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Near-Perfect Recall 

Thursday, Feb 27 2003
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THE ODDS LOOK GOOD FOR CALIFORNIA getting its first recall election to unseat a governor — on one condition: that the campaign to oust Governor Gray Davis moves beyond its lunatic roots.

Consider this scene in the Capitol last Saturday: Five hundred people rallied outside the statehouse in support of dumping Davis. They looked like a collection of right-wing talk-show cranks, carrying signs defying “the socialist regime” of “Gay” Davis. In contrast, a few blocks away, 1,500 delegates and observers gathered for the Republican State Convention. They, too, support the recall and unanimously voted to support it.

So, the question is: Who’s running this recall? Ironically, the current organizers of the recall effort, as the Weekly revealed two weeks ago, include the strategists behind the failed campaign of Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr. “Some of us had been talking for months about this, putting out feelers to some disaffected Democrats, then [now former state GOP chairman Shawn] Steel and these other crazy uncles jumped out and may have typecast this thing for good,” complained one top Republican political consultant.

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In private conversations, two ranking Republicans touted a poll that they said showed strong support for a recall, with 49 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed. But without credibility beyond the right-wing fringe and the just-defeated, and money to mount the drive, the effort won’t succeed. One Democratic consultant notes that conservative databases exist that would all but guarantee 600,000 signatures, nearly half of those needed to qualify the recall. (The recall needs 897,000 valid signatures of registered voters.)

Despite the confusion and concern about the current organizers’ jumping the gun, activity continues in both Republican and Democratic ranks around the recall bid. After all, it only takes one very rich person to supply the $2 million needed to qualify the recall, and the state’s political history is replete with previously little-known multimillionaires emerging from the woodwork to fund initiatives. Says senior Democratic adviser Bob Mulholland: “I’m taking it very seriously, assuming that it will qualify and we will have to fight it on the ballot.”

With former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan traveling, with a visit to Cuba on his itinerary, an associate of his confirmed that Riordan has been talking with consultants and considering funding the recall drive. “But when has Dick spent money on anything that wasn’t for him?” asks a top Republican consultant. Reminded that Riordan funded a slate of candidates for the L.A. school board, this consultant noted that that was designed to promote his political agenda. The Weekly didn’t talk to any Republican strategist who expected Riordan to actually run for governor if the recall qualifies. But there is not a shortage of candidates.

Former Secretary of State Bill Jones says he will run for governor if the recall qualifies. Jones would have been the strongest of the three Republicans who vied last year to oppose Davis, but his money dried up amid Bush White House retaliation for his 2000 primary support of John McCain.

State Senator Tom McClintock, who represents northwest L.A. County and Ventura County, virtually announced his candidacy at a Friday-night banquet attended by 1,000 roaring Republicans. McClintock came within an eyelash of defeating eBay multimillionaire Steve Westly for state controller, getting more votes than any other Republican challenger, and has added stature as a longtime critic of the state’s budget practices.

And then there is Bill Simon. In public, at the launch of his new group, the California Grassroots Leadership Committee, Simon exhibited his familiar blandly noncommittal manner. But privately, according to sources, he is signaling Republican insiders that he intends to run for U.S. senator next year against incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer or for governor again, and that he is considering helping fund the recall.

In contrast, the strongest Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has a busy year ahead that has nothing to do with recalling Davis. He is already promoting Terminator 3: War of the Machines, one of the biggest titles of the summer movie season, working with director James Cameron on the sequel to their ’90s hit True Lies, which had the superstar as a secret agent battling Islamic terrorists, and later this year will launch a string of health clubs.

Longtime Davis consigliere Garry South, who just left the governor’s service last month to pursue presidential politics, is working on organizing a “Save Gray Committee.” If the recall qualifies, that may take some doing. If any Democrat runs in the simultaneous election to replace Davis, that lends bipartisan legitimacy no matter who is running the recall campaign. Of course, no one is saying now that he or she would run.

Some around Davis expect that Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, usually absent from his running mate’s side during the campaign, would see a multicandidate race in which all it takes to win is a plurality as his best shot at the governorship.

Other Democrats note that State Treasurer Phil Angelides has already made an unusual campaign-style move, doing a swing around the state earlier this month touting the need to raise taxes to preserve education funding, which is not the way Davis has structured his budget.

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