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California's Economic Woes Spur Drive to Recall Governor Davis - 2003-08-15


MR. MORALES: It has been called a carnival. A former child T-V star, a professional comedian, a pornographic publisher and scores of others all want to become California's next governor.

Leading the pack to unseat Gray Davis is bodybuilder turned actor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is perhaps best known for playing a killer robot in his Terminator films, followed by Democrat Cruz Bustamante, California's lieutenant governor.

In a state known for its often unusual politics, how did this come about? And what does it mean for California and the rest of the country?

Joining me to examine the October 7th recall vote are: Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Senior Scholar at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; and political scientist John Pitney of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

Professor Jeffe, let me begin with you. What prompted this recall vote and is the vote itself a problem for California?

MS. JEFFE: You have a governor who has the lowest public approval rating probably in the history of polling in California. You had an energy crisis two years ago for which the electorate blames that governor. You had an economic downturn when the dot-com boom went bust and the national economy went down the tubes. We have an historically high budget deficit of $38-plus billion. And you have a governor who attempted to cut that deficit by using a piece of legislation that was signed in 1998, which rolled back the vehicle license fee, the car tax, and which, in times of an economic downturn, could be ratcheted back up again. He triggered it; he didn't explain anything about that to the electorate. So you have an electorate that is angry at the governor for the energy crisis, the budget deficit and what they perceive to be a singular decision to triple the car tax. And those tax notices are going out [i.e., being mailed to the public] now. And to add to that, California Republican U-S Congressman Darrell Issa spent $7 million of his own money to coordinate the recall. Have I got it right, Jack?

MR. PITNEY: That's about right. And to add a couple of elements to The Perfect Storm (a popular Hollywood film) . . . It's California law that to get on the ballot, a recall needs some 900,000 signatures on a petition.

MS. JEFFE: Actually, it needs 12% of the number of people who voted in the last statewide election. And the reason it needed only 900,000 signatures was because in 2002, Gray Davis had a purposeful strategy of keeping turnout low.

MR. PITNEY: That's right. And so Darrell Issa with this money was able to get a sufficient number of signatures. Actually, he paid what ended up to be about a dollar per signature in terms of his expenditures. According to California law, the threshold for getting on to the recall ballot is relatively low. You need to pay only $3500 and get a very small number of signatures. That is why we have 135 candidates on the ballot. And that, even as much as the recall itself, is what's drawing all of this attention.

MR. MORALES: Jack Pitney, no matter who wins if Gray Davis is replaced -- and we still don't know whether that's going to happen -- if he's recalled, will the person who winds up governing California be able to work with the state legislature after all of this?

MR. PITNEY: That's up to the person who wins and his or her ability to deal with politicians of another party, if it's a Republican. Or even a Democrat might have difficulty working with the legislature. But whoever it is, that person is going to have to deal with the same economy, the same bad budget numbers, and the same constitutional constraints on spending and taxes that Governor Davis has had to work with. And whoever is elected is going to find that there is no magic solution to the state's budget crisis. And the decisions that any governor makes in 2004 will likely be pretty unpopular.

MS. JEFFE: I think that it's also up to the legislature, Jack. And both houses of the legislature are controlled by the Democrats. One of Democratic Governor Gray Davis' problems is that he couldn't deal with the legislature and the legislature really didn't want to deal with him. And I wonder whether a Democratically controlled legislature will be happy to work with any Republican governor, if it is a Republican who wins, if the recall is passed because that governor will have been the reason that the Democratic Party lost the state house.

MR. PITNEY: Yes, that's very much an open question. Even Democrats, though, would have a difficult time. Even though [Democrat] Cruz Bustamante was speaker of the California Assembly at one time, his campaign manager Richard Ross is a lobbyist whose hardball tactics have alienated even members of the legislature. And that takes some doing. It's like unnecessary roughness in hockey. You have to be pretty brazen to get that amount of attention. So even if Bustamante should top the replacement ballot, he too might have some difficulty. But again, whoever is governor -- Republican or Democrat -- 2004 will be a very difficult year.

MR. MORALES: We have about a minute left and I would like to ask each of you, beginning with Professor Sherry Jeffe: For an international audience, what lessons about the American experience should people take away from all of this?

MS. JEFFE: This is an exercise in direct democracy, for better or for worse. It's part of what makes America and California so vital. It is part of the frontier ethos of California. It really does underscore that, after all, we are a libertarian state. It also has some very pragmatic lessons in that what starts in California tends to spread across the country. And so other states within the United States and countries abroad ought to be taking a very good look at what happens here. Also, we are the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world, depending on the condition of the stock market in the U.S., I guess. We are an engine of international trade. The worry about all of this is that this will cause a dysfunction of government even greater than the one we have now. It may destabilize the political system; it may destabilize the economy. And that will have a ripple effect around the world.

MR. MORALES: And Jack Pitney, you get the last word.

MR. PITNEY: The political theorist and commentator on American society, Alexis de Tocqueville said that there's scarcely a political question in the United States that sooner or later does not become a judicial question. And I think that's as true of this recall process as anything else in American politics. One thing that's certain is that the election has already triggered a lot of litigation. And if it's a fairly close election, the process of counting this incredibly complex ballot will lead to even more litigation.

MR. MORALES: We'll have to end it there. I would like to thank my guests: political scientists Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; and John Pitney of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

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