A New Deck

Embattled Governor Gray Davis’ political operation is in full swing against the accelerating drive to recall him. But his effort is rife with contradictions and a troubling surrendering to Indian casino interests that the governor had previously been counting on to help solve the state’s historic budget crisis.

Last week, Davis went to Banning to celebrate the opening of the new Morongo tribe casino, which he lauded as a breakthrough for Native American self-reliance. It was a dramatic shift for him, prompted in no small degree by a visit his chief adversary and recall champion, Congressman Darrell Issa (R–San Diego), had paid to representatives of four casino tribes a few weeks before. Since January, when Davis announced that he intended to renegotiate the state’s compact with the casino tribes to extract billions in new revenue, stories circulated that the tribes, now among the most well-heeled and powerful players in the state, might back a recall.

Now, Davis has backed away from his proposal. By the time he submitted his revised May budget, after the Issa meeting at the Morongo casino site, the proposed big revenues from Indian casinos were a thing of the past.

It’s too early to know if Davis’ embrace of the tribes will pay off in the recall campaign. But his new approach to Indian casinos did not end in Banning. Although he has opposed casinos in metropolitan areas, his administration is backing a Miwok casino in the San Francisco Bay Area at Port Sonoma, next door to Marin County. The unlikely champion of this venture is liberal Senator Barbara Boxer, whose son, Douglas, is both a lobbyist for the proposed casino and a partner in the company which owns the land on which the casino would be built.

While Davis makes peace with California’s latest big special interest, his campaign efforts against the recall ramp up. Rather than run the campaign through the Davis committee, another group has formed, a group calling itself Taxpayers Against the Governor’s Recall.

Last week, at a news conference of the new anti-recall committee, firefighters-union chief Dan Terry declared, “This isn’t democracy, this is anarchy,” as the other leaders were nearly shouted down by pro-recall demonstrators. Presenting itself as a collection of high-minded civic leaders appalled by “a partisan attempt to rerun last year’s election,” the group is actually dominated by longtime close Davis associates.

Terry’s firefighters union, for example, routinely leased Gulfstream jets for Davis’ campaigns. While an assemblyman, Planning and Conservation League head Fred Keeley was a key point man in heading off legislative investigations of the governor. The group’s director, former state labor secretary Steve Smith, is a longtime Davis operative who acknowledges that he was involved in an abortive attempt to recall former Governor Pete Wilson. This is a rather embarrassing irony since one of the group’s main arguments is that the recall should be reserved for clear malfeasance rather than political differences.

The anti-recall committee has undertaken a number of political gambits to slow down or derail the recall. Former Los Angeles Ethics Commission president Raquelle de la Rocha has filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission alleging that Issa is violating the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law by soliciting corporate and soft-money contributions for the recall as a federal official.

In a sign of growing Republican establishment support for the recall, Issa has retained Washington lawyer Ben Ginsberg, general counsel for President Bush’s re-election campaign and strategist for the Florida recount, to fend off the elections commission’s complaint.

Despite all this attention to Issa’s finances, the anti-recall committee has been quite unforthcoming about its own. When asked last week about fund-raising, Terry said he did not know how much had been raised, an odd position since the committee had already hired hundreds of signature gatherers to circulate a pro-Davis petition. The group now says it won’t say until legally required to do so.

The pro-Davis petition — which decries “political bickering” and the $25 million expense of a recall election — has no legal standing, plays no official role in the political process and, unlike the recall petitions, will never be turned in for verification of the validity of its signers. In reality, it amounts to a clever way to hire circulators who might otherwise work for the recall. That’s why the anti-recall side is paying more than the recall side — $1 per signature vs. 75 cents. The fewer signature gatherers there are for the recall, the slower it will qualify. Issa and other recall backers have until September 2, and few doubt they can make that deadline. But that would put the recall on the March presidential primary ballot, which may feature a spirited Democratic contest.

Avoiding a special election in November is key to the Davis strategy to defeat the recall. So the Issa team is planning several big mailings of recall petitions to get the signatures turned in next month and foil yet another anti-recall gambit, a hoped-for slow certification of signatures by county elections officials and Democratic Secretary of State Kevin Shelley.


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