Jewish World Review July 29, 2003/ 29 Tamuz 5763

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Consumer Reports

Gray Davis is a disaster ... but recall is bad idea


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | There are several reasons why it's unfortunate that California's governor, Gray Davis, is facing a recall election on October 7.

Most significantly, while Davis has been a disastrous chief executive, presiding over a current $38 billion deficit, to my knowledge he hasn't been accused of any illegal or impeachable offenses. California's voters made a bad choice in reelecting the colorless yet nasty Davis last November, punishing tax-cutter Bill Simon for a terribly run campaign, but in most of the country those are the breaks. I can think of numerous dim-bulb politicians who ought to be given the boot-Sens. Robert Byrd, Barbara Boxer, Chuck Schumer, Arlen Specter, Teddy Kennedy, Lincoln Chafee and Patrick Leahy, just for starters-but they've obtained power by legal means.

Choking on a morning breakfast of peaches and plums last Saturday, I found myself in partial agreement with a predictable New York Times editorial on the subject. The writer concluded, under the clever headline "California Chaos": "The supporters of the recall present it as an exercise in direct democracy. But is it a truly democratic outcome when a candidate with a small fraction of the total vote can prevail over a legitimately elected sitting governor? Indeed, one of Mr. Davis' strongest arguments is that throwing him out of office could open the door for a complete novice with only marginal support to be elected. Given California's precarious finances, that is the last thing it needs now."

Two points. California's had this odd provision in its crazy-quilt constitution since 1913, under the direction of Gov. Hiram Johnson. There's been ample time to amend this antiquated quirk. And now that Arnold Schwarzenegger has declined to run, another celebrity, say Warren Beatty, would receive more than "marginal support."

Still, although the state probably does need a less slippery governor, one who won't deceive voters as Davis did in 2002 about the budget, the guy won the election.

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As usual, California's a one-eyed panda of another color. Just look at the number of propositions and initiatives that clutter the state's ballot each year, and you wonder why anyone bothers to vote at all.

On a partisan level, the recall is also mixed news for a Republican party that's trying to regain momentum in the country's largest state. While it's extremely entertaining to watch Davis squirm and vow to "fight like a Bengal" to keep his job, not to mention the headlines it's taking away from the foul crop of 2004 Democratic presidential contenders, if he's replaced it could easily backfire on the GOP. Better if the current governor continues to perform badly-if Davis survives he'll make Mayor Mike look like a fiscal conservative with huge tax hikes imposed on Californians-and voters take out their wrath on a surrogate, say Howard Dean, John Kerry or Dick Gephardt.

Again, from a pure theatrical spectacle, if Arianna Huffington, Michael Huffington, Jerry Brown, Sean Penn, Grace Slick and Warren Beatty put their names on the ballot, it'll make for one exciting night of election returns. But then the winner would have to actually work not only to plug up the budget shortfall, but to keep residents and companies from fleeing the state to less expensive locales.

It's a losing scenario for President Bush, who, if Davis is still in office, has a chance of nailing down his own reelection by winning California's 54 electoral votes. No wonder Karl Rove, who was blindsided by Davis' successful, and expensive, television campaign to torpedo former Los Angeles mayor Dick Riordan in last year's GOP primary, is keeping his beak out of this fight.

Not so for DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe, who once again is showing his lightweight credentials by reenacting Custer's Last Stand in California by marshalling resources and out-of-town Democrats to stump for the embattled Davis. In an interview published in the July 27 San Francisco Chronicle, Terry the Pirate summoned all the good-government cliches he could think of in one phone call to reporter Carla Marinucci.

He said: "They did it to us in Florida, they're attempting to fool around in Texas. California is just another example. Here we just had an election, and now a partisan right-wing Republican [Rep. Darrell Issa] puts up several million-and they're trying to undo it." McAuliffe further pledged that not only all nine Democratic presidential candidates will appear in the state on Davis' behalf, but Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore as well. "This is a very dangerous game for the Republicans, no matter how this comes out," McAuliffe continued. "People don't like the idea of this anti-democratic activity. They'll be very angry... and you will see a massive mobilization either way in 2004."

Maybe. But even though Issa spent more than a million bucks to fund the recall campaign, more than 1.6 million Californians-far in excess of the roughly 900,000 signatures needed-wouldn't have even said "Have a nice day!" to those circulating petitions if they didn't believe Davis ought to take a hike. In fact, the hullabaloo in the nation's weirdest state-Vermont gets a pass this week-has transcended Issa's money and his desire to succeed the current governor (which won't happen anyway). He's got little name recognition, and those who are dredging up Issa's arrests for car theft decades ago, before he made a fortune in business, are missing the point.

Last Sunday, Maureen Dowd once again violated the sanctity of pristine newsprint to offer her Hollywood-infused take on the current mayhem. While admitting that the recall wouldn't be happening "if someone besides Sharon Davis liked Gray," Dowd slams Arnold ("The truncated race works well for pols with racy pasts they'd just as soon race past") and even worse, quotes former Gore aide Chris Lehane, who now shoots off his mouth for John Kerry.

Sleazy is as sleazy does.

Lehane told Dowd: "The recall provision was created to get rid of governors guilty of malfeasance-not so malfeasers could put themselves into office." Lehane, who's obviously studied the work of Richard Nixon's dirty tricksters, is a "Davis recall adviser" in addition to helping dash Kerry's presidential hopes.

You can count on the media, depending on which candidate it favors, to further distort the upcoming election. One curious example was the appearance of two articles last week by Jill Stewart, a respected commentator on California politics who once contributed a fine column for the now-shuttered weekly New Times Los Angeles.

Stewart, who believes both sides are comically mucking up their efforts, first wrote in the July 25 San Francisco Chronicle that Davis, whom she dubs "Chief Sneak," is likely headed for retirement. The headline read "Why Davis is really in trouble," and in the story Stewart cited an unpublished finding from a July 4 Los Angeles Times poll. Registered voters were asked if Republicans were attempting to reverse the results of last year's election or legitimately believe that Davis has "mismanaged the state's finances." By a 53-33 percent margin, the latter question prevailed.

This led Democratic "pundit and polling expert" Pat Caddell to tell Stewart: "This is just explosive stuff. It tells me the Democrats don't understand what they are facing-recall support is broad, and we may be heading toward a huge turnout."

Stewart concluded: "Sometimes, voters just know what they know. And that means that even if the media sanitize the news, voters might finally wise up to the Chief Sneak."

Yet two days later, in a New York Times op-ed that was titled "California's Comeback Kid," Stewart had a different take. She began the piece, which detailed Davis' dirty but effective campaigning prowess, by explaining that getting rid of the governor was hardly a slam-dunk. (No "Chief Sneak" appeared in the Times article; leading one to wonder how air-brushed Stewart's copy was by editors at the Howell Raines-free daily.)

She begins: "In California-even where politics are concerned-appearances can be deceiving... Already, many are predicting the Democratic governor's demise come the Oct. 7 special election. But even if Republicans are able to place a serious contender on the ballot, don't count the governor out just yet. Mr. Davis may find himself on the political ropes, but that's exactly where he does his best fighting."

Have Davis' prospects changed so precipitously in the period of 48 hours? Of course not: It just depends on what newspaper you read, even if the analysis is by the same journalist.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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