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The California Recall, Part Two: The Replacement Candidates
July 31, 2003
By Jack Rabbit

On October 7, Californians will be asked two questions: First, should Gray Davis be recalled as governor of California? Second, from a list of candidates to replace Davis, who should take his place as governor? Under California law, Davis, as the target of the recall, cannot be a candidate to replace himself. One need only vote yes or no on the first question in order to vote on the second. The votes for the replacement candidates will not be tallied unless the recall question carries.

This is the second of a two part series on the attempt to recall Governor Davis in California. In the previous article, the recall drive against Governor Davis, and the reasons his opponents give for recalling him, was discussed. Today, we will discuss some of the announced and possible candidates attempting to replace Davis.

In Part One, we concluded that a recall should only be used for demonstrably corrupt and incompetent officials who are guilty of malfeasance in office. It was also concluded that the case against Davis falls short of this standard. However, each individual California citizen who votes will determine for himself what are the criteria for recall and whether, based on such criteria, Davis should be removed from office. Polls as of now show that Davis will have to fight an uphill battle to remain in office.

First, a few words about the potential Republican candidates are in order.

Darrell Issa, a wealthy rightwing member of Congress from the San Diego area, is the only announced major Republican candidate as of this writing (Sunday afternoon). Issa bankrolled the recall movement, which was floundering until he began injecting $1.7 million of his personal fortune into the drive. Issa wants to be governor of California and apparently sees the recall as his best opportunity. In recent weeks, some baggage from Issa’s past emerged: many years ago he was twice arrested for grand theft auto, an interesting past for one who made his fortune as the inventor of a car alarm system

Bill Simon, who was the Republican candidate for governor against Davis last year, is seriously considering another run at it as a replacement candidate in the recall election. Simon should get a clue. If Davis is as bad as the recall backers say he is and Simon lost to Davis last year, then it must say a lot about how the voters perceive Simon. Indeed, this is the overwhelming verdict of political pundits of every stripe. Almost everyone agrees that Simon ran the worst campaign of any candidate for any office last year. There is no new website promoting Simon’s candidacy.

Tom McClintock, a member of the state Senate from a suburban district in Los Angeles County, is also considering a run. McClintock bills himself as a spokesman for conservative issues, with an emphasis on lower taxes.

Issa, Simon and McClintock are ideological triplets. All three declare that they will solve California’s budget crisis by lowering taxes. The good news is that they will be vying for the same votes, reducing the chances that any of them will win. The bad news is that if one of them does win, he will push the same kind of fiscal responsibility on California’s ailing finances that Mr. Bush has used to wash the federal in red ink and tank the American economy.

In addition to the three rightwing Republicans, more moderate Republicans may also be considering entering the race as replacement candidates. Jack Kemp, the former Congressman, HUD Secretary and 1996 Republican Vice Presidential nominee, was mentioned earlier, but has announced over the weekend that he will not be a candidate. Michael Huffington, the former GOP Congressman and Senate candidate, is also said to be considering a run. However, Huffington’s stock has fallen since he lost to Senator Feinstein in 1994 and whether he would be considered a major candidate could be disputed.

Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles who lost to Simon in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2002, may still want to make a run for Governor. Although a registered Republican, Riordan is ideologically and politically independent. That and his age (73) would prevent him from becoming a rising star in GOP circles. Nevertheless, among the Republicans who might run, he may be the most palatable to moderate Democrats.

Arnold Swarzenegger, the film actor, had been rumored for some time to be considering a run for governor in 2006. He is widely held to be a moderate Republican, but has no political record on which to base this supposition.

In addition to the Republicans, there are two candidates not affiliated with major political parties who could be major players in the recall election.

Peter Camejo, the Green Party’s gubernatorial candidate last year, has announced that he will run as a replacement candidate. Camejo and the Green Party took no position on the recall during the signature-gathering phase, although he is known to have given the move against Davis tacit support. Some of Camejo’s reasons for desiring a recall of Davis are similar to those given by the recall backers. Primarily, Camejo is upset with the fact that on Davis’ watch a large budget surplus has disappeared and a large deficit has taken its place. In the first part of this series, we examined some of the reasons for this: reduced federal aid and the California energy crisis. Camejo, however, is not satisfied that Davis doesn’t bear more culpability than this author ascribed to him in Part One.

Unlike the Republican candidates, for whom the state’s budget crisis is nothing but a mantra for recall, Camejo discusses the problem in concrete terms. He cannot understand how, in a time when state income rose by almost 60 percent, the budget surplus turned to a huge deficit. Camejo doesn’t use the word “malfeasance” in attributing this phenomenon to Davis, but he comes very close. Camejo, unlike many candidates who are more likely to win an election, often offers concrete proposals for solving problems. In this case, he proposes an independent audit so that Californians will know where their money went. This seems like a good idea. At least the people do have a right to know how their money is spent. Perhaps whoever is governor on October 8 – whether Camejo, Davis or one of the Republican candidates – would be well advised to act on Camejo’s proposal.

Camejo is not a flaky third-party gadfly. He has some credible expertise to talk about the state’s financial affairs as he does. He is by profession a financial consultant and considered an expert in the field of socially responsible investing. While he is used to running in elections he has no hope of winning (he was once the presidential candidate of the Socialist Workers’ Party), he often addresses real concerns and makes sensible, concrete proposals. This has earned him some respect in unexpected quarters. Last year, he received the endorsement of several small but ideologically mainstream newspapers in California that were dissatisfied with the choice between Davis and Simon. Among these was the Napa Valley Register, whose editorial endorsing Camejo gives good reasons for endorsing any candidate.

However, such an audit as the one that Camejo proposes will not by itself bring the money back. Camejo has stated that since those in the upper income brackets have had their federal taxes reduced, the state could increase their state income taxes. They would be paying no more taxes than they are now. This proposal, while it would do something to close the budget shortfall, will not do it all. Any realistic program to reduce the budget deficit will have to involve both tax increases and uncomfortable spending cuts. Where Camejo would make cuts remains to be seen.

Although Camejo is impressive, he is aware that a more mainstream candidate would have a better chance. While Camejo believes that Davis should be recalled, he does not believe that Californians want a Republican – especially not a rightwinger like Issa or Simon -- to replace him. There are reports that Camejo would be willing to step aside should journalist Arianna Huffington enter the race.

Arianna Huffington is the former wife of Michael Huffington, briefly discussed above. Born in Greece, she began her political career as the socialite wife of a wealthy Republican and an outspoken supporter of conservative and rightwing positions. However, there was always something unorthodox about Arianna’s conservatism. Like Mr. Bush and former Congressman and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, Arianna espoused a brand of conservatism that emphasized its benefits to the poor. Unlike Mr. Bush and like Mr. Kemp, Arianna really believed in it. To a great degree, she still does. However, she has embraced many progressive positions in the last several years. She adamantly believes in campaign finance reform. She is a persistent critic of the Bush administration, especially in its favoritism to the rich.

Like Camejo, Arianna is ambivalent about the recall. Like Camejo, she is contemptuous of both Davis and the Republicans driving the move. Unlike Camejo, she tends on balance to oppose the removing Davis. In an opinion piece posted on her website on July 9, Arianna articulated her feelings about the recall and about Davis. She states that the recall is a rightwing ploy and expresses her distaste for the leaders of the movement. Like many who oppose the effort, she believes that there is something undemocratic about an attempt to remove Davis for office less than a year after his election. She is unimpressed with the field of possible Republican replacement candidates, singling out the shady Issa and the untested Swarzenegger for particular scorn.

However, Arianna does not see Davis as an innocent victim of a coup attempt. While Davis’ defenders state that he just won a fair election, Arianna points out that Davis, a master political fundraiser, used part of his war chest in the spring of 2002 to fund television ads attacking Mayor Riordan ahead of the Republican primary. This, many observers believe, tilted the balance in the primary to the pathetic Bill Simon; while the unpopular Davis was able to defeat Simon in a race closer than expected, almost all believe that Riordan would have threatened Davis’ hold on office. “So, eight months ago, Davis gamed the system,” says Arianna, “and now the system is about to strike back.”

To both Arianna and Camejo, this touches on an issue dear to them: campaign finance reform. Both Arianna Huffington, the maverick conservative, and Peter Camejo, the doctrinaire leftist, decry how big money distorts democracy. This, of course, is no reason to recall Davis. It is a good reason, along with Darrell Issa’s personal financing of the recall effort, to move in the direction of public financing of political campaigns. The opportunity to discuss this issue in this way may be just what it takes to put Arianna in the race. As for Camejo, he has spent a lifetime using the electoral process as a sounding board for ideas rather than as an opportunity for personal power. Even though the recall election may present the best opportunity the Greens will have for a long time to elect a governor, Camejo may decline in favor of allowing Arianna the spotlight to voice ideas that are mutually dear to both of them.

To raise the issue of campaign finance may not help Davis, even if it can be used to portray Issa, and by extension those who pushed the recall, in a bad light. Davis’ campaign finance tactics make many reform-minded California citizens – of whom many are Democrats – very uncomfortable with him. While Davis’ tactics are this side of the law, they are sleazy. Like much campaign financing, there is no explicit quid pro quo, but there is a very loud implicit one. In spite of budget cuts in the present crisis, state prison guards received a hefty pay raise. No one should speak against them; they do a necessary job. But why prison guards not suffering with school children? Perhaps it has something to do with the prison guards’ union contributing $3.4 million to Davis’ re-election campaign. As Bob Dylan said, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

Even those of us who do not believe the case has been made to recall him recognize that Davis is unpopular and vulnerable on many fronts. Regardless of how one may feel about the merits of the recall movement, it should be apparent that Davis’ chances of survival are problematic.

For this reason, the decision by the leaders of the Democratic Party to refrain from running a replacement candidate seems puzzling. This strategy was announced by Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, just ahead of the certification of the gathered signatures.

Clearly, the Democrats are counting on the voters to reject the recall because no better candidate than Davis is running to replace him. Given that Davis’ approval ratings are in the low twenties, it promises for an extremely negative campaign. The Democrats message will be: No matter what you think of Davis, look these other guys. What a monsters’ ball! It is a very risky strategy. One would even say foolhardy. Peter Camejo, who stands in line to be one of the principal beneficiaries of such a move, calls the strategy a “suicide pact.”

It also seems unnecessarily risky. Even as recently as early July, public opinion polls showed that Senator Dianne Feinstein would win a replacement election were she to enter. By running Feinstein, the Democrats may assure that one of their own remains governor of California. At the same time, it may also encourage people unhappy with Davis to go ahead and vote to recall, knowing that an able Democrat would be the one most likely to take his place.

However, without Fienstein in the race and with Davis’ approval ratings as bad as they are, the indications are that the Democrats will lose the governor’s office in California. The least desirable outcome of this farce would be for the governor’s office to be won by to Darrell Issa, who decided that the governor’s office is for sale and for a couple of million dollars he would buy it. On the other hand, the most desirable outcome – that, in the absence of any better reason to recall a governor than has been presented thus far, Davis is retained – is starting to look remote.

One might wonder that if the Democrats wake up on October 8 and find Darrell Issa or Bill Simon sitting in the governor’s office in Sacramento, if the Democrats won’t recall McAuliffe. There will be a great deal of finger pointing, on that we can count.

As for this citizen of California, a recall should be reserved for politicians guilty of malfeasance. That case has not been made against Davis. Even if there is someone on the ballot as a replacement candidate who would make a better governor, that is no reason to vote Yes on the recall question. This citizen will vote No.

Meanwhile, it would be most undesirable to reward those who pushed the recall and bankrolled it for partisan purposes with complete success. Accordingly, this citizen will also vote for the Democrat, Green or independent with the best chance of succeeding should Davis be recalled.

That may be enough to make those who would hijack direct democracy think twice. However, best of all would be allow Davis, who is guilty of no malfeasance, to finish his term. A recall should be more serious business than Mr. Issa and his friends make it out to be.

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