A flood of last-minute candidates surged into California’s unprecedented gubernatorial recall race Saturday, leaving as many as 158 headed for the ballot. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante emerged as the only well-known Democratic contender, while Hollywood superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the Republican field.
Shortly before the 5 p.m. deadline to file candidacy papers for the Oct. 7 special election, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi dropped out of the race under pressure from union leaders and fellow Democrats. His withdrawal was the final significant step in shaping the ballot for a race that has turned California politics into a bewildering television spectacle to viewers around the globe.
“This recall has become a circus,” Garamendi said outside the secretary of state’s office in Sacramento. “Every day that goes by, we move toward more chaos and further from serious contemplation of the fundamental reforms necessary to restore our governmental systems and the reputation of the state of California.”
Among the last to join a crowd of would-be governors that already featured Hustler magazine boss Larry Flynt and billboard pinup Angelyne were a travel agent, a sitcom writer, a structural engineer, a sumo wrestler and radio personality Jim “Poorman” Trenton, who called his campaign “a good way to meet women.”
At stake, however, is a state of 35 million with a stalled economy and deep political dysfunction that, by many accounts, has postponed California’s painful reckoning with a severe shortage of money to sustain schools, hospitals and other public services.
On the two-part recall ballot, Californians will first vote yes or no on a proposal to dump Davis, who won a landslide victory in 1998 and was reelected nine months ago.
Regardless of which choice they make on that portion of the ballot, voters can then pick a successor to Davis -- in case he is ousted -- from the candidate list that will be certified Wednesday by the secretary of state.
The ballot’s massive size threatens to make the election logistically impossible for a number of counties, elections officials said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 115 or 150 -- anything above 100 candidates and there are significant challenges to putting on an election,” said Contra Costa County Registrar Steve Weir, who tracked the statewide count.
County elections officials have labored overtime for weeks to certify the 1.6 million signatures that forced the recall effort onto the ballot. They now face a hugely shortened run-up to the election.
According to a tally by county registrars, 158 candidates filed the necessary combination of money and signatures before the deadline. Of those, at least two dozen had yet to be certified by Saturday evening and some could be stricken from the ballot. Two-thirds of the filers submitted their paperwork Saturday.
Although voters added the recall provision to the state Constitution 92 years ago, Californians have never recalled a statewide officeholder. The only governor ever recalled was North Dakota’s, in 1921.
The higher-profile Republicans who filed papers to run were state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, Schwarzenegger, Pacific Palisades investment banker Bill Simon Jr. and Peter V. Ueberroth of Laguna Beach, the former major league baseball commissioner who oversaw L.A.'s 1984 Olympics.
With his star power, Schwarzenegger effectively drowned out the rest of the candidates in the first four days of his campaign. He drew a horde of cameras Saturday morning to the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder’s office in Norwalk, where his arrival resembled the scene of a red-carpet movie premiere.
He and his wife, NBC News correspondent Maria Shriver, stepped out of a black sport utility vehicle amid shrieks of “Arnold” from fans mingling with the scores of TV cameramen, reporters and photographers lined up behind barricades on each side of the stairs. Schwarzenegger autographed a fan’s copy of Flex magazine that had the brawny candidate posing shirtless on the cover.
Another gubernatorial hopeful, newspaper columnist Arianna Huffington, then popped out of the crowd to bask in the media frenzy surrounding Schwarzenegger and Shriver. As the unlikely trio walked up the steps, a TV newsman told a live audience: “We have Arianna-for-Governor people here right in his face with Arianna-for-Governor signs.”
“Hasta la vista, baby,” a fan shouted.
Huffington talked with reporters more than half an hour while the actor was inside filing his papers; she gave detailed answers to many of the policy questions the “Terminator” star has so far refused to address.
When Schwarzenegger and Shriver emerged again, Huffington brushed past their cluster of microphones on a podium and knocked it to the ground. Once it was reassembled, Schwarzenegger said he never imagined when he immigrated to California from Austria in 1968 that he would run for governor.
“I promise you that I will be the people’s governor,” he said.
Shriver, a niece of President Kennedy on leave of absence from her NBC job for the duration of the campaign, stepped for the first time into a public role as political spouse, trying to offer her husband some of the appeal of her family’s Democratic dynasty.
“He will represent Democrats, independents and Republicans, men and women all across this state,” she said. “I think he is a born leader.”
Schwarzenegger ignored shouted questions about taxes and the fiscal crisis. He has declined to be interviewed by any California journalists since announcing his candidacy on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” instead appearing on “Access Hollywood” and four national morning news shows.
He also told the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung that -- contrary to what he said to Leno -- he would not move his household from Brentwood to Sacramento if he won.
“Fortunately, there’s an airplane,” the actor, who travels by private jet, told the paper in German. “Many people in Los Angeles drive daily an hour to work. That is approximately the flight time from L.A. to Sacramento. I will, when my time allows me, sit in a jet and fly home. And who says that my children couldn’t come to Sacramento and do their homework in the governor’s office?”
Schwarzenegger’s refusal to answer questions on substantive issues has led Democrats to question his qualifications for running a $99-billion government. An aide said his positions would come “in due time.” The election is 58 days away; it could be delayed by court challenges.
Davis went on the offense Saturday against the superstar, saying he lacks experience in public life. “I can tell you that recycling old lines from old movies only gets you so far,” the governor told CNN.
Davis defended his record on schools and health care, and he blamed his unpopularity on national economic troubles. The governor, long known for running blistering television ads against rivals, also pledged to run “a fair and decent campaign.”
He said the recall election was a waste of money and “an insult to the 8 million people who took the time to vote last November.” “A recall breeds more recalls, constant campaigning,” Davis said. “Voters don’t want that. They want us focusing on their problems, not just campaigning endlessly.”
In the same interview, his wife, Sharon, sought to cast Schwarzenegger as part of the recall’s circus atmosphere.
“My husband isn’t running against Arnold Schwarzenegger,” she said. “Arnold Schwarzenegger is running against Larry Flynt and Arianna Huffington and all of the other candidates that have aligned themselves on the other side of the ballot.”
The actor also took shots Saturday from the campaign of a fellow Republican -- Simon, who lost to Davis in November. Simon himself stayed above the fray as he announced his candidacy outside the registrar’s office. He pledged to straighten out the state’s fiscal mess and improve California’s schools and “our roads and our water and our power.”
But spokesman K.B. Forbes said Simon would draw contrasts with Schwarzenegger as he takes on “issues that grass-roots conservatives care about.” Schwarzenegger -- unlike Simon -- supports legal abortion, gun control and adoption of children by gay couples, Forbes said. “These issues will not galvanize Republican support,” he added.
Simon, who plans to address the Conservative Order of Good Guys outside San Diego on Monday, is competing with McClintock for the most conservative Republicans. They are a bloc highly enthusiastic about the recall and thus likely to turn out to vote in droves, polls suggest.
Simon and McClintock each addressed a conference of conservative Republicans on Saturday in Burbank.
“This is a historic opportunity for California to roll back the taxes and regulations that are destroying our economy,” McClintock said after addressing the National Federation of Republican Assemblies. “This is not just about changing governors, but changing the direction of California.”
In more direct competition with Schwarzenegger is Ueberroth. An aide said the former Olympics czar “will campaign as an independent” though he is registered -- and will appear on the ballot -- as a Republican. Ueberroth’s advisors view him as well positioned to pick up moderates who might shy away from the former bodybuilder champ.
On the Democratic side, Garamendi’s departure left the lieutenant governor as the party’s only well-known alternative to Davis. As he stepped aside, the insurance commissioner would not say whether he would vote for Bustamante.
“I am voting no on the recall,” Garamendi said. “That’s that.”
His action was an abrupt turnaround from Thursday, when he said he was entering the race in part because Bustamante had broken ranks with other Democrats by launching his candidacy despite repeated pledges not to do so.
Garamendi said he spoke to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, before he stepped aside.
Davis, for his part, put a positive spin on Bustamante’s decision to run, although the governor had long fought to keep other Democrats off the ballot on the theory that a largely Republican roster would strengthen his hand.
“Sometimes the conventional wisdom is wrong,” he said. Given the potential to draw “more thoughtful people to the polls,” Bustamante’s candidacy “could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.”