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Foreign Journalists Struggle to Understand California Recall Vote


For much of the past few weeks, as George W. Bush continued fund-raising for his re-election bid and nine Democrats continued their quest to be the one to try to replace him as president, it seemed as though everyone in America was more interested in California politics, and the campaign to recall the state's governor, Gray Davis.

That election will be held on October 7, with 135 candidates vying to replace the embattled governor… among those on the ballot, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it isn't just America that is following every twist and turn of this unusual campaign. The eyes and the ears of the world are also watching and listening and trying to figure out just what's going on… and so, too, are the world's reporters. Of the many high-profile events that have so far marked a wild summer in California politics, it was a decidedly low-profile event that drew a large group of reporters to Sacramento August 7.

These journalists from around the globe gathered in a hotel banquet room across the street from California's state capital to speak with recall organizers. Their questions were more basic than many of those posed by members of the American press corps, though not necessarily any easier to answer.

"You mention that you need a governor who will lead and everything, but all you stand for is getting rid of one…," said one reporter.

"Our job in this process is simply to take care of the first part of the problem…," was the response.

These reporters have descended on California en masse to try to understand the effort to recall Governor Gray Davis… and then explain it to a world audience now hungry for details.

"We were getting a lot of interest from the foreign media about the process of the recall, about how it will be structured, about just what is it about California politics that makes life so interesting for all of us," said Chris Wysocki, chief political strategist for "Rescue California", the committee that gathered signatures for the recall election.

So far, Mr. Wysocki and his colleagues have received calls from media outlets in Asia, Europe and Africa.

Many of those inquiries were originally made to the U.S. State Department… which has nothing to do with state politics. Callers were given the recall campaign's phone number and reporters from a dozen countries came to Sacramento specifically for what felt like an introductory political science class. And what they got… surprised them.

"In terms of political language, we have no expression for this," said Jurgen Schoenstein, a reporter for the German magazine Focus. "Recalling a just elected governor, or any public official, and replacing him with pretty much anybody, and feeling good about that, is inconceivable to our understanding of democracy."

And that seemed to be a common theme among the two dozen reporters who attended this crash course.

Some, like Italian newspaper reporter Daniella Roveda, were critical of the way organizers were able to qualify the recall for the California ballot… with petitions circulated by paid campaign workers.

"This is a way for a single individual to hijack the political system, by buying signatures, essentially, and get rid of a governor that's elected by hundreds of thousands of people," she said.

And there seemed to be a sort of disconnect at this workshop. Even while recall organizers tried to explain the "how-to's" of the process, these journalists still struggled to understand the "why."

"It seems to be driven by money," said Dutch reporter Ans Bouwamans who wondered how Americans ended up feeling, as she believes, so gloomy about their government. "What strikes me every time, is that people seem to be so powerless here, they don't seem to have any influence on what happens, while this is the biggest democracy in the world. I meet so many people who disagree with what's happening, that you know, they don't know how to change it."

Ms. Bouwamans said she wondered if this effort to change things will be different.

In fact, all of the reporters seemed fascinated by whether the recall would become another of the many exports from California.

But, they all also agreed with the less lofty sentiments of reporter Yoichi Toyota, of the newspaper Tokyo Shimbun.

"Most readers want to know, Schwarzenegger, win or lose," he said.

That fascination is likely to continue all the way through to October 7, the day of California's recall election. Recall supporters say they are now lining up bi-lingual volunteers to answer media calls in languages from French to Mandarin Chinese.

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