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Politicians, Voters Wonder if California Recall is a Sign of the Future - 2003-10-09


California Governor Gray Davis's words confirmed what until a few months ago seemed unthinkable: “Tonight the people did decide it is time for someone else to serve and I accept their judgment. I have placed a call to Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger just a few minutes ago to congratulate him on being elected governor.”

Californians voted in overwhelming numbers to remove Democratic Governor Davis and chose Republican candidate and Hollywood action-hero Arnold Schwarzenegger to lead them as the state faces its worst budget crisis in history.

Thad Kousser, assistant professor of political science at the University of California San Diego says the recall election is another example of California's robust democracy: “Californians have shown once again that they lead the nation in democracy. We did this with initiatives about 20 years ago, which then spread across the country. We did it with term limits about 10 years ago and now we may be starting a recall trend that will spread across the country. But I think what it showed was that Californians weren't happy with the direction the state was moving in and they weren't happy with their leader and since we had the ability to recall Gray Davis people were quite willing to exercise it.”

Supporters say that while he is a political novice, Arnold Schwarzenegger has always risen to a challenge, whether it was becoming the world's top body-builder in the 1970's or transforming himself into one of the top-paid Hollywood action stars in the 1990's. Now the former (bodybuilding title-holder) Mr. Universe, best known for his role as the Terminator in a series of Hollywood blockbuster movies, faces his biggest challenge yet, governing the State of California.

Uncertified election returns show that 55% of voters in California favored recalling Democratic Governor Gray Davis, a career politician who narrowly won re-election last November. When voters were asked to choose Mr. Davis' successor, 48% cast their ballots for Mr. Schwarzenegger.

The actor's supporters were on hand in Los Angeles to celebrate the win. After an introduction from comedian and late-night television show host Jay Leno, Mr. Schwarzenegger addressed the crowd”

JAY LENO: Ladies and gentlemen, the governor of the great state of California Arnold Schwarzenegger.

SCHWARZENEGGER: I want to reach out to everybody. To young and old, rich and poor, people of all religions, all colors, and all nationalities. I want to be the governor for the people. I want to represent everybody.

But whether Mr. Schwarzenegger will be able to reach across partisan lines remains to be seen, says Henry Brady, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of California Berkeley:

“It's probably a lot easier to get elected than it is to govern given the situation we're in here in California,” says Mr. Brady. “We have a severe budget crisis that has to do with structural problems in the way we tax and in the way we spend. He's going to be facing an $8 to $15 billion budget deficit, which is something like 10 to 20% of the total budget and he's going to have to do something about that. There are only two answers: you either increase taxes or you cut spending. And he's got a legislature, which is predominantly Democratic, which means he's going to have to get something like half the Democrats to go along with his plans in order for him to be able to pass a budget. Because in California we have a two-thirds rule, which says you have to get two-thirds of the members of the Legislature to agree before a budget is passed.”

Professor Brady says some political scientists are worried that if Mr. Schwarzenegger is unable to bring the state's finances under control, the very recall mechanism that got him elected might be used to throw him out: “One of the things we're all worried about out here in California is that if Arnold Schwarzenegger stumbles, the electorate is so angry right now given the situation in California. And a lot of that situation is structural, it's not entirely due to Gray Davis, and that if Arnold Schwarzenegger stumbles there's going to be a recall of him. And we're going to start getting into revolving recalls, in which case the governance problem, trying to solve our problems, will not be addressed.”

The state's Republican Party cheered Mr. Schwarzenegger's win. Until Tuesday's election, the Republican Party didn't have any elected official in statewide office. Professor Brady says that's because the party kept running conservative candidates who were out of the mainstream of what Californians wanted. With Mr. Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, in office, he says this gives Republican Party a chance to get back into the mainstream in California: “That obviously has implications for the nation as a whole as well, because what it means is that the Republican Party at the national level now has a friend in the statehouse in California and presumably we're going to see George W. Bush out here with Arnold Schwarzenegger sometime soon.”

Professor Brady and other political observers say simply having a Republican in the California statehouse doesn't guarantee the party can carry the state in the 2004 presidential elections. The biggest voting block in California has traditionally been registered Democrats and that hasn't changed.

And while the defeat at the polls is a blow to the California Democratic Party, the University of California at San Diego's Thad Kousser says it's not a knock out. He says the recall election was less about a political party and more about one person: Gray Davis:

“Gray Davis hasn't been a star in the Democratic Party for a while. People have recognized that he's not a charismatic leader and I don't think that this means that people aren't happy with Democratic ways of governing like they were in 1994. We have a large deficit at the federal level and that has hurt President George Bush. We have large deficits in nearly every state and that's hurt whoever is governor, Republican or Democrat. So I don't think it's a repudiation of Democratic policy so much as it is a referendum on Gray Davis' leadership.”

In order for Mr. Schwarzenegger to succeed in office, political scientists say, he must use the political momentum generated by his campaign.

Leon Panetta, a former California Congressman who later served as President Clinton's budget director and chief of staff, says Mr. Schwarzenegger should follow the steps of another Hollywood actor turned California governor, Ronald Reagan: “He's got to decide just exactly how he's going to lead. He can follow the Jesse Ventura model (the former professional wrestler who became governor of Minnesota), which is to basically go after all of the establishment and get very little done or he can follow the Ronald Reagan model which was to speak to the issues but ultimately to cut deals with the Democratic legislature. That's how Ronald Reagan governed and that's how we were able to move forward. I hope he follows the Ronald Reagan model.”

Unlike Ronald Reagan, who later served two terms as President of the United States, Mr. Schwarzenegger, who was born in Austria and became a U.S. citizen in 1983, cannot run for the nation's highest office. But his rags to riches journey from a young, poor, immigrant to Hollywood superstar and now governor of a state with the world's fifth largest economy is sure to inspire millions of Americans and others around the world.

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