GOP Hope: Dump Davis

Times Staff Writer

Struggling to recover from its losses in November, the California Republican Party is preparing to embrace a recall campaign against Gov. Gray Davis as part of its agenda for a comeback.

Party leaders expect delegates at the state Republican convention in Sacramento this weekend to vote overwhelmingly to back the effort to dump Davis in a special election. Both candidates for state party chairman favor the move, and Republicans are organizing a Davis recall rally Saturday outside the Capitol.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 27, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Davis recall -- An article in the California section Feb. 18 about a campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis gave the inaccurate date of 1985 for the recall of Assemblywoman Doris Allen of Orange County. Voters recalled Allen in 1995.

Yet the viability of a recall against the Democratic governor is far from certain. Recall supporters lack the money -- certainly for now -- to run the sort of vast petition drive needed to get the proposal on the ballot. No major donor has stepped forward to help.


The recall effort is also fractured: Dueling teams of Republican strategists are running separate campaigns.

As a result, some Republicans worry that the party is rushing into a misguided endeavor that takes attention from its main goals: the reelection of President Bush and the ouster of Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Some key Republicans, most notably those close to the White House, are keeping their distance. Pharmaceutical magnate Mark Chapin Johnson, a member of President Bush’s elite Team 100 group of major donors, said it makes no sense to mount a Davis recall in the midst of the state budget crisis.

“A lot of this is just a bunch of frustrated people who couldn’t get it right in the first place trying to do it all over again,” said Johnson, the chief fund-raiser for Richard Riordan’s failed bid for governor.

Gerald Parsky, Bush’s top California political advisor, said he would stay focused on the president’s reelection campaign. “Any recall effort will have to be up to the voters of California, and I will not be involved, given my priority,” he said.

California Republicans suffered their worst defeat in more than a century in the November election. For the first time since 1882, Democrats won every statewide office. The wipeout was especially embarrassing to Republicans, in light of the party’s successes elsewhere in the country.

Some Republicans see a Davis recall as a path back to power. In an open letter to state party leaders, outgoing Chairman Shawn Steel called it “a natural unifier for our party.” A recall, he wrote, would “reinvigorate our grass-root activism” and “make California a more attractive territory for the 2004 election.”

Bill Back and Duff Sundheim, the main candidates vying to succeed Steel as chairman, have taken up the cause. Back said the party should pay activists a bounty to collect recall petition signatures -- a device to keep them “fired up and motivated.”

“Gov. Davis has been a bit of a disaster for this state,” Back said.

For Davis, a recall threat seems remote. But it could quickly become real and immediate if organizers raise the $2 million or more that experts believe they need to gather signatures necessary to get it on the ballot. Supporters would have to collect nearly 900,000 signatures of registered voters in 160 days; they hope to start Saturday. If they succeed, a special election could be called as soon as this fall.

History suggests a recall is unlikely. Every California governor since Edmund G. Brown in 1960 has faced at least one recall attempt. In every case, organizers fell short of the number of needed signatures.

Davis, though, is a relatively unpopular governor mired in a budget crisis; he faces a torrent of opposition to his plans to raise taxes by $8 billion and cut spending by about $20 billion. He was reelected 15 weeks ago despite widespread misgivings among voters about his leadership--most of all about his handling of California’s energy crisis, polls found.

‘Right-Wing’ Plot

Last week, Davis branded the recall effort as a plot by “right-wing politicians” to overturn an election that he said he won fair and square against Republican Bill Simon Jr., 47% to 42%.

A Davis advisor who spoke on condition of anonymity said the recall was not high on the governor’s radar screen, but that he was taking it seriously nonetheless. “In the end, this will be seen for what it is, and that’s a Republican power grab,” the advisor said. “If they want to make this a fight, it will be a partisan battle, it will be pretty bloody, and we will win.”

Recall organizers agree their effort could be doomed if voters see it as a Republican assault on Davis. Yet both of the competing recall campaigns are dominated by Republicans, and neither has any Democratic support.

One recall drive was launched Feb. 5 by Steel, the state party chairman; state Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy (R-Monrovia); conservative radio talk show host Melanie Morgan; and anti-tax advocate Ted Costa. They plan to raise money through the People’s Advocate anti-tax group led by Costa. Their chief strategist is Mark Abernathy, the chief political advisor to Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, a top Republican in Congress. Also advising the team is GOP consultant Wayne C. Johnson.

The other recall effort, which started the same day, is led by a former state assemblyman, Republican Howard J. Kaloogian. Its strategist, Sal Russo, was chief architect of the Simon campaign. Some recall supporters fear that any ties to Simon could poison the drive to oust Davis. Russo said Simon was keeping the door open to running again for governor; Simon did not return calls for comment.

A recall would give Simon and others a chance to run for governor years ahead of the next regularly scheduled election in 2006. The ballot would offer a yes-or-no vote on recalling Davis, followed by a menu of possible replacements in case he is tossed from office.

No Democrat has voiced interest publicly in running in a recall election.

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who many Republicans hope will run in 2006, has also made no public comments on a recall.

Interest in Riordan

Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor who lost the GOP primary last year to Simon, has sparked interest among recall supporters -- both as a candidate and as a potential benefactor. Riordan spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said he had not been involved in planning for a recall, but would take a look at it when he returns next week from a trip to Spain. Ari Swiller, a Davis fund-raiser who has worked with the former mayor on other efforts, said Riordan had told him by phone from Spain that he was not interested in supporting a recall.

Another potential candidate and financial backer is Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista), a wealthy businessman who has been weighing a bid for Boxer’s Senate seat.

Privately, Issa has expressed interest in running for governor in a recall race and helping to bankroll the petition drive, but a spokesman declined to comment.

California voters adopted the recall provision of the state Constitution in 1911. It was part of Gov. Hiram Johnson’s Progressive agenda to check the power of political bosses and parties. Since then, no petition to recall a statewide official has made it to the ballot, but voters have recalled four state legislators, most recently Republican state Assemblywoman Doris Allen of Orange County in 1985.

Local officials are also subject to recall. Last month, voters in South Gate recalled three City Council members and the city treasurer. In San Francisco, Dianne Feinstein was jolted by a recall attempt in 1983 when she was mayor. She waged an aggressive campaign to beat it back and won more than 80% of the vote. The victory strengthened her next bid for reelection.

For Davis, barred by term limits from seeking reelection, a recall effort, even unsuccessful, could disrupt his attempt to survive the budget fiasco and build a legacy beyond it. He appears to be trying to strike a balance between preparing quietly for a campaign and trying not to seem concerned about the possibility of having to wage one.

His advisor said Davis has not commissioned any poll on a recall. Davis also has not relaunched the campaign fund-raising machine that was a constant source of controversy in his $78-million reelection race.

Still, among the first Democrats to start fighting the recall last week was Eric C. Bauman, director of the governor’s state office in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles County Democratic Party, headed by Bauman, hired political strategist Larry Levine to set up a “decline-to-sign” brigade of Davis supporters to follow people circulating recall petitions and try to dissuade voters from signing.

“The governor,” Bauman said, “faces a difficult enough time trying to bring about a fair and reasonable solution to the state’s budget difficulties without this added pressure.”

In the weeks ahead, the shortage of money poses a challenge for recall supporters. The People’s Advocate committee reported $153,000 on hand at the end of 2002, and a spokeswoman for the Kaloogian group said it had about $15,000. The state GOP also lacks the means to run the petition drive: It reported $403,000 left in the bank after the November election.

But GOP strategist Dan Schnur, who might sign up with the Costa recall group, said a nonpartisan campaign would be worth a shot, regardless of timing. “Even if a governor has to make difficult and politically unpopular decisions,” he said, “the benefits to either party of controlling the governor’s office far outweigh the downside.”


Times staff writer Gregg Jones contributed to this report.