California recall campaign just initiation of nightmare

Friday, July 11, 2003 at 1:00am

California's at it again. The land of goofy politics is about to hit another low point. With a state budget deficit of major proportions staring them in the face, the voters are about to hold a $30 million special election to recall their governor. Like much of the political foolishness that emanates from the Golden State, this statewide recall campaign (California's first), which could throw the state into even greater financial and political instability, is likely to reverberate for years to come.

Democrat Gray Davis holds a pathetic 22 percent approval rating, according to the most recent Los Angeles Times poll. But the voters knew what they were getting when they re-elected him governor just last year. No scandal has emerged since then. The budget crisis is real, but California is just one of many states enmeshed in fiscal follies. And Gray's approval rating isn't the lowest in the nation. Montana Republican Judy Martz takes that honor with a 20 percent score.

What has happened in California is that an ambitious, rich Republican has found what he sees as a way to win statewide election. Republicans have fared so badly in California in recent years that attempts to win by playing by the rules seem doomed. So Rep. Darrell Issa has used his personal millions to seize on Gray's unpopularity in an effort to reach the statehouse through the recall provision.

Issa hired professional signature gatherers to roam the state collecting names on petitions demanding a recall of Davis. The recall supporters claim to have amassed well over the 900,000 signatures necessary to force a special election this fall. In that election, voters would first be asked whether they want to throw out Davis and then be given a list of alternative candidates. If Davis goes, the person on the list with the highest number of votes would win. Issa thinks he can buy the name recognition to be that person. (In yet another bit of California political theater, Arnold Schwarzenegger might also be thinking of running.)

The fact that there are professional signature gatherers for hire in California tells you what's wrong with the whole recall idea. Such tools of direct democracy were designed as ways around what was seen as a corrupt legislature, bought and paid for by the railroads. A grassroots movement, with enough signatures to show its legitimacy, could theoretically work its will by putting a proposition directly on the ballot.

The big-money interests soon caught on to the system and started circumventing the legislature on all kinds of special-interest items. First, the supporters hire the professional signature gatherers. Then they bring on lawyers to press their claims before the secretary of state, and then they flood the airwaves with commercials touting their cause. A system intended to thwart big money is now its tool.

Seeing the pervasiveness of the direct-ballot initiatives, some sensible Californians are wary of the recall. "This recall will almost certainly lead to political retribution and the use of recall as the newest political weapon of mass destruction," Scott Barnett of Republicans Against the Recall told ABC News.

No kidding. Any time any officeholder looks weak, a well-organized opposition could mount a recall campaign. The mischief making would be endless, not only for elections but also for governing. Democrats in the California Legislature are already complaining that Republicans are unwilling to compromise on a budget agreement because they think deadlock strengthens the case for recalling Davis. "Mass destruction" might be a polite term for the chaos this latest crazy California scheme could create.

Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts are syndicated columnists.

Filed under: City Voices