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A Shot at Davis

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 consigliere Garry South at last year’s Republican State Convention in Silicon Valley. “Do you know who that was?” the Weekly asked 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.

Bader is “different,” say those who know him. It seems that he only comes out at night, as the head of Issa’s new recall committee, David Gilliard, acknowledges. Which, if Issa is our would-be Batman, makes a perfect match.

Before Issa, the recall was sputtering. Recall leaders variously claimed that 200,000 petitions had been downloaded from the Internet, then 70,000 petitions, then it was 450,000 petitions. But when Costa and former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian (who the Weekly revealed was fronting for former Bill Simon campaign chief Sal Russo) called an event last week outside the Capitol to announce that they were turning in the first big batch of signatures, they claimed only 100,000 or so. Though their forces were outnumbered by pro-Davis demonstrators, they pointed to the boxes of signatures they said marked a historic event. Previous gubernatorial-recall attempts never got to the point of turning in enough signatures to be counted.

As it happened, the boxes of signatures to recall Davis were actually empty, as empty as the claims that the effort was on track. At that rate, considering that perhaps a quarter of the signatures gathered for ballot measures are invalid, the recall would take another 12 months to qualify, and there are less than four in which to do it and make the November ballot.

Unintentionally entertaining as the anti-Davis side is, the pro-Davis team is in its own disarray. Though Sacramento consultant/lobbyist David Townsend and San Francisco lawyer/lobbyist Jeremiah Hallisey have been important advisers and string-pullers, it’s unclear who would run the public pro-Davis drive in the event of a recall election. Garry South wants to move on to presidential politics, and there was dissension on the Davis team in the closing days of last November’s election over Davis’ decision to cut his positive TV ads in favor of negative advertising that depressed Simon’s vote, and his own. Right after the election, a story appeared crediting Bill Clinton rather than Davis himself with the strategy of taking out threatening moderate Republican rival Dick Riordan in the primary election.

Then there is money. The Weekly consistently had the highest estimates of Davis’ spending on his re-election, ending at $70 million just before the election. Actually, Davis spent $78 million, leaving him with only $1.4 million in the bank. He’s broke. Since then, though the word has gone out to supporters that the recall could be a serious threat, he has had no fund-raisers, but he does have one later this month, a private golf-tournament event hosted by Clint Eastwood in Carmel. It costs $5,000 to get in. A Platinum Sponsor has to contribute $25,000, which buys eight golfing slots and, of course, face time with the governor. Which raises an interesting question. Will Dirty Harry and the Terminator face off this year over the fate of the Gray Guv?

Unless the hard-nosed Issa unaccountably takes a dive and the recall somehow does not qualify, the chaos theory for 2003 is endless. But Arnold Schwarzenegger may not be in position to take advantage. A meticulous planner, Schwarzenegger had pegged this as a big business year, with Terminator 3 out for the Fourth of July and a string of exercise clubs and another blockbuster in the works. So perhaps the colorful Mr. Issa or someone else you don’t know will end up as our governor. You never know. All it takes is a majority vote to oust Davis and a plurality of votes in the simultaneous election to replace him. Is your wheel locked?

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