In America, children are raised to believe that anyone with enough ambition, talent and luck can grow up to become president. In California, voters are about to find out that anyone with $3,500 and 65 friends can at least try to become governor.
By Thursday afternoon, with nine days to go before the deadline for declaring a candidacy in the Oct. 7 recall election, more than 200 people statewide had taken the first step of filing papers with their county registrars.
Hollywood billboard fixture Angelyne has pulled papers with the Los Angeles County registrar. So has sometime pornographer Larry Flynt.
Michael Jackson, Bill Murray and Steve Young are angling to run -- though not the Michael Jackson, Bill Murray, or Steve Young.
Other doppelgangers include a San Leandro Republican called Bob Dole, a San Francisco Democrat named Dan Feinstein, the mysterious S. Issa of Arcadia, and a clutch of Davises.
Roughly 50 possible candidates have paid the nonrefundable fee, raising the possibility of a ballot scores or even hundreds of names long. The standard punch-card ballot can accommodate about 300 names; after that, poll workers would have to give each voter two cards, a daunting prospect for election officials.
For the politicians interested in launching a serious challenge to Gov. Gray Davis, the proliferation of candidates offers a host of problems, some logistical, others strategic.
Voters might get confused if too many unknown candidates end up on the ballot, said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “Normally, folks like that might turn up in a primary and then get weeded out,” he said. “This time, they’re going to end up in the main event.”
Moreover, part of Davis’ strategy is likely to rely on exploiting the presence of fringe or joke candidates to encourage voters to reject the recall, he said.
Davis and other Democrats could warn voters that “if the four or five major candidates split the ‘sensible’ vote, then conceivably, a fringe candidate with a famous name or a following could sneak up on them,” Pitney said. “It ups the fear factor.”
Indeed, state Democratic Chairman Art Torres already has begun sounding that theme, saying that the recall had turned California into “the laughingstock of America.”
“It reminds me of that little car that goes into the circus arena,” he said in an interview. “All of a sudden, you can’t believe that 25 clowns are coming out of that car.”
The vast majority of the people who have taken out papers may not be clowns, but they certainly are political novices.
Among them are a few earnest activists who volunteer that they can help steer the state out of its troubles.
Georgy Russell, a 26-year-old Democrat from the Bay Area who is selling “Georgy for Governor” thong underwear and boxers on her Web site, says she will campaign for “clean elections, clean energy, and a cleaned-up criminal justice system.”
In Los Angeles, filmmaker Brian Flemming, the man behind the stage comedy “Bat Boy: The Musical,” announced he will run on a promise to resign in favor of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.
Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, a registered Democrat and a self-described “staunch civil libertarian,” paid his $3,500 filing fee Wednesday and said he will consider spending a substantial amount of his own money if the public takes his run seriously.
Flynt, whose holdings include several casinos, said he intends to promote the expansion of slot-machine gambling as a means of closing the state’s budget deficit.
“California is the most progressive state in the union,” he said. “I don’t think anyone here will have a problem with a smut peddler as governor.”
And then there are the outright opportunists. Art Brown, for example, a movie maker from Woodland Hills, is using the recall as a vehicle to publicize his forthcoming short film, which he advertises on his Web site.
All of them have given registrars at least a blank check toward the $3,500 filing fee, if not the full amount. Fresno and San Joaquin counties let candidates charge the fee on their credit cards.
“It’s not much,” Pitney said. “It needs to be adjusted for inflation.”
The fee is fixed by law at 2% of the governor’s $175,000 annual salary.
Candidates who have paid the fee upfront must still collect 65 to 100 signatures of voters registered to their own party. Otherwise, they can take out petitions to collect signatures in lieu of the fee, in which case the charge is prorated against the number of signatures they submit before the Aug. 9 deadline.
The portion of the election code that specifies the fee and signature requirements says that it does not apply to recalls. The secretary of state’s office is using it as a guideline because no other provision of the election code says what the fee should be, but already one opponent of the recall has asked the California Supreme Court to rule that the rules for getting on the ballot are improper.
For some candidates, getting donations to cover the fee is their first campaign hurdle.
Prospective candidate Steve “Integrity” Young, a comedian from the Valley who says he legally changed his middle name this week, answers his phone, “Hello, Steve Young for Governor, how much do you want to give us?”
On Monday, he listed his candidacy on Ebay, and though the Web site quickly delisted the auction, Young has so far collected $2,000 in pledges from friends. “If I get the $3,500, I’ll take it seriously,” he said.
In January, Young gained instant notoriety for putting his wife and two children up for sale on EBay, soon after the small Northern California town of Bridgeville put itself on the block. The recall candidacy, he said, started out as a similar prank.
“I started out planning to do the recall as an out-and-out joke,” said Young, who writes a column for the Jewish World News.
“But the more I talked to people, the more I found the idea of the recall to be a bad joke -- and what better person but a comedy writer to make a bad joke a good joke? The whole thing is absurd, so I fit right in.”
Young, who also jokes that Steve Young is a more recognizable name than Darrell Issa, may be joined in the celebrity double category by Jackson, Dole and Feinstein, a distant relative of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whom some Democrats would like to see enter the race.
An Andrew Davis and a Scott Davis have taken out their papers for the race, but two other Gray Davises -- who remind callers that they were born “Gray,” which the current governor acquired as a nickname -- say they do not intend to run.
“I’ve only run for the homeowners association,” said Gray Davis of San Ramon.
At least one of the non-mainstream candidates does have a high-profile campaign under her pink garter belt: Last year, Angelyne ran for mayor of Hollywood.
The entertainer/model/icon sent an assistant to take out papers in Norwalk Monday, after friends told the media she would run.
“Other people decided for me,” she said. “They told the press I was going to run before I’d decided -- and I thought it was so cute!”