The California recall, 10 years later


How different would California be today if voters had not ousted Gov. Gray Davis 10 years ago Monday, a mere 11 months after reelecting him to a second four-year term?

What one error could Davis have avoided, if he could replay his abbreviated tenure, that would have led voters to simply shrug on Oct. 7, 2003, and say to themselves that it was better to stick with the debacle they knew than the one they didn’t know?

Those what-if kinds of questions can’t be fully answered. They’re more appropriate for a science-fiction movie. The kind that would star, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger.


But the recall was no movie. It was a real case — so far the only one — of Californians exercising the right an earlier generation had given them to demand a special election in order to change their minds, in order to say, “We made a mistake, or at least the person we elected did, and we want a do-over.”

As a result, Schwarzenegger, the unlikeliest of candidates, became the state’s 38th governor. Pundits disagree, even from a decade’s perspective, over whether the recall constituted an important turnaround for the state or was instead the ultimate expression of its dysfunction. Still, Californians can find some important lessons in the combined phenomenon of Davis’ decline, the recall election and Schwarzenegger’s tenure, even if some of those lessons are the kind that Machiavelli would teach to a modern-day elected prince.

Begin with Davis. He was, many observers said at the time, the man most prepared in the state’s history to become its governor. He had a hand in running the state from 1975 through 1981 as chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown (remember him?). Davis served in the Legislature and as state controller, and he became one of only six of the state’s 50 lieutenant governors to assume the highest office. He came in on a wave of popularity.

And he quickly got himself into trouble. Perhaps believing that he was indeed the best-prepared governor, and knowing that Democrats were relieved to have him in office after 16 years of Republican leaders, he lectured the Legislature. The job of lawmakers, he told a journalist, was to “implement my vision.”

The first lesson: Don’t alienate your allies or antagonize your co-workers. Davis’ “vision” comment was irritating but might have blown over — had it not become an emblem of an imperious attitude he expressed at other times and in other ways while in the governor’s office. That attitude was tolerated when the economy was booming. But when things got rough — when the dot-com economy that experts said could never fail actually failed, when Californians struggled with rolling blackouts and astounding electricity price increases, when Davis had to roll back the deep cuts that he had made in the vehicle license fee — he had no well of sympathy or support from which to draw. He was vulnerable. Political adversaries and opportunists took notice.

The next lesson: You can be too politically adept for your own good. Davis raised so much money for his reelection campaign that it was unseemly, and he alienated voters in both parties by campaigning during the Republican primary, successfully, to ensure that voters would pick the weaker candidate to run against him in the general election. Those tactics left Davis not even liked, let alone well liked. He won reelection, but the lack of enthusiasm was reflected in low turnout on voting day, and that in turn meant that a low threshold of signatures was needed for a recall petition.


And another one: Truth and fairness don’t necessarily dominate. Schwarzenegger was able to brand Davis as a tax-and-spend liberal, although Davis cut taxes deeply during his tenure. Schwarzenegger was able to campaign on shallow slogans without much challenge.

Perhaps the best lesson is that luck matters. California got lucky, because a movie-star governor elected in the giddiness of a swift recall campaign could easily have turned out to be a demagogue or a clown, and Schwarzenegger in fact began his tenure as a sort of action-hero caricature, vowing to take politics out of the hands of politicians. But he soon discovered that the state’s problems were deep and that governing was difficult. He rose to the challenge, at least in part, and brought Sacramento some reckoning on its spending, spurred rebuilding with the first infrastructure bonds in years, returned California to the environmental vanguard with AB 32 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, began the conversation on healthcare reform that is now coming to fruition, and compelled the state to take notice of its disastrous course on prisons. He had some political capital and he spent it, setting a moderate course — not unlike Davis’ — that disappointed conservatives and puzzled liberals.

Californians were luckiest, perhaps, in that the powerful but risky tool of the recall didn’t blow up in their faces. The looming presence of the recall in the state Constitution may help keep current officials on their toes, but the Davis-Schwarzenegger episode was not the revolution that backers had hoped. Voters here are likely, at least in the near future, to rely on regularly scheduled elections, and the long, dull but somewhat more revealing campaign seasons.