Recall Puts Focus on Rookie Official

Times Staff Writer

Seven months ago, Kevin Shelley was teasingly introduced to a statewide television audience as a politician who had achieved his childhood dream of being elected to the unglamorous office of California secretary of state.

If the job was unglamorous then, it has plenty of visibility now: The 47-year-old rookie constitutional officer has suddenly emerged as a pivotal player in the near-certain recall election of Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who could be the first chief executive in California to be voted out of office.

As chief elections officer, it is Shelley's job to decide -- as early as this week -- if recall backers have enough voter signatures to trigger an election and make history.

"I never would have envisioned that we'd be in the middle of this, the 'perfect storm,' " said the Irish American Democrat from an old-line San Francisco political family. His father, Jack, served as the city's mayor in the 1960s.

Shelley must not only supervise the complex process of validating signatures; if an election is held, he also must provide accurate guidance and legal advice to the 58 county clerks who would conduct the voting, count the ballots and report the results to him.

As a former San Francisco supervisor and recently retired member of the Assembly with the reputation as a highly partisan liberal, Shelley's actions are being watched closely for any signs that he might have a bias in favor of fellow Democrat Davis.

Because the stakes are so high, Shelley insisted in an interview last week, he has put aside his own politics and embarked on a nonpartisan middle path. He said this seems to be working because both sides are angry at him and have taken him to court on a variety of issues.

"If people are equally mad, you must be doing something right," said Shelley, whose personable public image has been contradicted at times by a volcanic temper legendary in the Capitol. "I base my decisions and guidance to the counties on the law, not on the interests of one side or the other. The bottom line is: Is it legal?"

He said his special three-member team of expert lawyers includes a Democrat, a Republican and a political independent, and so far their recommendations have been unanimous.

Shelley desperately wants to avoid the kind of ballot-counting fiasco that occurred in Florida in 2000, when then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican, was accused by Democrats of presiding over a corrupt voting system that sent George W. Bush to the White House.

"I am acutely aware of that," Shelley said.

During ceremonies before Davis' State of the State speech to the Legislature in January, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), a lifelong friend of Shelley, took some good-natured pokes at him and at what traditionally has been a relatively obscure office.

"From the time Kevin Shelley was 7 years old, I asked him what he wanted to do in life. All he kept saying time after time [was], 'The only thing I want out of life is to be secretary of state of the state of California,' " Burton said. "Very few of us can achieve our dreams."

Another friend, Carole Migden, a Democratic member of the state Board of Equalization and former assemblywoman, recalled that when they both served as San Francisco supervisors, Shelley was known as "our young [John] Kennedy."

"He was tall, handsome, Irish, a man about town who worked the docks and came from an old, distinguished San Francisco family," she said. Shelley was "determined to follow in the footsteps and fulfill the political heritage of his family."

He also is blessed or cursed with an extraordinary "intensity" about his work, Migden said, a characteristic that has landed him in trouble. At one point in his Assembly career, Shelley got so intense that he enrolled in anger management counseling.

Based on employee complaints, the San Francisco Chronicle labeled him the "worst boss" in the Capitol because of his "terrifying" tirades against his staff members for such offenses as misspellings on correspondence and mistakes in his schedule. Some staffers were fired; others quit.

In one remarkable 1998 case, a Capitol security camera videotaped Shelley chasing a staffer he had just fired down a hallway. Three times, the newspaper reported, Shelley blocked her way as she attempted to board an elevator.

Shelley refused to discuss details, but told the newspaper he was trying to persuade the woman to rejoin his staff. But he admitted that his behavior was "clearly unacceptable."

Migden, among others, has said she believes Shelley is in far better control of his temper since he married Dominique Baudry-Shelley and became a father. His son is almost 2. They are expecting their second child in two weeks.

"He's got a very stable and sensitive wife," Migden said of Shelley, who lives in his childhood home in San Francisco. "He's a papa. In many ways, he has bloomed and matured."

For weeks, backers of the recall have been turning in voter signatures to county elections officials. Today, the reporting process calls for them to pass their latest signature verification results to Shelley.

As early as Thursday, he could confirm that the total exceeds the roughly 897,158 required and certify the count to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. After certification, Bustamante would have 60 to 80 days to set a date for the election, which probably would be held no later than mid-October.

All along, Shelley has been providing advice to county elections officials. At one point, Davis backers alleged that paid petition solicitors from out of state had been hired to gather signatures. They argued that state law requires that petitioners be registered California voters and they asked that names gathered by such workers not be counted.

But Shelley advised the counties to accept all signatures by registered voters regardless of who gathered them. Beyond that, he said, it was up to county district attorneys to decide whether to prosecute solicitors who broke the law.

Shelley said he anticipated that Republicans would allege that he is publicly neutral but privately backing Davis.

"I'm a Democratic secretary of state and that makes [me] ripe for those kinds of things in this environment," Shelley said. He said he knew he would lose credibility "if any of my rulings are in the direction of the governor. I'm being very careful."

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