Here’s my early endorsement for this November‘s California gubernatorial election: anybody but Gray Davis. Literally, anybody. If there’s no other choice, I‘d even grow a beard, buy the wife a burka and write in the name of John Walker Lindh.

California ranks as the sixth largest economy in the world; we face a crushing $12 billion budget deficit. We build jails instead of schools. The public schools we do have are getting sued for lack of textbooks. Lobbyists from the utility monopolies, prison guards and Indian gambling interests run the state Legislature. The electricity crisis is merely in remission. Traffic is gridlocked. The air is toxic. And we are the very epicenter of tectonic, global demographic and economic shifts.

So how does the great Gray ghost of a governor kick off his re-election campaign? With a down-in-the-gutter, vile, sordid, nauseating, morally cretinous, $1.5-million-a-week, 30-second TV spot trashing his most likely opponent, Richard Riordan, for having made some political donations (more than a decade ago) to some anti-choice groups.

Forget that Riordan is unequivocally pro-choice. That he also gave money — much more recently — to pro-choice Dianne Feinstein. Or that in last week’s inaugural GOP primary debate, Riordan had the courage to tell his fellow state Republicans that the party platform‘s anti-abortion plank ”threatens to turn us from an endangered species into an extinct species.“

More to the point, what would it matter even if Riordan were a good Catholic and opposed abortion? Like the future of California hinges on that personal conviction?

Gray Davis, and the political hatchet gang running his campaign, of course, know they are smearing Riordan. But they are also grievously insulting the rest of us. With Riordan running neck and neck with Davis in the polls, Davis’ campaign plans to send out a pack of for-hire dogs who will bark any doubtful Democrats dutifully back into the fold and rush them obediently into the voting booths as they sheepishly bay ”Roe-Roe-Roe.“

With the launch of Davis‘ first attack ad, it’s clear the governor is going to run a classic scorched-earth campaign right out of the right-wing Lee Atwater‘s textbook — the sort of blitz Poppy Bush used to smoke Michael Dukakis.

Riordan can dodge the assault and even turn it back. And he could do more. Richard Riordan has a historic opportunity to redeem himself and rescue his party from the Pete Wilson debacle. To do so, he would have to run in the great tradition of former California Republican governors. We can start with the legendary Hiram Johnson. As a reform-driven Progressive Republican, Johnson took office in 1910 and immediately broke the political back of the Southern Pacific railroad and ushered in a golden period of reform, including the institution of initiative and recall laws, direct primary elections, the eight-hour day for woman and child workers, the workers-compensation act, free textbooks, teacher pensions, and tighter government regulation of the utilities and railroads (please note that last point, all you ”liberal“ legislative Democrats who deregulated our power giants).

Or Riordan could look to a more recent example. The progressivism of Republican Earl Warren, the only California governor to win three successive elections, makes Gray Davis appear, by comparison, what he really is: a calculating corporate toady with a heart and soul about as compassionate as an ATM machine. Warren was so popular, and so liberal, that he won his second term in 1946 unopposed — he won both the Republican and Democratic primaries.

I saw at least a glimpse of that tradition last week during the GOP debate when Riordan — referring to undocumented workers and their children — rather angrily rebutted the anti-immigrant rhetoric of rivals Bill Jones and Bill Simon Jr., saying that in spite of anyone’s legal status, they have a ”God-given right to a quality education and quality health care.“

Riordan‘s got a very long way to go before we dare start comparing him to Earl Warren, but the ex-mayor’s independent instinct is nevertheless palpable. What a gift it would be to the voters of California if Old Dick made the leap not to get down in the mud and run against Gray Davis, but if he rose to a position of running over and around the morally stunted chief executive. Why not shoot the moon, Dick? You‘ve already broken with the Republicans on choice and immigration. Why not appropriate the mantle of Johnson and Warren and promise to restore California’s faded glory? Call for a tax increase on corporations. For an overturning of Proposition 13. For a massive public-works program that will rebuild our public infrastructure. For an emergency reform and re-funding effort to return California‘s educational system to its national-leadership position. Promise to build a dozen more UCs and Cal States. Leave the Lilliputian Gray Davis chattering alone in a corner.

Okay. Okay. I got carried away. But how about half of those measures? This is not only a moral imperative. It’s the only way Dick can win.

Dick‘s telling all his friends that he really, really, really does want to run an out-of-the-box, risky, forward-facing campaign. If that’s true, then he‘s going to have to dump his own collection of morally suspect barnacles that have glommed onto his campaign. First, this crew generates a target-rich environment for Davis’ coming search-and-destroy maneuvers. Second, these masterminds are sending Riordan out against one of the great political capos of our time armed with virtually no message other than boilerplate right out of the Cliffs Notes for Political Consulting 101. The Riordan team, stupidly, believes it can run him the same way he ran against Mike Woo in the mayoral race of 1993. ”Tough enough to turn the state around.“

Ha! Tough? You want to talk toughness? Davis and his wartime consigliere, Garry South, regularly breakfast on hairy, little tough muffins like so many beer nuts. California doesn‘t need toughness. It needs greatness.

Time to clean house, Dick. Start with your campaign co-chair Clint Reilly. Truly one of the most unctuous, universally reviled elements in California backroom politics, Reilly is the genius who, when working for Kathleen Brown, squandered her 20-point lead and let Pete Wilson get re-elected (and Riordan’s only working with a 4- to 5-point margin). And the inept Reilly is working with Riordan only to identify future funding sources for what will inevitably be one more of his own failed bids to get elected mayor of San Francisco.

Then there‘s Riordan media consultant Don Sipple. Dubbed a ”moral cripple“ by columnist Arianna Huffington, Sipple is most famous for having cooked up the odiously xenophobic ”They Keep Coming“ TV spots for the pro–Proposition 187 jihad in 1994 (and for being accused of punching around some ex-wives). Can’t you just imagine the paint-peeling ads that Davis and South are mixing up that will hang that flopping albatross around Dick‘s neck?

Riordan should also can his ”policy adviser“ Joel Fox. An affable enough fellow, Fox is nevertheless a political dinosaur. An anti-tax fundamentalist, Fox is one of the godfathers of Prop. 13 and hasn’t had an original political idea since protesting the Stamp Act.

Let Riordan be Riordan. Or at least the Riordan he claims he wants to be. Help us retire Gray Davis to some investment house where he belongs. And for heaven‘s sake, Dick, give me someone else to vote for other than Talib Johnny Walker.

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