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Taking Down Gray

NOTHING LIKE A HUGE budget problem and an abysmally low approval rating of 24 percent to spur talk of recalling Governor Gray Davis. The latest dump-Davis campaign kicked off last week at a Capitol press conference, starring People’s Advocate head Ted Costa and controversial outgoing state Republican chairman Shawn Steel. Democratic protesters marred the camera backdrop with signs proclaiming “Steel is a lunatic.” Just before the Costa/Steel press conference, another Davis recall group, headed by former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, a not especially well-known figure, launched a Web site and Internet organizing drive.

But it’s not just the lunatics who are plotting an overthrow. The Weekly has learned that major players have been conferring for months about recalling Davis. Indeed, though his spokespeople officially pooh-pooh a recall, a top Davis adviser wearily bemoans the situation, recalling Al Pacino’s line from The Godfather, Part III: “‘Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.’ I take this recall seriously given the crazy conditions right now.”

Talk of recalling the governor started in the days after Davis’ surprisingly narrow re-election victory over his very weak Republican foe, investor Bill Simon Jr., last November. Some Republicans say that Costa, whose group has qualified statewide initiatives, and Steel jumped out in front of a parade that may have already been forming. Even former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan has been conferring with political operatives about participating in the recall. Riordan, who is traveling, has not returned calls to his residence, which is staffed, last week and this week. And Simon’s former campaign chief, Sal Russo, is involved in the recall effort. Simon himself is interested in helping fund the effort. Russo and Simon have not returned calls.

How serious is Riordan? “You know how Dick is,” says one Riordan associate. “He talks through that amiably ironic veil. But he thinks the state is going to hell in a hand basket under Davis and like always wants to save the day.” And he is smarting over Davis’ destruction of his once front-running gubernatorial candidacy in last March’s Republican primary. Riordan is certainly serious enough to be consulting with people about it, including former Jimmy Carter pollster Pat Caddell, an old friend and adviser who was once one of the national Democratic Party’s top strategists. He first started talking up a Davis recall the Friday after the election.

Simon campaign chief Russo is working with the Kaloogian recall committee, which launched its Web site and Internet organizing effort just before Costa and Steel held their press conference. (Both committees say they want to find a way to work together.) “Sal likes to work through cutouts,” notes a Republican source. The Internet domain name for the Web site was registered by a former Russo employee, and Kaloogian, who heads the committee, was a Russo client.

Kaloogian himself, reached at home, acknowledged that he is working with Russo. Though Davis was just re-elected three months ago, Kaloogian, a conservative Republican who represented northern San Diego County, maintains that his election was “illegitimate. The people didn’t have the opportunity to make an informed choice,” he says. “Davis covered up the true extent of the budget crisis.”

Costa and Kaloogian both say that the effort must be broadened beyond Republicans to succeed. While potentially a great unifier for the ailing and fractious California Republican Party — its state convention in a week and a half could turn into a raucous get-Gray rally — the recall-Davis campaign could also look like the ultimate political sour grapes. Riordan, Simon and the Republicans were all defeated by Davis last year in the regularly scheduled elections.

“If it’s Sal Russo and Bill Simon taking the lead, this is not going to work,” declares Caddell, who was also a consultant to the hit West Wing TV series.

“Gray Davis is the epitome of everything that is wrong with American politics. This has to be broader, a reinvention of the old California progressive movement to clean up the state.”

But so far, Caddell is the only Democratic name attached to the effort. Costa and others allude to potential support from the powerful California Teachers Association, smarting from proposed budget cuts and headed by Davis critic Wayne Johnson, but it’s not easy to see the membership going along since they could well end up worse off under a Republican. Former State Controller Kathleen Connell, who was not available for comment, is also talked about. She is a longtime Davis critic, having scuffled with him early on when both had designs on the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and was an early voice last year in saying the budget crisis would be much worse than thought at the time.

Whether more name Democrats take public positions or not, a Davis recall could well take on a life of its own, as top Democratic strategists privately acknowledge. “Everyone is mad at Gray,” says one, “because of this budget thing, and he wasn’t popular to begin with. Everyone’s ox will be gored by budget solutions. It’s not like Simon, who was a great target. Voters don’t have to agree with each other, they just have to be mad enough at Gray to risk the unknown.”

Right-wing talk radio, which seethes with resentment of anything Democratic, could play a major role, as could the Internet, along with more traditional means of signature gathering such as street petitioners and direct mail to conservatives.

Yet a recall could receive non-Republican legitimacy simply by nature of the process. For a recall election would be two-fold: yes or no on Davis and a simultaneous election to replace Davis if he is recalled. And unlike the recall, which requires a majority vote to oust the governor, his replacement would be selected by a mere plurality. If no Democrat runs — however regretfully, of course — the governorship would be handed over to the Republicans. The logic of the situation may well dictate Democratic participation in an election which exists to oust a Democratic governor.

The biggest Republican name, moderate action-movie superstar turned initiative promoter Arnold Schwarzenegger, is keeping his distance from the recall. Schwarzenegger ranks with U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein as the most popular of California’s political figures. But if a recall qualifies and is not overly tainted by its origins, he or anyone else can file as a candidate.

In the arcane recall process, Davis has until the end of this week to issue a formal statement responding to the notice-of-intent-to-recall petition filed by Costa and Steel, though he need not do so. Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, a San Francisco Democrat, then must determine whether there are 65 valid signatures on the petition and whether its language is in accordance with state law. Once that is done, which could be as soon as the end of the month, the gathering of 897,000 valid signatures can begin in earnest. Proponents will have 160 days to get them. If they take the full 160 days allowed by law, the recall election would occur at the same time as the March 2004 primary elections, because state law requires that recalls only occur as special elections if they are certified more than six months before a regularly scheduled election. If the recall qualifies faster than that, then it would be a special election taking place within three months of the recall drive’s signature certification. In either case, candidates can file in the simultaneous election to replace Davis anytime until two months before the election. Which gives Schwarzenegger and potential Democratic candidates months in which to figure out their moves.

Free from the need to raise big money for the first time in 30 years, Davis, California’s all-time champion fund-raiser, has been much more relaxed and accessible than he was during his first term as governor, even in the face of the budget crisis. Ironically, were he to face a recall election, Davis would be free of the state’s new campaign-finance limits. Which means he could again raise unlimited sums.