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Column: What does the only other California governor to face a recall vote — Gray Davis — have to say now?

Then Gov. Gray Davis at lectern with crowd of supporters
California Gov. Gray Davis concedes defeat in Los Angeles after the recall election in October 2003.
(Los Angeles Times)

There’s only one other person who has been through the bizarre experience that Gavin Newsom just went through, and that’s Gray Davis.

The biggest difference between them is that Davis — who served as governor of California from 1999 to 2003 — didn’t survive his recall challenge. In 2003, he was removed from office by 55% of voters in a do-over election that brought Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose “Terminator 3” had just been released, into power.

I’ve been talking to Davis during this year’s race, and though he clearly had relevant experience to share, he was adamant he didn’t want to make himself the story. His basic position on the recall since leaving office has been: These are the rules of the game, don’t whine if you have to live by them.

“I don’t believe in moaning and groaning,” he says. “The recall is a fact of life in our politics. It’s been around for 110 years and if you don’t like it, maybe you shouldn’t run for office in California.”

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In his position, I’d moan and groan and be bitter. I’d be more like Bob Dole after his loss to Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential race. “I slept like a baby,” Dole famously said. “Every two hours I woke up and cried.”

Instead, Davis is practicing law, working from home in L.A. during the pandemic and thinking wonkish thoughts about obscure state policy issues. He was 60 when he became the first (and, to this day, the only) California governor to be recalled; he’s 78 now. During one of our talks, he was on the golf course.

But now that the Newsom recall threat has passed, Davis does have a few things to say about the process.

For one thing, it’s a terrible distraction. His own recall came after a statewide electricity crisis that led to power outages, and after he raised the state vehicle license fee in response to a budget shortfall. Voters, who had just reelected him, were angry, and 135 candidates — college students, publicity seekers, a movie star and a sumo wrestler among them — ran to replace him. Obviously, it tore him away from his legislative priorities.

“But Gavin, my God, he’s got so many things going on,” says Davis. “Wildfires, school openings, the Delta variant, homelessness. He’s got five or six problems not of his own creation that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. And then on top of that he had to campaign to keep the job he was elected to. That’s an awful lot at one time.”

A governor — and this is me talking, not Davis — deserves time to carry out campaign promises, to pursue an agenda separate from politics, separate from the pressure of a perpetual campaign.

Davis doesn’t want to abolish the recall. He believes it’s part of California’s populist history. But he has suggestions for eliminating its most egregious shortcomings.

One shortcoming is that the rules almost guarantee low turnout. Recall elections must be scheduled 60 to 80 days after petition signatures are certified, which puts them in the middle of, well, nothing. The Davis recall was in early October. The Newsom recall election was Sept. 14. California voters are not used to voting on just any old day. And there’s nothing else on the ballot to turn out for.

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Davis wants to move recall elections to a regularly scheduled November election day — preferably in the years that also have presidential elections or gubernatorial elections. Robust turnout, he says, leaves the winner with greater moral and legal authority.

“Kicking someone out of office should be at least as important as electing them in the first place,” he says. “A smaller electorate shouldn’t be allowed to overturn the judgment of a much larger prior election.”

Davis’ second and more important concern, also noted by others, is that the two-question structure of the recall is fundamentally undemocratic. The first question asks voters whether they want to recall the incumbent, and the second asks them to choose among a slate of replacement candidates.

The problem is that a sitting governor could lose with, say, 49% of the vote — while the replacement governor could win with only 25%, 15% or less. You’d be replacing a more popular governor with a less popular governor, which makes no sense.

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“This is Russian roulette,” says Davis. “It’s going to happen sooner or later.”

Davis suggests doing away with the first question altogether and running the recall as an ordinary election — with all the candidates, including the incumbent, competing in a single race. The candidate with the most votes wins and finishes out the incumbent’s term.

That would end the widespread confusion about how the two questions work. (Do you vote for one or both? If you’ve voted against the recall, can you vote for a replacement candidate anyway?)

And it assures that the most popular candidate wins, which makes it fairer and more democratic. And constitutional.

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Speaking for myself, I think the recall is a mess and needs a raft of changes. It currently makes a laughingstock of California, encourages unqualified candidates to run and impedes the work of government and our elected officials.

Still, Davis reiterates, he has no complaint on his own behalf.

“You get good breaks you don’t deserve and bad ones you don’t deserve,” he says. “Life is unfair. Deal with it.”

@Nick_Goldberg


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