Party or no party, he'll toast victory

Times Staff Writer

As California prepares to replace Gov. Gray Davis on Monday, Ted Costa, theoretically, should feel like the heartiest partyer in town.

He was, after all, the guy who launched the revolt -- who, famously now, went on talk radio at 5 a.m. one winter day after Davis' second election and announced he was taking out papers to recall him.

The guy who returned to the cinder block mini-mall office of his tax reform group here behind a Krispy Kreme doughnut outlet to find a queue of Davis bashers stretched around the building.

Who, long before anyone knew about Rep. Darrell Issa's incoming $2 million, had assembled an entire backroom of disgruntled petition processors.

But Costa sat in his office the other day, as suspicious as ever. The reason? Less than a week before the swearing in of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was also the guy who still hadn't been invited to the inaugural.

"We e-mailed and we called the day he announced for governor and said we'd like to meet with them, but no answer," said Costa, greeting a visitor to the People's Advocate, his now-famous grass-roots organization. "I assumed their staff was too busy arranging their lunch schedules to talk about reform."

He sounded bothered, but appeared less so. "I haven't gotten along with any of the past governors," he noted by way of explanation, but he didn't sound especially regretful.

Much of the passion behind his organization stems from the demographic that, just on principle, has issues with professional politicians and the moneyed classes who back them -- "blue-collar people, people who listen to talk radio," as Costa describes them. In Costa's circles, not getting along with governors can be good.

During the campaign, he was portrayed as the eccentric head of a loose-marble movement -- "the crackpot-in-chief," one account summed up the perception. He didn't mind. Costa drives a falling-apart Ford, wears his hair in a comb-over and lives in a house that his wife has decorated with a 2,000-pound statue of Abraham Lincoln.

He was wearing a suit on this day, explaining that he finally was worn down by press accounts dwelling on his disheveled appearance. When he speaks, he sometimes punctuates his thoughts with "Mmm-hmm" sounds that bring to mind, ever so slightly, the lead character in the movie "Sling Blade."

But notwithstanding his appearance, Costa and his constituency have, over time, become a powerful element in California politics, a ubiquitous ember that, in times of frustration, has ignited more than its share of populist wildfires.

Costa himself has been politically active since Proposition 13. Among the governors whom he has publicly needled is former Gov. Pete Wilson, whose supporters coalesced around Schwarzenegger. ("Ted Costa marches to his own drummer -- what can I say?" said one former Wilson advisor. "Other than that, I don't want to go there.")

So Costa wasn't surprised that, as the recall gained traction -- along with funding by Issa, and later, others -- its rich, famous front-runner chose to remain distant from the recall's angry, class-based beginnings. Still, Costa did technically get the ball rolling for the Republicans, and by last week, when invitations started to go out, Costa was telling people he didn't care whether he went, that he didn't go in for fancy parties.

"I'll watch it on TV from my office," he said earlier this week. "Mmm-hmm. I'll get a better view anyway from there. Mmm-hmm."

After a conversation with a Times reporter, however, he said he called someone who knew someone in the Schwarzenegger camp, and conveyed the fact that a reporter was asking whether he'd received an invitation. By Tuesday, he was smiling: still no invitation -- it was Veterans Day, so there was no mail -- but a contact who knew the Schwarzenegger people had put in a word and gotten back to him via e-mail.

"You have been invited," it said. "If you don't receive invite by end of week let me know."

By Friday morning, Costa was still waiting, but Marty Wilson, executive director of Schwarzenegger's swearing-in committee, confirmed it. "Yes, Ted Costa has been invited. I don't know if he's coming or not."

Neither did Costa, who said he has never been to a gubernatorial inauguration.

"If I do," he said, "I'll probably just stand in the back."

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