The drive to remove Gov. Gray Davis from office qualified for the ballot Wednesday, clearing the way for a campaign unlike any other in California history.
Barring intervention by the California Supreme Court, the certification of the gubernatorial recall, announced by Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, meant Davis would face a popular vote of confidence in late September or early October, less than a year after he was reelected.
The recall is endorsed by the state Republican Party and threatens to undermine Democrats’ control of the largest state government in the nation.
In the 92 years since California voters added a recall provision to the state Constitution, no statewide official has faced such a vote.
“All of us are very aware that we are making history and setting history,” Shelley said.
Already, a handful of Republicans are weighing the prospect of joining the campaign that will decide Davis’ fate, a race that will unfold with lightning speed in political terms: Start-to-finish, it will last less than three months.
Shelley’s announcement came just hours after lawyers for a Davis campaign committee asked the California Supreme Court to block the secretary of state from certifying the recall for the ballot. The request, rebuffed earlier in the day by a lower court, drew no immediate response Wednesday from the high court.
In San Francisco, Davis vowed to “fight like a Bengal tiger” to survive a challenge that will be tough, even for a veteran of three decades in California politics.
“One of my greatest strengths is that people have underestimated me since I was born,” Davis said shortly before Shelley’s announcement. “Every time they say I’m road kill, I continue to win, because I have great faith that the California voters are fair.”
Democratic leaders have publicly vowed to support Davis and have attempted to cast the recall effort as a Republican attempt to push a conservative agenda that could not prevail in a normal election. Privately, however, some worry about Davis’ low poll ratings and concede that he faces a difficult time holding off a challenge.
Under the state Constitution, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante must schedule an election to take place 60 to 80 days after Shelley’s certification. That means the election will occur on one of three Tuesdays: Sept. 23, Sept. 30 or Oct. 7.
But what the ballot will look like remains a mystery. The Constitution empowers Bustamante, a Democrat, to call the recall election -- as well as an election to choose a successor “if appropriate.”
Republicans have planned for months to run at least one candidate to replace Davis. On Tuesday, however, Bustamante said he might not schedule an election for a Davis successor to be held simultaneously with the recall itself. On Wednesday, Republicans voiced outrage at that idea.
If the recall prevailed, that scenario could position Bustamante to fill the vacancy left by the Democratic governor, at least temporarily.
“He’s obviously trying to install himself,” said George Gorton, a top political advisor to action-movie icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, a potential Republican candidate for governor. “It’s not just a coincidence that he is a beneficiary of the maneuvers he is making.”
Bustamante said Wednesday that he was awaiting legal opinions from Shelley, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and counsel to the Legislature on whether he needs to call an election for a Davis successor.
“I’m not a constitutional scholar, nor a constitutional lawyer,” he said. “I’m going to rely on those attorneys who are -- and who represent the best legal thinking in government.”
Lawyers at the secretary of state’s office have advised Bustamante that candidates to succeed Davis should be able to run on the recall ballot, said Shelley, who described California’s elections laws as “murky at best.”
The governor’s advisors expect that Bustamante will ultimately decide to combine the election of a Davis successor on the recall ballot. Bustamante pledged to take no more than 24 hours to announce the date, and he scheduled a 10 a.m. news conference for today.
Bustamante’s choice of an election date will culminate a recall petition drive that began soon after Davis won a second term.
In November, Davis beat Republican Bill Simon Jr., 47% to 42%, but within weeks, his popularity plunged as the state’s fiscal crisis deepened.
In February, the state GOP embraced a recall petition drive that posed little threat to Davis until Darrell Issa, a wealthy Republican congressman from the San Diego area, started paying professional crews to gather signatures. The recall campaign rapidly gained momentum from that point, with proponents submitting more than 1.6 million signatures to county election offices across California this month.
On Wednesday, potential candidates were pressing forward with campaign plans despite the uncertainty over what form the ballot will take. State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) filed papers to form an exploratory campaign for governor. He has run twice for state controller and lost.
McClintock said his candidacy “looks very likely.” He promised to “roll back the regulation and taxes that are choking our economy.”
Schwarzenegger, who was to travel to Mexico City today to promote his new “Terminator” movie, was nearing a final decision Wednesday on whether he would run for governor. His wife, NBC News correspondent Maria Shriver, has been cool to the idea, Gorton said.
“His wife’s concern -- quite appropriately -- is what effect this would have on their family,” Gorton said.
The only Republican already in the race is Issa. He called the recall’s qualification for the ballot “a landmark for California.” In a written statement, he pledged to put a stop to “business as usual in Sacramento” and said voters “must recall Gray Davis and clean up the mess he has made of our state.”
Republican consultant Sal Russo, who ran Simon’s campaign against Davis last fall, would not say whether Simon would run on the recall ballot. But he said Simon had spent the last few months talking to his family, donors and volunteers about the possibility.
“He’s been doing the due diligence and it looks extraordinarily encouraging,” Russo said. “We’re confident that if he got in the race, he would win.”
Peter Camejo, the Green Party gubernatorial candidate who won 5% of the vote in November, also has said he would run on the recall ballot.
As would-be successors to Davis assessed their options, the legal challenges played out in court.
Lawyers for Taxpayers Against the Governor’s Recall, a committee organized by the Davis political team, had sought a court order to stop the signature count pending investigation of their claims that recall sponsors broke election laws by hiring petition circulators who live outside California. Late in the morning, a Los Angeles appeals court rejected that request.
The committee’s lawyers appealed immediately to the state Supreme Court, warning in legal papers that Shelley “could certify the recall for the ballot as early as tonight or tomorrow.”
“Unless this court acts, a recall election will be certified on the basis of hundreds of thousands of signatures gathered by firms that bused in out-of-state signature gatherers and instructed them to lie on the declaration that must be submitted with each section of the petition,” committee lawyers wrote in court papers.
But at 6:33 p.m., Shelley, a San Francisco Democrat, announced that recall sponsors had submitted nearly 1.4 million valid voter signatures on their petition for a special election, far more than the 897,158 they needed.
The state Supreme Court could also be drawn into the recall through the Commission on the Governorship, an obscure state panel led by state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). By law, the commission can petition the Supreme Court to settle questions on gubernatorial succession.
Burton, elected to the Legislature in 1964, said he had never heard of the commission before last weekend but might convene a meeting of the panel on Monday. The other members would be Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, University of California President Richard Atkinson, California State University Chancellor Charles Reed and the governor’s finance director, Steve Peace.
With the national media spotlight focused on the recall campaign, Davis used the attention Wednesday to make his case that the campaign should focus less on him than on the agenda of the Republicans who might replace him.
Davis also argued that the election, which the secretary of state estimated would cost $30 million to $35 million, would be a waste of money.
Positioning himself for the race, the normally centrist governor has lurched leftward over the last week in an apparent effort to mobilize women, blacks, Latinos, union members and other blocs of the Democratic Party base.
In San Francisco, a Democratic bastion he has visited three times in the last week, Davis appeared with Mayor Willie Brown at a day-care center where Davis sat on the floor in a circle of children for an awkward rendition of “This Land is Your Land.”
After the singing, Davis cast himself as a protector of abortion rights, gun control, public schools and health care for children. In the end, he said, California voters “will choose a progressive agenda over a conservative agenda.”
Times staff writers Virginia Ellis, Matea Gold, Nancy Vogel, Carol Pogash, Megan Garvey, Dan Morain, Allison Hoffman, Carl Ingram and Jean Guccione contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is required to schedule an election within 60 to 80 days. The election must occur on a Tuesday, so the options facing Bustamante are limited to Sept. 23, Sept. 30 and Oct. 7.
A simple majority is required to oust the governor or to keep him in office. If he prevails, no new recall effort may be launched against Davis for six months, and he will be entitled to ask the state to reimburse him for expenses related to the campaign.
Still being debated is whether that ballot will merely be an up-or-down vote on Davis or will also include the names of candidates seeking to replace him should the recall pass.
If those names are included on the ballot and voters approve the recall, the candidate with the most votes will become the next governor.
Los Angeles Times
Events leading to recall petition’s certification
Nov. 5, 2002: Gray Davis is reelected governor by a slim margin, calls it “a humbling experience.”
* Nov. 14, 2002: California’s legislative analysts announce that the state faces a $21.1-billion budget shortfall.
* Dec. 18, 2002: Davis announces that the estimates of the shortfall have grown to $34.8 billion, a figure that has since reached $38 billion -- more than the entire budgets of most state governments.
* Feb. 5: Two recall drives are launched, with organizers accusing Davis of “gross mismanagement.” One effort is backed by Shawn Steel, former state Republican Party chairman, and antitax advocate Ted Costa. Steel calls the recall “a natural unifier for our party” that would “reinvigorate our grass-root activism” and “make California a more attractive territory for the 2004 election.” The other recall effort, started the same day, is led by a former state assemblyman, Republican Howard J. Kaloogian.
* Feb. 13: Davis dismisses the recall campaign as “partisan mischief” by “a handful of right-wing politicians.”
* March 9: A Times poll finds that Davis’ popularity is at the lowest level of his governorship, with 27% of Californians approving of his job performance and 64% disapproving.
* March 26: Secretary of State Kevin Shelley approves the legal format of a petition to recall the governor and sets a deadline for supporters to gather nearly 900,000 signatures to qualify their proposal for the ballot.
* May 8: U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) contributes $100,000 to the recall effort, the first of his $1.7 million in contributions to the campaign.
* June 17: Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and state Treasurer Phil Angelides announce that they will not run to replace Davis if he is recalled, helping to clear the field of Democratic competition. They are joined by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, another Democrat, three days later.
* June 24: Shelley reports that backers of the effort to recall Davis have collected roughly 40% of the signatures necessary.
* July 2: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” opens. Touring for the movie, Schwarzenegger, a Republican, hints at a possible gubernatorial bid.
* July 4: A Times poll finds that 51% of registered California voters support the recall, compared with 42% who oppose the effort.
* July 19: Legal efforts by Davis supporters to delay a vote on the recall suffer setbacks in Los Angeles and Sacramento courts.
* July 23: Shelley certifies that sufficient recall signatures have been submitted and verified to trigger an election on Davis’ recall.
Los Angeles Times