Californians will decide October 7 whether to remove their governor, Gray Davis, from office. If they vote to remove him they will also choose a replacement. Whoever is in the job after October 7 faces major challenges.
Frontrunners include Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor, and Democrat Cruz Bustamante, the state's lieutenant governor. But the extensive list of candidates has the serious and the silly, from a political commentator to a bounty hunter. Qualified or not, they face a daunting challenge if elected.
Mark DiCamillo, director of California's Field political poll, says the state has serious problems, which started two years ago. "The beginning of it was the electricity crisis that was somewhat unique to the state. But as things unfolded nationally, the U.S. stock market took a hit, the dot-com bubble burst, affecting this state perhaps more than any other part of the country, affecting the government financial structure with tax revenues suddenly going from a big surplus to a big deficit," he says.
It was, in short, a conjunction of circumstances that created a "perfect storm." The governor won reelection, but in a grudging way, says Mr. DiCamillo. "And by carrying out a very negative campaign which led to his only winning by about five points against a very weak candidate, in a record low turnout environment, where people were very unenthused, and basically voting the lesser of two evils," he says.
As the state's budget deficit climbed to $38 billion, Californians in all walks of life became more concerned and angry. Fees were raised and services cut at public universities and community colleges, worrying Leslie Crippen, a 22-year-old psychology student. "I have dreams of helping adolescents, and becoming a professional and maybe owning a house or a car, or doing something very productive with my life," she says.
Ms. Crippen plans to stay in school, but feels those dreams are threatened.
There are cuts in public health, putting strain on private charities, like a clinic operated by Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Cathy O'Brien, the clinic's mental health coordinator, says, "We are a free clinic. We don't bill for our services. And so it will affect us in that I think more people will come to us out of need because as other centers close, then there will be less and less resources."
Across California, young families and senior citizens, the poor and the wealthy, all worry about the impact of the state's disastrous finances.
Much of the dissatisfaction over the fiscal crisis is focused on Governor Davis, who would lose the recall election if it were held today, according to voter polls.
Dale Carlson of the Pacific Exchange, where stocks and options are traded, says business people are worried about the economy, and the recall. "It brings a measure of instability to the state that we don't need right now. And to the extent that the business community is concerned about the budget deficit and California's long-term economic prospects, recalling the governor doesn't take you in a direction that helps solve those problems," he says.
A major business association, California Business Roundtable, also opposes the recall, but director Bill Hauck calls this an opportunity to reform the state legislature, which he says is just as responsible as the governor for the crisis. He says state government needs a financial reserve and more effective ways to balance revenues and spending.
He would also extend term limits, which now restrict legislators to six or eight years in office. "We have no institutional memory and we have tremendous inexperience in the Capitol trying to make decisions about fundamental questions in what amounts to the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world," he says. "It makes no sense to me."
Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe says the California legislature is highly polarized, with most districts safely held by the respective parties. That gives party activists, who tend to be more extreme than the average voter, effective veto power over candidates. The result is often gridlock: Democrats cannot vote to cut social programs and Republicans must vote against higher taxes. Those who don't fall into line may lose their party's backing.
To make matters more difficult, budgets and spending hikes can only be approved by a so-called "supermajority" of two-thirds of the legislature, not a simple majority, as most states require. Ms. Jeffe says all of this needs to be changed to break the political deadlock. "Whether or not all of it will be done and when it will be done, those are the critical questions. All of that requires an education of the populace. All of that requires strong political leadership. All of that requires trust. And I don't see any of them on the horizon," she says.
She says that is the case regardless of who is serving as governor.