and away from extremism.

But he opposed the most important legislative reform: a voter-approved measure that allowed state budgets to be passed on a simple majority vote, eliminating the gridlock-generating two-thirds requirement. Because of that change, Sacramento is functional again.

On deficit spending, Sacramento went from bad to worse under Schwarzenegger. That was only partly due to the recession.

One of his first acts was the novice governor's most fiscally fatal: cutting the vehicle license fee and costing the state $4 billion annually, gradually increasing to $6 billion. He had demagogued against Davis' raising the fee during the recall campaign, calling it "outrageous."

But Schwarzenegger didn't have the guts to replace the car tax with another revenue-producer. So to pay for the cut — and to meet everyday expenses — he sweet-talked legislators and voters into borrowing $15 billion. We're still paying off that loan with interest.

"It was a mistake," Schwarzenegger admitted years later, saying he should have used his first-year political muscle to honestly fix the budget.

Instead, he promised the moon — "tear up the credit card," "end the crazy deficit spending" — and delivered a deep budget hole.

"There are certain laws of politics — like gravity — that can't be defied," says political consultant Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director during the recall and his first two years in office. "If you promise change, you have to deliver. Arnold and Obama both ran on change and disappointed people."

"The irony," Stutzman continues, "is that Arnold came in running against taxes and got his butt kicked trying to raise them."

That was in 2009, when Schwarzenegger and the Legislature finally agreed to hike taxes temporarily to balance the budget but blundered politically by allowing voters to cut the tax duration in half. They voted nearly 2 to 1 to do so.

"He ends up being as unpopular as Davis," Stutzman adds, "which shows how hard the job is."

Schwarzenegger also promised other changes. Wielding a broom during the recall, the showman pledged to "sweep the special interests out of the Capitol." The special interests only became more powerful.

He hit bottom in 2005 while still suffering from naivete and hubris, blowing his popularity on a special election for ill-conceived "reforms" that voters spurned.

But it wasn't all failure.

Schwarzenegger took initial steps toward public employee pension reforms after Davis had paid off unions for their support. He rammed through the Legislature a significant overhaul of the workers' compensation system. He was the first governor in the country to launch a futuristic attack on global warming. And voters approved his $37-billion infrastructure bond package while reelecting him.

Missing in all this week's analyses and punditry, however, is that Schwarzenegger was destined to be elected governor regardless of the recall. The actor began plotting a race in 1999. To wet his feet politically, he sponsored a ballot initiative creating an after-school program. That was in 2002, as Davis was being reelected.

"We were preparing for him to run in 2006," says Bob White, a Sacramento power broker and longtime chief aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson. "Absolutely, no question, he would have run. And he would have won."

Conventional wisdom is that Schwarzenegger might not have survived a long Republican primary because of his centrist views, including the support of abortion rights. But that's nonsense.

Schwarzenegger, with his name ID and star power, would have been an instant frontrunner in the polls. Republicans would have been hungry to reclaim the governorship after eight years of Davis. And the desire of voters to be entertained should never be underestimated.

His Democratic opponent likely would have been termed-out Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, a career pol whom voters would have emphatically rejected because his credentials reminded them of Davis.

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown would have run for attorney general — as he actually did — because he would have painfully recalled that his father, Gov. Pat Brown, was lopsidedly beaten for a third term by an actor, Ronald Reagan.

Brown also would have sat out the 2010 gubernatorial race, winning reelection as attorney general. Schwarzenegger would have been reelected, perhaps over Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

And Atty. Gen. Brown would now be energetically gearing up to run for his third term as governor in 2014, when he'd be a lively 76. He'd be selling his experience and know-how, contrasted with the stumbling Schwarzenegger.

That's my scenario and I'm sticking to it.

Davis wasn't that bad. He was slow reacting to the energy crisis caused by profiteering power pirates. But he was a champion of education reform and gun control. He deserved better.

Schwarzenegger wasn't ready. He could have used the extra time to study up on issues and governing.

The recall is something to learn from, not to celebrate.">

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