Photo by Ted Soqui
The announcements by top Democrats that they will not run for governor in a recall election could backfire for Gray Davis. Any advantage offered by his party’s united front could be washed away by the embattled governor’s raising of the vehicle-license fee and more signs that Arnold Schwarzenegger will run.
Davis thinks Democratic voters are more likely to oppose the recall if there are no Democrats running in the simultaneous election to replace him. But such a strategy carries a huge risk. It hands the governorship to Republicans if he is recalled.
It’s not Davis’ first lapse of judgment about the recall. Early on, he tried to stop professional signature gatherers from joining the campaign to run him out of office. But he could not overcome superrich Congressman Darrell Issa’s money. Then Davis forces launched a counterpetition to siphon off signature gatherers and, if not stop, at least slow the recall drive to avoid a special election this fall and defer the recall to the March primary election.
Some Democratic strategists now think that plan will fail, too, though recall forces turned in about 50,000 fewer signatures by June 16 than advertised. Recall coordinator David Gilliard says some of those arrived in far-flung county offices after that particular deadline and that they have 900,000 total with more coming from mailings. Nine hundred thousand valid signatures are needed, 1.2 million total signatures to be sure there are enough.
Recall forces talked of a symbolic end to the signature drive on July 4 but will now keep going for at least another week to force a special election this fall. It’s much easier to get on the March primary ballot, when more Democrats may vote in the presidential primary; that deadline is September 2.
Whether or not there is a recall this fall looks like a close call. But it may not be to Democrats’ advantage to defer. Schwarzenegger consigliere George Gorton says he expects legal delaying tactics to move the recall to next March. If no Democrat is on the ballot, that would advantage the superrich action star, a moderate.
Schwarzenegger now looks like he will run. He is mostly promoting Terminator 3, which opens July 2, around the world now, though he did find time to join Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali to open the Special Olympics in Ireland over the weekend. “Arnold and [ex–L.A. Mayor Dick] Riordan,” says a top Republican strategist, “have agreed that one or the other will run in the recall and that they will work together. Riordan isn’t running.”
Other Republicans, all conservatives, are stirring, too. Issa is already running. Bill Simon Jr. is telling people he wants to run. One top Capitol Republican predicted, “He will announce any day now.”
State Senator Tom McClintock (R–Thousand Oaks) has a horse to ride with Davis’ raising of the vehicle-license fee, as does the recall campaign. There will be an initiative to repeal it. The issue has a Proposition 13 feel to it, and Davis’ long effort to avoid having his fingerprints on it failed. The vehicle-license fees pay for local government services like police and fire. When politicians from both parties cut the fee five years ago, the state agreed to make up the difference from its now overspent general fund. With the state’s finances shredded, the vehicle-license fee is being tripled, generating $4.2 billion.
But Republican obstructionism on the still-stalled budget could backfire in a close recall vote. Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte denied that he consulted with White House political guru Karl Rove about budget strategy, and said he needed no coaching before he threatened Republican lawmakers that their political futures would be over if they voted for tax increases. Last week, Brulte would not discuss Rove’s role, and his office produced this well-crafted sentence for him: “I have purposely not talked to the White House in the past two months.” The calculating statement raised as many questions as it tried to answer: Why mention two months? What about e-mails? What about Rove?
“It’s ridiculous for him to say that,” said one ranking Republican. “This is one of the biggest issues going, he talks with them all the time, his bio says he’s the president’s ‘main man’ in California.” Brulte’s bio also features, yes, Karl Rove saying, “Brulte is our political brains and insightful wizard in California.”
When Brulte did talk about the matter this week, he was less than wizardly with the Weekly in discussing the White House (“you have my denial”) and his hardball threat to campaign in Republican primaries against any legislator with the temerity to back a tax hike. “I merely wanted to express my sentiments,” he said blandly, before acknowledging that he unveiled fund-raising and advertising campaigns. “If they have the courage of their convictions,” it shouldn’t matter if he campaigns against them. At first he claimed this was not new for him, but then admitted he had only threatened only Democrats before. He also acknowledged that he’s no anti-tax zealot: “Yes, I have voted for tax increases.”
When asked if he’s for the recall, Brulte slipped the question: “I haven’t taken a position.” By intimidating Republicans from voting any tax hikes, Brulte does more for the recall than any endorsement would. The Assembly Republicans’ budget point man, John Campbell, is less artful than Brulte, helping raise money for the recall campaign even as he supposedly negotiates with Davis on the budget.