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Californians get chance to oust governor

A Republican-led drive gets more than enough signatures for a recall vote. Gray Davis vows to fight.

By Times Wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2003

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Democrat Gray Davis will have to fight to keep his job this fall in the nation's first gubernatorial recall election in 82 years, state officials announced Wednesday after tallying the results of a Republican-led petition drive that seemed farfetched just months ago.

Secretary of State Kevin Shelley said in a news conference that counties had reported 1.3-million valid petition signatures, well more than the 897,158 required for the recall to make it on the ballot.

"This is the first statewide special election in California's history. The challenges are profound," Shelley said. "This could very well be one of the most important ballots our citizens ever cast."

Davis, 60, is a career politician who is less than one year removed from winning a second consecutive term, but his popularity has plunged in recent months amid California's $38-billion budget deficit, its energy crisis and its slumping economy.

He branded the Republican-led drive to oust him "a hostile takeover by the right" and said he will fight and win. "In a strange way, this has got my juices flowing," he told the Associated Press on Wednesday. "I'm a fighter."

The only declared major-party candidate so far is Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who bankrolled the recall drive. Other potential Republican candidates include businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in November, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The state's Democratic officeholders have closed ranks behind Davis and say they will not run.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante was expected today to schedule an election, which could be held as early as Sept. 23.

The election will send the state into uncharted political and legal territory that had officials here consulting election lawyers in a dizzying state of uncertainty.

Some basic aspects of the vote remained in contention. Chief among them was whether Bustamante would set a two-part ballot, one determining Davis' fate and one choosing a possible successor.

Some Democrats now say they believe that Bustamante, who does not have warm relations with the current governor, is required only to call a thumbs-up-thumbs-down vote on Davis. The presumption had been that the lieutenant governor also had to give voters the chance to select a replacement.

Some experts say that no such election is necessary because the state Constitution provides for the elevation of the lieutenant governor to the governorship when the office is vacant.

Bustamante says the decision on a replacement candidate should be up to the state Supreme Court or an obscure five-member body known as the Commission on the Governorship.

Davis allies appealed to the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to block the recall from making the ballot, alleging illegal signature gathering by recall backers, but the court was not expected to act immediately.

Recent polls have indicated that while the vote would be close, Davis would lose in a recall. The last gubernatorial recall election was in 1921, when North Dakota Gov. Lynn J. Frazier was removed from office.

Davis' room to maneuver has been further eroded by extensive lawmaking by the public through the initiative process, which has tied the hands of elected officials by limiting the amount of taxes that can be collected and directing how much of the revenue that is raised can be spent.

Between 1978 and 2000, more than 600 statewide initiative petitions were circulated, 118 issues appeared on the ballot and 52 passed. The subjects ranged from prison terms to car insurance rates. Roughly a quarter concerned how the state raises and spends tax money.

Proposition 13, which passed in 1978, not only cut property taxes in half statewide but required a two-thirds vote to raise new local taxes to replace them. Proposition 98, passed a decade later, required that 40 percent of state revenues go directly to public schools. When mandatory health care spending is factored in, little discretionary money is left for the governor and Legislature to adjust to produce a balanced budget.

Term limits, meanwhile, which were also imposed through public initiative, and gerrymandered legislative districts have produced a Legislature that is inexperienced, highly polarized and seemingly immune to compromise.

The result, many experts say, is a state that is virtually ungovernable.

"There is a climate of suspicion here that no one in California can govern us so we have to willy-nilly govern ourselves," said D.J. Waldie, a longtime local official in Lakewood, a suburb of Los Angeles. "We have in essence a fourth branch of government - the initiative - and that's a difficult place to be."

But more than California's history of direct democracy has conspired to bring Davis to this extraordinary moment.

A state budget shortfall, already of record proportions last fall, had nearly doubled by this summer, setting off new rounds of partisan rancor in Sacramento as programs were slashed, new taxes debated and an apathetic public roused by their pocketbooks.

Davis, whom polls showed to be hugely unpopular even as he won re-election in November, found he had no reservoir of good will among the electorate to draw upon as the state descended into political chaos.

But the real fuel for the recall came from Issa, who pumped $1.71-million of his fortune from a car-alarm business into the drive starting in May. That transformed it from a long-shot nursed by Republican activists into a reality. Thirty-one previous attempts to recall California governors had failed to reach the ballot.

Polls have also shown that voters are also concerned about the $30-million to $35-million cost of a special election, and about the prospect that a candidate could win with relatively few votes.

- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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