By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Congressman Darrell Issa has turned the sputtering drive to recall embattled Governor Gray Davis into a real thing. But the very rich Republican car-alarm-business owner from San Diego also has enough personal baggage to keep him from becoming the next governor.
Issa (Ice-uh), who’s of Lebanese descent and recently visited the president of Syria on a peacemaking mission, has hired a professional signature-gathering firm that will deploy 400 workers in San Diego, Orange County, Fresno and Sacramento. In coming weeks, the effort will expand to much of inland California. He’s also planning a million-piece mailing of recall petitions to the Republican faithful. Money is no object for Issa, who’s made $200 million selling car alarms.
Issa has given seemingly confusing signals about his involvement since his name surfaced last month as the potential patron of the anti-Davis movement. So much so that the Los Angeles Times and other media expressed skepticism about it, especially since Issa had put up only $100,000 as of last week. Of course, if Issa let it be known that he will simply pay for the recall, it would be hard to get others to contribute or to avoid becoming a distracting issue.
“It’s very problematic when any one person funds a ballot measure,” notes Issa political consultant Scott Taylor, who ran the congressman’s near-miss campaign for the 1998 Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, in which Issa spent $10 million out of his own pocket. “Tim Draper [a Silicon Valley figure who spearheaded the latest school-voucher initiative] signaled he would do that at the start and became a target way beyond what he might have been otherwise.”
Draper had a far less tasty background than Issa, a pugnacious and intelligent multimillionaire who engaged in a heated confrontation with longtime Davis consigliereGarry South at last year’s Republican State Convention in Silicon Valley. “Do you know who that was?” the Weeklyasked South. “Uh, one of their state senators,” came the reply. Told it was instead Congressman Issa, South looked thoughtful for a moment, then deadpanned, “Think he was armed?”
Having survived earlier allegations of arson and car theft, the surging Issa lost the 1998 Republican Senate nomination when it came out days before the primary that he had brandished a handgun at an employee during an office confrontation. “Shots were never fired, I don’t recall having a gun,” Issa said, to the reassurance of no one. Then–State Treasurer Matt Fong had just enough support to hold off Issa, going on to lose to Senator Barbara Boxer in the fall.
The gun incident happened not long after Issa, in 1982, seized control of the company that launched his success in the hard-nosed car-alarm business by taking advantage of an Ohio law allowing a creditor to win judgment against a debtor without the debtor’s presence or knowledge. Issa had loaned $60,000 to the owner of a company with valuable car-alarm technology, and the company’s stock was put up as collateral. Issa had had the same sort of loan repaid a year earlier and agreed to give company founder Joseph Adkins, who, like many start-up entrepreneurs, had cash-flow issues, more time to repay the new loan.
Saying later that he had just learned the company was in worse straits than he had realized, Issa instead went to court and won a judgment giving him the company’s stock, then phoned a stunned Adkins and told him his erstwhile company had a new boss. But there were still business problems. Seven months later, not long after insurance coverage had been increased and a key computer removed, fire swept through Issa’s Cleveland-area manufacturing plant. Arson was suspected, but no charges were filed. Still, the insurance company wouldn’t pay, and Issa sued, ending up with a lesser out-of-court settlement.
By 1985, Issa had moved operations to San Diego, where he became known by rivals and former partners as a very tough and shrewd businessman, later becoming head of the Consumer Electronics Association. The brushes with the law — which began with an arrest at 18 for allegedly stealing a Maserati with his brother (charges were dropped) — seemed to be in his rearview mirror. Well, except for a Border Patrol memo leaked to a San Diego newspaper claiming that Issa was pulled over after he roared past a checkpoint doing 90 in a construction zone. His explanation, according to his unfriendly federal colleagues, was to point out that they were not the Highway Patrol and he was a congressman “in my area.”
Whatever one makes of that and other such things, and you can bet Democrats will make much of it, Issa is an intriguing festival of contradictions, playing peacemaker in Damascus one week, emulating Batman the next week. He seemed to be running for senator again, not governor, hoping to take on Barbara Boxer, who always looks vulnerable yet always wins. But advisers say he has been following California’s woes closely and, as a take-charge businessman type, thinks it is time for somebody to, well, take charge.
Issa may be a mercurial rich guy, but he can definitely make the recall election happen. Davis allies had succeeded in warning virtually every signature-gathering firm off the recall effort. One that had committed, headed by Republican Mike Arno, ended up dumping the recall in favor of a transit measure sponsored by Davis allies in Silicon Valley. Lately, insiders have buzzed about Arno scooping up 50 to 100 signature gatherers who might sign on to a recall bid and sending them to Washington, where, as one wag puts it, they watch SportsCenter. But the head of one firm, Tom Bader, told recall-petition author Ted Costa that he would do it, but only if he knew big money was on the table. He just signed on with Issa.