Losing One for the Gipper 

Oakland Republican celebrity and NAACP official Shannon Reeves watches as his Grand Old Party destroys what Reagan built.

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In fact, no fewer than three different individuals are working on their own recall campaigns against Governor Gray Davis, who is just one month into his second term. Howard Kaloogian, the former Republican state assemblyman, has hooked up with right-wing KSFO talk show host Melanie Morgan to mount his own recall drive, which seems merely designed to give talk radio junkies something to gab about at the water cooler. Loose-cannon Democrat Pat Caddell, former pollster for Jerry Brown, has been floating the recall notion around since the election. But Ted Costa, the antitax activist and onetime protégé of Proposition 13 godfather Paul Gann, is mounting the most serious drive to hound Davis out of office.

According to Tony Andrade, a consultant for Costa's organization People's Advocate, Davis should be recalled because he's, like, bad. "The primary reason is that Davis has mismanaged state funds," Andrade says. "He has not been able to handle the pressures and challenges that have come to him." Specifically, the recall petition states, "The grounds of the recall are as follows: Gross mismanagement of California finances by overspending taxpayer money; threatening public safety by cutting funds to local government; failing to account for the exorbitant costs of the energy fiasco; and failing in general to deal with the state's major problems until they get to the crisis stage."

In short, Davis spends too much money and couldn't figure out how to handle the energy crisis. But a recall is the political equivalent of capital punishment, for which there should presumably be a capital offense: taking $100,000 bribes from Howard Hughes, or breaking into your opponents' psychiatrist's office, that sort of thing. Recalling a governor because you don't like his fiscal philosophy -- especially while he is trying to deal with a terrible budget crisis -- is just plain goofy, as Republican minority leader Dave Cox tacitly acknowledged last week when he announced his opposition to the campaign.

And that's the difference between Costa and Cox: The latter actually has to help govern California. He knows that managing the sixth-largest economy in the world is, you know, complicated. Costa, on the other hand, specializes in sowing mischief at the ballot box through a series of initiatives with populist appeal but disastrous consequences. Over the years, he has helped push Proposition 13 (which gutted the public schools), term limits (which, far from producing a generation of Jeffersonian citizen legislators, turned the Senate and Assembly into a gaggle of idiotic rookies constantly looking toward their next job), and an initiative to make English the official language of California (which had no practical consequences but whose campaign stoked racial animus, apparently out of pure spite). Costa's experience in government is limited to a stint on his local water board, but his talent for maliciously building structural crutches into the mechanics of government, while masquerading as a populist champion, is considerable.

Despite the obvious folly of the recall campaign, it could actually work. Costa has roughly 160 days to collect 900,000 signatures, but all he needs is one right-wing zealot with a lot of money to pay petitioners, and his work is done. "The stupidest idea can get on the ballot," observes UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. "You can put a measure on the ballot to make the state flag pink. You cannot discount the possibility that some right-winger will have enough money to get it on the ballot."

Does anyone doubt that somewhere in California, there's a Darryl Issa or Richard Mellon Scaife who will jump at the chance to spend enough money to bring the state to a grinding halt, just because his boy didn't win in November? Some eccentric for whom the fabric of civil society is less important than the imperative to win at all costs, who has the resources to jeopardize the basic functions of state government in pursuit of some hyperpartisan fantasy? As for what the ballot would look like, brace yourselves for the most surreal aspect to this lunacy yet. If Davis is recalled, the voters will have to simultaneously pick his replacement -- circumventing the party primary system and allowing any party member to throw his hat in the ring. That means that forty candidates could appear on the ballot, and whoever gets the most votes wins, even if they win only 7 percent of the vote. Pat Buchanan, Gary Coleman, that Joe Millionaire guy -- any schmuck with a smidgeon of name recognition could be our next governor, if the field of candidates is wide enough.

California has a history of inventing far too many of the moronic ideas that afflict modern government and then exporting these plagues to the rest of the country. From tax revolts and term limits to three-strikes laws, our state's systematic abuse of the initiative process has done this country no favors over the last thirty years. (At least Pete Wilson's innovation with immigrant-bashing had the happy side effect of dashing his party on the rocks of demographic change).

And now comes the recall effort. If this idea catches on, every state in the union could soon paralyze itself with small-minded recalls, all thanks to California. And if the Republicans pull this off, what's to stop the Democrats from doing the same thing? As clichéd as this sounds, stunts like this coarsen state politics and contribute to public cynicism, which depresses voter turnout. And the number of signatures you need to put a recall item on the ballot is a proportion of turnout in the last election. That means that the more irresponsible recall drives succeed, the easier it is to pull off the next irresponsible recall drive.

But that's what happens when one side of the political spectrum finds itself stripped of innovation, creativity, and popular support. A century ago, Governor Hiram Johnson's initiative and recall reforms were designed to wrest power from the state's railroad barons. Today, in the hands of a strongly motivated but politically isolated few, they are simply a way to play at politics without having to do the heavy lifting of building a party machine.


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