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Little-Known Activist Is Recall Powerhouse

Times Staff Writer

Get off the main road, swing behind the Krispy Kreme, and enter the onetime roller-skating rink across the parking lot from the office selling discount auto insurance.

Here is the strange world of Ted Costa.

If the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis has a port of origin, this musty suite of offices in the suburbs of Sacramento is it. And although voters may consider the recall an expedition of ambitious Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista or failed gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon Jr. or even Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is the little-known activist Costa who holds the recall’s real power.

It derives from this fact: He was first. While Americans were preoccupied watching the space shuttle disintegrate and the country prepare for the war in Iraq, Costa drafted a petition to recall the governor. By doing so, he became the recall’s “original proponent.”

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As such, Costa, 62, is the only person who can authorize the submission of signatures of citizens who want to recall Gray Davis. He has used that power to require petitions signed in all 58 California counties to go through this out-of-the-way office, the headquarters of the anti-tax group he heads, the People’s Advocate.

The place is a reflection of the quirky Costa, who drives a 20-year-old Ford compact, pays himself a salary of just $38,000 a year, and has little but bad things to say about politicians -- even those who support the recall.

There are no lawyers here; the senior staff is mostly older men who, like Costa, grew up on farms. Running daily operations is an 81-year-old retired Air Force officer called the General (who dresses in the black tones of an undertaker). An engineer, laid off by budget woes from his job consulting for Caltrans, keeps the signed petitions moving on time. Supervising volunteers in the back room is a 23-year-old temp who went from looking up customers’ credit histories for Fidelity Investments to the current center of politics in the nation’s most populous state.

Portraits of Abraham Lincoln from Costa’s collection (he has talked of naming his home Four Score Farm) hang in most rooms. The only sure relief from the gaze of the 16th president is a trip to the bathroom.

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“Then there’s me: the nutso, the political wacko, the president of the Banana Republic of California, the guy who can’t be controlled,” says Costa, with his trademark laugh, the high-pitched howl of a hyena. “How do you like our funny farm?”

Bob Mulholland, a campaign advisor for California Democrats, calls Costa a “grumpy old man” and says of his staff: “If Ted wasn’t there, they would be working in a Goodwill shop.” But viewed up close, the Costa farm has been ruthlessly efficient at the drudgery of sorting and moving petitions -- more than 300,000 -- to the 58 California county clerks who must validate them. Costa himself spends much of his day as a clerk, signing form letters to accompany the recall petitions.

“No matter how modest he and his offices appear,” warns Carroll Wills, spokesman for the Davis anti-recall group, Taxpayers Against the Recall, “that’s a lot of power he has in one place.”

Edward J. Costa was born in South Natomas, on land his parents farmed near what is now Sacramento’s airport. The soil was so rich, Costa learned, just about anything could grow there.

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Costa drifted through his 20s. He dropped out of college, served in the Coast Guard and worked a variety of jobs before he spotted a Young Republicans booth at a county fair in 1969. He immediately went to work on local campaigns, and enrolled at UC Davis (though he is still just short of a degree). In 1982, frustrated with the compromises of party politics, he joined up with Proposition 13 crusader Paul Gann, the founder of People’s Advocate.

As Gann’s top aide there, Costa learned how to use the initiative process to fight taxation and government spending. After Gann’s death and a painful fight with Gann’s son, Costa took the top job at People’s Advocate. He also settled down.

Married at age 48, he lives with his wife, veterinarian and lawyer Jayna Karpinski-Costa, in the suburb of Citrus Heights. On their property they keep geese, pheasants, peacocks, chickens and a donkey. The frontyard has a two-ton bust of Abraham Lincoln.

Until now, Costa had concerned himself with qualifying initiatives for the ballot -- including measures on taxes, limits on government spending, politicians’ salaries and redistricting. Then, at home earlier this year, Costa first drafted the recall petition. It was a four-page document, consisting mostly of 100 signatures of supporters. His stated grounds for the recall were listed as follows: “Gross mismanagement of California Finances by overspending taxpayers’ money, threatening public safety by cutting funds to local governments, failing to account for the exorbitant cost of the energy fiasco, and failing in general to deal with the state’s major problems until they get to the crisis stage.” Costa said he wanted to shake up the state’s entire political class.

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“The recall is like a fire extinguisher,” Costa said.

People’s Advocate, through Costa, was the first to register its recall petition, but it would hardly be the last recall group. Former GOP Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian of San Diego and Sal Russo, chief strategist for 2002 Republican gubernatorial nominee Simon, formed the Recall Gray Davis committee. A few months later, Issa, with an eye on the governor’s job, jumped in with his own group, Rescue California.

Three months after Costa first filed his papers, the recall campaign found its footing when Issa, a car alarm magnate, began pumping $150,000 a week into petition gathering. On the subject of Issa, Costa is uncharacteristically diplomatic. “Darrell has made life easier for us,” he says, “and we should remember that.”

Despite their shared affection for the recall, the various recall groups have often been at odds. Inside the movement, Costa gets much of the blame for that. Although most recall supporters favor a November election, Costa professes not to care if the election waits until March, when more Democrats are expected to go to the polls for the presidential primary. (A special fall election would cost at least $30 million more -- not insignificant to a tax-cut advocate, though Costa says that is small change compared with the state’s rocketing debt under Davis.)

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Costa’s open suspicion of his politician allies in the recall movement also broadens the divide. (“There are boll weevils in our fields,” he says.) Other recall supporters sometimes leave him out of strategy discussions. He says he has spoken to Issa only twice, has been denied an audience with Schwarzenegger, and is dismissive of the Republican Party in general. (“Republicans are no different when they hold the governor’s office.”) In a recall election, he says he would vote for a conservative maverick, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), a personal friend.

Last Thursday in his office, he had a tense conversation with a lawyer for Kaloogian, the chairman of Recall Gray Davis committee, over the lawsuit Kaloogian had filed that day against state and county election officials. Although Kaloogian said it was meant to quicken the signature counting, Costa called the lawsuit a cheap attempt at publicity that could delay the validation of signatures.

Costa dismisses Kaloogian with an epithet. “Howard was in the Assembly for six years,” he adds. “Ask him how he would solve the problem. He doesn’t have any answers.”

Asked about Costa, Russo, who is Kaloogian’s strategist on the Recall Gray Davis committee, says carefully: “In something like this, you need people who have the temperament to question authority. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong, sometimes they are flawed. But they are healthy for our democratic system.”

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Those who know Costa well believe he has smoothed some of his rough edges during the recall. Esther Greene, an old Reagan hand who has come out of retirement to help Costa at the office, says she forced him to clean his desk and organize the back room, where the sorting of petitions is done.

“Ted is the world’s worst manager,” says the General, a.k.a. Sid Novaresi, now 81, a farm boy from Eureka, Calif., who flew 17,000 hours as a fighter pilot before becoming president of People’s Advocate. “But he’s been getting better.”

The handling of petitions is done in a brightly lighted back room with wall signs that say “Bye Bye Davis” and “Stop Dictator Davis.” On one side of the room, mail -- all of it addressed to Ted Costa -- is opened and petitions are removed.

The incoming petitions, each bearing up to five signatures, are immediately sorted by county of origin. The petitions are then screened for anything -- a P.O. Box as address, a misplaced signature, an incorrect ZIP Code -- that might disqualify them. Bad signatures are crossed out with red ink, in hopes that they won’t cause the entire petition to be ruled out.

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Those petitions, ready to go, are placed in one of 58 boxes, depending on their county destination. When a box becomes full, it’s shipped out UPS.

The sorting work is done by volunteers, fueled by huge bags of popcorn and doughnuts (though not Krispy Kremes -- there’s been an office boycott since Krispy Kreme expressed concern that its proximity to the office was being used to associate the chain with the recall).

For each shipment, Costa -- as the Original Proponent -- must sign a cover letter authorizing delivery. To speed up delivery, particularly in large Southern California counties, he reluctantly has begun signing “power of attorney” letters permitting the delivery of some petitions that don’t travel north to Sacramento. Costa’s signature is so often required that on a recent day a recall worker tracked Costa down to a Chinese restaurant and interrupted him with 30 letters to sign during lunch.

Although Costa and his staff profess not to worry about Davis or Republicans or even legal challenges, the daily arrival of the UPS driver at 3:30 p.m. is a source of palpable fear. Boxes of petitions must be ready to go by then.

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Tony Andrade, a Costa friend and laid-off consultant for Caltrans who grew up on a farm in Hawaii, supervises the frantic final assembly of boxes in the office’s front alcove. As the UPS arrival grows near, Costa, the General and People’s Advocate financial official Carl Burton (himself a farm boy from Bakersfield) peer out of their offices to critique the last-minute packing.

When the UPS driver arrives, they have 66 boxes ready that contain more than 70,000 signatures, but Costa seems a bit grumpy. They’ve shipped 100,000 signatures on earlier days. What’s more, there are six boxes they didn’t get packed and sealed.

“We’ve gotta go hunt for another UPS driver,” declares Andrade as Costa nods. Soon, a young office worker is sent out with the six other boxes in search of a nearby UPS truck.

“Good!” says the General. “Reconnaissance!”

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Costa looks over his crew and returns to his office. “This is a different scale than anything we’ve done before here,” he says. “But I’ll tell you what: I’d rather be in my shoes right now than the governor’s.”


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