The recall - legitimate voter gauge

Ask Ted Costa what the California recall movement is all about, and the recall's original proponent argues that the swift petition drive reflects widespread public revulsion not only against its target, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, but against politics as usual in California.

Mr. Costa sees ousting Mr. Davis as merely the first step in a systemic reform of this huge state's politics. And there's evidence for his assertion that the movement is not entirely the work of the Republican right, as many elected Democrats claim, even though one wealthy conservative congressman certainly accelerated the process.

Understanding the eagerness of more than 1.5 million Californians who lined up 12 and 15 deep to sign recall petitions requires more than the obvious explanations of unhappiness with the state's budget mess and the fact that many blame Davis for the energy crunch of 2000 and 2001.

These factors certainly helped make Davis the nation's first governor to face a recall election since North Dakota's Lynn J. Frazier lost his office in 1921. The vote is scheduled for Oct. 7, less than one year after Davis won reelection to a second term.

But by themselves, neither these things nor purely partisan feelings made Davis the least popular political figure in California, with a positive rating of 24 percent in recent surveys.

The recall transcends party loyalties, as shown by multiple polls indicating Democrats provided more than one-third of the petition signatures.

These people, Costa claims, want the same reforms he does, starting with tight limits on campaign donations to stop corporations, unions, wealthy individuals, and casino-owning Indian tribes from giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates and political parties.

"We need to clean up this whole system," says Costa, president of the People's Advocate antitax lobby. "We need to end the system where whatever happens is directly related to where the money comes from. I don't know if the replacement governor will do this, but I do believe the voters will send an unmistakable message when they kick Davis out."

But prospective candidates to replace Davis so far have said nothing about what they might do, preferring to lambaste Davis. The possible Republican corps includes actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, Rep. Darrell Issa (the Viper car-alarm magnate who put up $1.5 million for the signature drive) and 2002 Republican candidate Bill Simon.

No major Democrat has yet entered the race, as the party works to frame the vote as a straight-up choice between Davis and the GOP. But some Democrats, including former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, have not ruled out running. The filing deadline is Aug. 9.

Davis insists the recall is merely "a Republican attempt to hijack state government," promising to "fight it like a Bengal tiger." Costa retorts that Davis gradually became symbolic of a corrupt system he's used effectively over more than 30 years.

Voters aren't yet saying this to pollsters. Most petition signers named energy and the budget as their reasons.

But California has missed its June 30 legal deadline in 18 of the past 22 years, so this year's Sacramento deadlock was far from unique. And Davis was reelected last fall with the energy crunch fresh in voters' minds.

"It's a lot more than those things," says octogenarian businessman Hugh Temple, who has voted in every California election of the past 60 years. "The system stinks."

With obvious disgust, Mr. Temple cited the Oracle Corp. software scandal of May 2002. In that episode, the state issued a no-bid $91 million contract to Oracle - hours before a Davis appointee involved in the deal collected a $25,000 campaign check from the company. Davis fired the employee and returned the money after newspapers exposed the incident.

The contract was canceled, but the impression persisted that cash buys public policy and contracts. This might have been one reason almost a fourth of those who voted in the 1998 gubernatorial race stayed away last fall - even though the intervening years saw hundreds of thousands of new citizens register to vote.

"This isn't about extremist politics, even though Eastern pundits have bought that line," says Costa. "A lot of us want this to be a rerun of the Progressive Era." That movement in 1911 gave California the ballot initiative process, direct primary elections, and the recall itself - populist reforms that spread to many other states.

Now some officeholders in those states fear recall excitement may spread, just as more than 20 states copied the property tax reforms of California's 1978 Proposition 13.

Already, antitax activists in Nevada are eager to recall Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn for convincing his state's Supreme Court last month to overturn a longtime requirement for a two-thirds legislative majority to pass state budgets.

"They want me to go there and run a recall," Costa says. "I say if they're unhappy, they should run their own recall. That's what this is all about: letting people decide their own fate and not having it dictated by corporations and the very rich."

Thomas D. Elias, whose syndicated column appears in 72 California newspapers, wrote this essay for the Monitor.

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