Seven months after he won reelection in what could have been the final race of his career, Gov. Gray Davis is mounting yet another statewide campaign -- this time to crush a drive by Republicans to recall him from office.
Davis had hoped to use his second term to repair an image tainted by his response to the California energy crisis and his dogged pursuit of campaign money. But now, amid rising anxiety over the recall among Davis supporters, the Democratic governor once again is fighting for sheer political survival.
To plot strategy against the recall, the tight-knit team that guided Davis to victory in the gubernatorial elections of 1998 and 2002 has reassembled informally over the last several weeks, mainly on conference calls.
Among them are Garry South, the governor’s former chief campaign strategist; pollster Paul Maslin; media consultants David Doak and Tom O’Donnell; former Davis cabinet secretary Susan Kennedy; the governor’s chief of staff, Lynn Schenk; and his top fund-raiser, lobbyist Darius Anderson, according to people familiar with the matter.
“All of us who used to be part of the old team are coming together, and we’re going to do what we can to fight this thing,” a Davis advisor said.
The Davis brain trust, now enlarged to include former Al Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, has worked without pay to shape the campaign plan, the advisor said. In charge of executing it is Steve Smith, who took a leave of absence as state labor secretary last week to lead the new committee set up to save Davis: Taxpayers Against the Governor’s Recall.
The committee has hired two former Davis fund-raisers to collect as much as $4 million, organizers said. If the recall qualifies for the ballot, Davis is expected to raise millions more for a full-scale television ad campaign.
People close to Davis say he was determined after his reelection to regain his public standing by minimizing his political fund-raising and showing the kind of leadership in the state fiscal crisis that many Californians thought he lacked during the electricity debacle of his first term. Even now, Davis, who was deeply engaged in oversight of previous campaigns, has made a point of staying relatively detached from the anti-recall effort, they say.
In February, when the recall threat surfaced, Davis had his advisors quietly assess the legal and political ramifications. But it was only in April that they seriously mobilized behind the scenes, largely in response to the sudden emergence of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) as the key force behind the recall. And it was only last week that the extent of Davis’ preparations became clear as the anti-recall committee moved on several fronts to blunt Issa’s momentum.
“I think they’re very afraid of this being on the ballot,” said Dave Gilliard, director of Issa’s committee, Rescue California ... Recall Gray Davis. “They’ve finally pulled their head out of the sand.”
With tens of millions of dollars in personal assets at his disposal, Issa is dispatching paid crews around the state to circulate the petition for a recall election. It will cost more than $2 million to acquire the nearly 900,000 valid signatures required to get a recall proposal on the ballot, analysts say. Although the recall forces have turned in fewer than 19,000 signatures, they insist they have hundreds of thousands more being processed ahead of the Sept. 2 deadline.
So far, Issa has put up $445,000 of the $814,000 raised by pro-recall committees. He has a strong incentive to donate more: Issa plans to run for governor on the recall ballot as a candidate to replace Davis. In the end, analysts say, Issa’s money could transform the recall from a wacky political distraction into a genuine threat to Democratic Party control of the biggest state government in the nation.
“If you’ve got a guy with deep pockets using the recall to further his own ambition to be governor, you have to assume that you’re at another level of seriousness with this,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic campaign consultant.
For Davis, the timing of the recall could not be worse: To close a projected $38-billion budget gap, he is pushing higher taxes and vast cuts in popular programs. His job-approval ratings have dropped to record lows -- 27% in the latest Times poll.
The Davis strategy for confronting Issa’s challenge is twofold.
First, the Davis committee is trying to stymie the congressman’s petition drive. To do that, it has hired crews to circulate its own petition, essentially a stack of paper that makes a public statement against the recall but has no legal weight. Davis supporters acknowledge that it’s an aggressive -- though traditional -- tactic to block California ballot measures.
“If these guys want to play hardball, they’d better bring their gloves, because we throw some heat,” said Roger Salazar, a consultant to the governor’s campaign committee and member of the anti-recall strategy team.
Tom Bader, the leader of Issa’s petition effort, said Davis forces were trying “to shut us down” by paying circulators a higher price per signature. Issa’s team pays 75 cents, but the governor’s offers $1.
“These guys are shameless,” Bader said.
The second part of the Davis strategy is running on a parallel track: His allies are moving ahead with a campaign to defeat the recall in case they fail to keep it off the ballot.
The opening phase of the campaign entails besmirching Issa. At a meeting last month with the Los Angeles Times editorial board, Davis said it was “shameful that somebody would finance a recall and then say he wants to run.”
“It’s pathetic,” Davis said. “Stand up and be a man. Run like most people do.”
Davis surrogates have echoed those remarks (South called Issa’s efforts “an incredibly brazen display of political egomania”) and tried to revive negative publicity that haunted Issa in his failed 1998 campaign for the U.S. Senate. The anti-recall committee is also bankrolling a legal complaint accusing Issa of breaking a new federal campaign finance law in raising money for Rescue California; an Issa spokesman has denied the allegation.
Overall, the moves against Issa are in keeping with Davis’ attack strategy in previous campaigns, most notably his TV ads last year against Republican gubernatorial rivals Richard Riordan and Bill Simon Jr.
“It’s Gutter Politics 101,” said Jonathan Wilcox, communications director for Issa’s budding gubernatorial campaign. “I frankly expect a good deal more.”
But for Davis, the attacks on Issa serve a larger purpose than defining an opponent early and harshly; they also are aimed at casting the recall as an irresponsible Republican power grab.
“No matter how much they try to put lipstick on this pig, it’s a partisan campaign,” said a person familiar with the anti-recall strategy.
To discredit the recall, Davis supporters argue that the projected cost of a special election -- at least $25 million -- would waste scarce taxpayer money. They also highlight the risks of a recall: On the two-part ballot would be an up-or-down vote on Davis, followed by a menu of candidates vying to replace him. In a race that could draw a large crowd of candidates, the one with the most votes would win, no matter how small the victor’s share of the electorate.
“This could result in a fringe candidate -- either right or left -- winning the election with only 10% or 15% of the vote,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, wrote last week in an opinion article she submitted to newspapers statewide.
In the end, Democratic strategist Carrick said, voters with varying opinions of Davis will make a serious judgment on whether the recall is being used responsibly to remove an unfit governor or “recklessly for partisan and personal political gain.”