Total recall

Gov. Gray Davis gamed the system, and now the system is about to strike back.

By Arianna Huffington

Published July 9, 2003 5:32PM (EDT)

Californians are used to earthquakes. Wait a few seconds and they're over. Life goes back to normal.

This one's different. It started slow, but it just won't go away. I'm talking, of course, about the snowballing effort to oust Gov. Gray Davis in a special recall election.

All across the state, Democratic leaders are emitting a collective "Oh my God!" as they realize that Davis probably will be forced to face the wrath of vengeful voters incensed over the state's $38 billion budget shortfall.

But instead of reflexively circling the wagons, California Democrats need to step back, take a deep breath and admit that there is more going on here than an underhanded power grab by disgruntled Republicans with too much time and money on their hands.

Yes, the pro-recall movement is redolent with unsavory ingredients, including financial backer Rep. Darrell Issa's brushes with the law, the out-of-state mercenaries unleashed to collect anti-Davis signatures at a buck a pop and the simple fact that Davis was reelected fair and square just eight months ago.

However, there's more to the recall attempt than that. A Los Angeles Times poll released last week found that 51 percent of California voters supported Davis' removal, up from 39 percent in March. Perhaps even more meaningful is that 33 percent of Democratic voters backed the proposed recall.

Those numbers speak of a voter discontent that goes way beyond the ambitions of Issa and the Republicans. They show that voters are sick and tired of having their electoral choices severely limited by a ruling class that has done everything in its power to maintain the status quo, including the latest round of under-the-radar redistricting deals that make it all but impossible to unseat incumbents. This is a bipartisan power grab. In California, a shifty redistricting deal agreed upon by both parties in 2001 created safe seats for almost every member of the state Legislature.

And no one is more masterful at using the advantages of incumbency to shrink voters' choices than the governor. Remember how Davis virtually handpicked his opponent in the last election by digging into his massive campaign war chest to alter the outcome of the state's Republican primary? Because of the $10 million he spent on ads attacking GOP favorite Dick Riordan, Davis didn't have to face the rival he most feared. Instead, he got to take on the far less electable Bill Simon.

So, eight months ago, Davis gamed the system, and now the system is about to strike back.

California's recall provision was added to the state Constitution in 1911, one of a host of Progressive-era reforms designed to put more power in the hands of voters and less in the hands of powerful corporations, such as Southern Pacific Railroad, and the political bosses who did their bidding.

Big money is again calling the tune in California -- Davis never met a check-wielding lobbyist he didn't cozy up to -- and it appears that disgruntled voters will use the recall bid to break through the special-interest din and let their voices be heard.

The same impulse can be seen on the national level in the burgeoning influence of and the Internet-based fundraising success of presidential candidate Howard Dean.

So, however corrupt the parentage of this recall effort, it offers Californians a golden opportunity to send a message: that it's time to reorder our policy priorities and get back to serving the people. It can also be used as a cudgel to attack the Bush administration, hammering home how its economic policy of tax cuts über alles, to say nothing of its way-too-cozy relationship with crooked energy companies like Enron, have led California to the brink of financial disaster.

The California shake-up could turn into the Big One -- an 8.0 on the political Richter scale with aftershocks felt as far away as the Oval Office.

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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