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Davis’ Success Hinges on the Disgruntled

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Gray Davis’ ability to defeat the effort to oust him depends on winning back disgruntled Democrats, a Times poll indicates.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to cast ballots on Oct. 7, the poll found, signaling Davis’ need over the next 45 days to mount a strenuous get-out-the-vote effort directed at his base.

But before that, his campaign must persuade the Democratic rank and file to vote against the recall. Union members -- who usually can be relied on to back Democrats -- are divided on the recall, with 47% opposed to it and 43% in support, according to the poll. That makes union members more supportive of Davis than voters at large, who back the recall 50% to 45%, according to the poll.

But the union support is not nearly as strong as Davis’ strategists would like. In total, 15% of Democrats back the recall, as do one in five voters who identify themselves as liberals.

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The disaffection among the voters who traditionally would form the governor’s base of support adds another wrinkle to a rapidly moving campaign and means Davis must focus for now on voters he could count on in past elections.

“They’re life and death for him,” said Democratic political strategist Roy Behr.

“They are the very voters that he has taken for granted in past campaigns because they were going to turn out and vote,” Behr said. “They had no real choices. This time, they do have choices. So for the first time, they are going to be showered with attention.”

Davis appears to recognize the task before him. Over the past week, he has campaigned with representatives of core Democratic groups -- abortion rights advocates, black and Latino officials, union leaders -- and has infused his rhetoric with partisan rallying cries in an attempt to energize Democratic voters.

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“What’s happening here is part of an ongoing national effort to steal elections Republicans cannot win,” he declared in a speech at UCLA on Tuesday.

This week, for the first time, Davis moved toward giving his blessing to the campaign of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is asking voters to oppose the recall but to cast their ballots for him in case it succeeds. On Thursday, the governor acknowledged that Bustamante -- who, if elected, would be California’s first Latino governor in 128 years -- could help draw more Latino voters to the polls and thereby help defeat the recall.

But some Latino leaders said Davis needs to do more than quietly support Bustamante to get the backing of Latinos. Many Latino elected officials were angered last year when Davis did not sign a bill that would have allowed some illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

The Times poll found that 39% of likely Latino voters support the recall, 45% are opposed to it and 16% are undecided.

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“Part of the frustration is about a promise was made and a promise was not delivered,” said Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

“If the governor is serious about winning, he has to find a strategy that not only captures the imagination of the base voters, which includes Latinos, but that demonstrates that he is serious about being part of their community and helping their community,” she said.

Meanwhile, many liberal groups that would otherwise be involved in the recall campaign are focused on defeating Proposition 54, a measure on the Oct. 7 ballot that would bar the state from collecting certain types of racial data. The groups argue that the initiative would eliminate many efforts to compensate for past racial discrimination.

“The recall is really for us secondary,” said Carmen Rojas, director of the Oakland-based Social Equity Caucus, a coalition of groups working against the initiative. “There’s this huge, huge fight to be fought.”

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Even though the efforts of her group and others could help send more liberals to the polls, those voters may not help Davis, Rojas said. She said many are frustrated with him over a range of issues -- from his support for prison guards to his fund-raising practices -- and are considering voting for Green Party candidate Peter Camejo or Arianna Huffington, the political commentator who is running as an independent.

Davis also faces a challenge among union members, who in previous campaigns have functioned as valued foot soldiers for the governor, helping him win by mobilizing massive ground operations.

Unions across the state have declared their opposition to the recall and have pledged resources to fight it, but with many of their members inclined to vote against Davis, union political operations face difficulty.

“His biggest problem is that he’s alienated his base for five years, and you’re not going to get them back in three months,” said one staff member of a prominent statewide union.

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That leaves labor leaders in an awkward position as they try to craft a message to motivate their members that carefully sidesteps the discontent with Davis.

The Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, the largest union in the state, is polling its members to determine how they feel about the recall and what the most effective message would be to get them to the polls, according to Steve Trossman, a spokesman for the union.

“Clearly, the governor has problems with the population, otherwise this wouldn’t be happening, and the members of our union are not immune from all that,” Trossman said.

The 335,000-member California Teachers Assn. has already polled its members and found that they support the recall by a slight margin, according to President Barbara Kerr.

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“Like anyone else, teachers are frustrated,” Kerr said. “They just need to remember that you recall people because they do criminal things, not because they’re not your favorite person in the world.”

“This isn’t about Gray,” she said. “It’s about some extremists who are trying to take over the state.”

That’s the message being adopted by many union leaders who are trying to shift the focus away from the unpopular incumbent governor to the prospects of his being replaced by a Republican.

“The reality is, we’ve been able to get Mr. Davis to do a lot of good things,” said Mike Garcia, president of SEIU Local 1877, which represents about 11,000 members in Los Angeles, many of them immigrants.

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He acknowledged that many in his union see Davis as someone who “only wants to come forward when he needs something.” But Garcia is warning them that another governor may be less receptive to union concerns.

“If the recall election is successful and a right-wing candidate is elected, everything we’ve worked hard to achieve is at the risk of being dismantled,” Garcia said. “It’s not about Davis, it’s about power.”


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