California Chaos | The Nation


California Chaos

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The Democrats' vow to stay out of the successor election was always risky. As the private polls showing Davis's vulnerability began to come in, they generated intense pressure on Senator Dianne Feinstein, California's most respected politician, to get into the race. That would have sealed Davis's fate, but it would also have given the state a chance to regain some equilibrium after the recall and to stabilize its deficit-racked finances. "We need a grown-up," said one well-connected Democrat, who was among the leaders of the unsuccessful Feinstein draft.

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Peter Schrag
Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor and columnist for the Sacramento Bee, has been writing for The Nation for...

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There's been a lot of talk about the recall as a Republican coup. In the context of the impeachment of President Clinton, the 2000 Florida recount battle and GOP House leader Tom DeLay's attempt to force a second reapportionment of Texas's Congressional districts, the charge was hardly surprising.

When the recall began, however, that talk was unfounded. In the first months of the campaign, the White House and those who speak for it in California tried to stay as far away from it as they could: Gerald Parsky, the White House's man in California, called it a diversion of money and energy from George Bush's re-election efforts; more recently Bush himself said the recall was a matter for Californians to decide. Given the concerns of the California Business Roundtable, most of whose members are Republicans, that the recall "will have no positive productive results," and the beating Bush political guru Karl Rove took from Davis in his failed attempt to help former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the California GOP primary in 2002, that diffidence made sense.

But since then, Bush himself has publicly declared that Schwarzenegger would make a good governor even as California papers turned up a memo declaring that White House operatives "will be coordinating seven simultaneous media-friendly events throughout California" to foster the recall.

Nonetheless, there are risks for Bush. The state's constitution has ambiguous language that, without much of a stretch, would automatically make the lieutenant governor the governor's successor in the event of any vacancy in the office--indeed, that's his principal reason for existence. Since Bustamante received more votes last November than any Republican is likely to get in the successor election (or that Bustamante himself will get), it raises the possibility that the ghost of the all-but-forgotten Bush v. Gore fight over the 2000 Florida recount could stalk not only the state but Bush and the national Republican Party next year. A challenge based on the constitutional ambiguity was quickly rejected by a unanimous state Supreme Court, which includes one Democrat named by Davis. Given the reluctance of the justices, who are themselves subject to recall, to get into any political fight, that's hardly surprising. But the fact that the court is dominated by Republicans, that budget constraints will sharply reduce the number of polling places in this election, making it harder for voters to get to the polls, and that a lot of punch-card ballots will still be used easily invites comparisons with Florida. Local election officials, moreover, are having nervous fits wondering how they're going to fit the huge list of candidates on ballots.

In fact, the most troublesome element of the recall is its sheer unpredictability. While the recall has been in the California constitution since 1911, no recall of a statewide official has ever qualified. (Only one governor has ever been recalled, and that was in North Dakota in 1921.) But there have been countless recalls of local officials, school-board members particularly, some of which led to bitter tit-for-tat campaigns in which the board members who succeeded recalled incumbents were themselves recalled. That's produced warnings, like those of GOP media consultant Bob Gardner, of "retaliation and retribution [that] will launch a continuous cycle of disruption and disillusionment, insuring that nothing is accomplished."

The recall has already produced all manner of extraneous (though maybe not entirely unintended) consequences--particularly the additional pressure on Davis and Democratic legislators to accede to GOP demands for a no-new-taxes budget with large spending cuts in higher education, healthcare and other services. Simultaneously, because public-sector employee unions and other labor groups are funding much of Davis's anti-recall campaign, it's given them even more clout with the Governor.

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