Santa Monica, California
Several staggered rows of grayish papier-mâum;ché headstones have sprouted on the grassy quad of Santa Monica College--the crown jewel of Southern California's once envied and now battered community-college network. ANTHROPOLOGY R.I.P. reads one stone. Another marks the grave of some technical classes. And so on. Soon those faux grave markers placed by student and faculty protesters may mark the very real end of the political career of the nation's most powerful Democratic governor, Gray Davis.
A mind-boggling $35 billion budget deficit is causing a cascade of slashing cuts not only in education but also in health and social services. Those cuts, in turn, are helping fuel a Republican-backed move to recall the governor before his second term is up in 2006. When the recall was first launched a few months back it seemed immediately to falter. Spearheaded by a hard-right faction of the state GOP, launched at a Sacramento rally attended by fringe groups branding the very centrist Davis a "socialist" and lacking any serious funding, the measure seemed doomed to the margins. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's refusal to fund the recall seemed to seal its fate.
Well...not so quick. On May 6, conservative California Congressman Darrell Issa, who has long harbored ambitions of higher office, announced he was going to actively support the measure. Considered to be worth upward of $200 million, Issa could easily come up with the estimated $2 million to $3 million it would take to make the recall a viable threat. As UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain told the Los Angeles Times, the recall effort has needed "a sugar daddy, and if Darrell Issa is willing to be the sugar daddy, that helps a lot." Already this week recall organizers plan to present their first 100,000 signatures to state authorities. That's the threshold necessary for California to officially track the rest of the signature gathering. Eventually some 900,000 signatures will have to be collected to get the measure on the ballot.
Can it happen here? You bet. Not only does Governor Davis suffer from a Yeltsin-like popularity rating of 27 percent according to a recent statewide poll, but he's now started up doing the two things he does best: raising money and alienating voters. Davis is barred from running for a third term so he can't use the new funds for another stab at the state governorship. His spokesman denied the new round of fundraising was in response to the recall but admitted that, indeed, the funds could eventually be used for that purpose. No kidding.
Davis nearly lost his re-election bid last November to bumbling GOP neophyte Bill Simon precisely because so many voters were disgusted by his rather obsessive fundraising. His re-election campaign spent a record $78 million. Immediately after the election Davis put the brakes on fundraising events. But on May 23 he will be joined by an army of hundreds of Sacramento lobbyists at a $5,000 a ticket fundraiser at Clint Eastwood's swanky Tehama golf course in posh Carmel. It can hardly be an accident that the event comes precisely at a time when lobbyists are scurrying to fend off the tsunami of budget cuts washing forth from the governor's office. The invitation to the event, in true Davis style, includes a reminder that "There are no limits to the amount a person or organization can contribute to this committee."
The Los Angeles Times reports "platinum" sponsors of the event are offered eight tickets for a discount price of $25,000. Davis has simultaneously tried to patch up frosty relations with powerful labor unions, most notably the California Teachers Association. He rankled the teachers last spring when in the middle of a policy meeting with the union president he reportedly demanded a million-dollar campaign contribution. But Davis's biggest supporters still hail from the law-and-order community. The hosts of the gold-plated golfing fundraiser are the California Association of Highway Patrolmen and the Peace Officers Research Association of California.
As Davis prepares to rake in the next round of campaign tribute, the rest of the state is girding for the budget sledgehammer. With the state and national economy still in the doldrums, little light flickers at the end of the tunnel. Davis has proposed a number of regressive revenue measures, specifically an increase in the sales tax. The GOP, meanwhile, steadfastly refuses to sign off on any new taxes and prefers the meat-cleaver approach. In the past week, a bipartisan agreement was reached to issue state bonds to make up the shortfall in state pension funds.
But even this is just a Band-Aid and the spending cuts will still be draconian. Hundreds of community college classes are on the chopping block. A proposed rise in tuition from $11 to $24 a unit is expected to toss thousands of working-class students out of the system. From Eureka to San Diego, public school districts are making similar cuts and layoffs, and classroom size is being increased, reversing a decade's worth of reforms that aimed for smaller student-to-teacher ratios. Public health systems are also feeling the crunch and California papers are full of reports of clinic and hospital closings. The state legislature is currently considering a diabolically designed measure that will implement a new series of bureaucratic bumps with the express purpose of churning thousands out of the medicare system. If Davis isn't careful he may soon find himself among those who get dumped.