The Anti-Firing Squad

Governor Gray Davis has signed on a new cast of advisers, mostly powerful insiders with deep connections to corporate California, to try to block a recall bid. "We have to assume this thing qualifies," says one source close to Davis.

Longtime political guru Garry South is no longer as involved as it seemed when he formed a "Save Gray Committee." South, who has been Davis' political consigliere for nine years, has other interests which include possible involvement in presidential politics. So, too, do others from the familiar cast of Davis consultants and strategists.

In their stead, the governor is increasingly relying on two extremely well-connected Democratic insiders, Sacramento political consultant/lobbyist David Townsend and San Francisco lawyer/lobbyist Jeremiah Hallisey, who represent some of the most powerful interests in California, including energy, technology, timber and banking. These men, according to sources, are working to discourage potential backers from contributing to the recall effort and to dissuade signature-gathering firms from aiding the recall drive. The recall effort needs 897,000 valid signatures of registered voters to qualify. Says one ranking Democrat: "The signature-gathering firms are being told that they can get business if they stay away from the recall."

Recall advocates have already lost the signature-gathering firm they thought they had locked up. Republican Mike Arno dropped out of the recall campaign just before it was announced that his firm would gather signatures for a petition calling on the Legislature to support lowering the two-thirds vote requirement on local transportation bond measures to 55 percent. The petition drive is sponsored by the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group. As it turns out, Townsend is working on the measure for the powerful trade organization, which is deeply concerned about traffic congestion in the high-tech mecca. He has worked with high-tech clients since the 1980s, when he ran the campaign of Dianne McKenna for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

Davis, by an odd coincidence, is convening a town hall meeting with the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group this week. "It's not that the [Silicon] Valley is in love with Gray," says one insider. "He's okay. But under the rules of the recall anybody with a plurality can become governor and there's a good chance that would be a nut."

Other signature-gathering firms are more Democratic than Arno's outfit, which, as the Weekly reported, had signed on last year with the big car companies in their aborted drive to overturn California's first-in-the-nation law cutting the emission of greenhouse gases. They, too, according to top Democrats, are getting the message from Team Davis.

Townsend, for his part, says only that he is "helping a little with understanding the initiative process."

With the signature-gathering firms out of play, recall advocates have to rely on right-wing talk radio and the Internet to organize volunteers. Or on direct mail, which is a more expensive means of gathering signatures. Recall supporters already have a direct-mail outfit onboard and that firm, owned by Sacramento Republican consultant Wayne Johnson, won't be dissuaded by Davis' inside game. He's a committed right-winger and longtime associate of state Senator Tom McClintock, who represents northwest L.A. County and Ventura County, and is a certain candidate for governor if the recall qualifies. But if recall advocates need to use direct mail to qualify, the cost goes up, which makes it less likely that the financial angels who have so far eluded the campaign will ante up.

A top Democrat says "the governor's people really want this thing, if it qualifies, to be on the March primary ballot next year," when California should see a spirited Democratic presidential primary while George W. Bush runs unopposed on the Republican side. Oddly enough, newly installed Secretary of State Kevin Shelly, a San Francisco Democrat and Davis ally when he was Assembly majority leader, just found a number of technical violations in the petition submitted by recall advocates, delaying the start of signature gathering for at least another few weeks. Recall advocates prefer a special election in which more conservative voters could predominate.

Republicans cite a poll showing 49 percent to 43 percent support for the recall. But the Los Angeles Times, which opposes the recall and gives the effort little coverage, published a poll last weekend showing that voters, by 51 percent to 39 percent, oppose the recall. A top Democrat scoffs at that. "It's a 40-40 proposition," he says. Indeed, the Times poll question is loaded with more arguments against the recall than arguments for.

"In the end, if this happens, this could be a close call," says a Davis associate. That's why the battle-hardened governor is doing everything in his power to shape the conflict before it even begins.

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