Responding to a threatened special election to recall Gov. Gray Davis, key supporters of the governor have launched a committee to try to kill the effort before it qualifies for the ballot.
A top Davis campaign veteran, Steve Smith, is taking a leave of absence from his state job to lead the committee, Taxpayers Against the Recall, according to committee organizers. Smith, a longtime political operative with close ties to organized labor, was deputy to Davis’ chief strategist, Garry South, in the 1998 governor’s race.
Smith plans to step aside Friday as acting secretary of labor and workforce development, said Davis spokesman Steven Maviglio.
Eric Bauman, director of the governor’s state office in Los Angeles, has also taken a leave of absence to fight the recall, sources said. It was not immediately clear whether he would work for the committee.
Formation of the anti-recall committee is the most explicit acknowledgment to date by Davis and his supporters that the ouster effort poses a threat to the Democratic governor, who was reelected in November but suffers from dismal poll ratings.
It comes after recall supporters raised at least $790,000 for their push for a special election. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), a multimillionaire who has voiced interest in running for governor on the recall ballot, has donated more than half the money. Experts estimate that the petition effort to qualify a recall measure for the ballot would cost at least $2 million.
Although the financial support has blossomed in recent weeks, there is as yet no firm evidence that the recall proponents are making progress among voters.
The California secretary of state’s office said Tuesday that recall supporters had submitted only 18,560 signatures as of May 19 -- despite earlier claims by supporters that they would turn in more than 100,000 on May 5.
Recall supporters have not turned in any signatures from some of California’s most populous counties, including Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside, said Terri M. Carbaugh, assistant secretary of state for communications.
The supporters have until Sept. 2 to collect 897,158 valid voter signatures. Political analysts say they will have to collect more than 1.2 million signatures overall to ensure that their target is met. Organizers said Tuesday that they have hundreds of thousands of signatures collected but not yet turned in.
The move by Davis supporters to blunt the recall effort amounts to a public counterattack after months spent dismissing the move against him as a sour-grapes ploy by Republicans to upend November’s election results. Dan Terry, a Davis ally who is president of California Professional Firefighters, said the anti-recall committee would raise $1 million to $4 million.
Terry plans to appear at a Sacramento fire station today to announce formation of the committee with other Davis supporters: Miguel Contreras, leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor; Mary Bergan of the California Federation of Teachers; the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, pastor of First AME Church in Los Angeles; and Fred Keeley of the Planning and Conservation League.
“We’re going to do what’s necessary to stop this recall,” Terry said.
He said that he had spoken briefly with Davis about the committee but that “this is independent of the governor.”
“I’m doing it for the money that will be spent for this insanity,” Terry said, referring to the projected $25-million minimum cost for a statewide special election. “This isn’t about Gray Davis. This is about democracy versus anarchy.”
From now until September, the political battle will focus largely on efforts by recall supporters to gather the rest of the signatures needed.
Anti-tax advocate Ted Costa, who is in charge of submitting signatures from all five of the pro-recall committees, put the total collected at 287,410.
He said recall supporters were storing signed petitions in four locations while they check the validity of each signatory’s voter registration.
“We’ve got an awful lot of signatures sitting around these processing places,” he said.
Dave Gilliard, director of Issa’s Rescue California recall committee, said the congressman’s effort has only been circulating petitions for 16 days, so none of its roughly 200,000 signatures have been submitted.
Gilliard also accused the Davis forces of interfering with the petition effort by offering more money to signature-gatherers than what recall supporters are paying.
Leaders of the anti-recall committee acknowledged that they had hired professional circulators to gather signatures on a petition saying the recall was a waste of money.
Times staff writer Gregg Jones contributed to this report.