California Democrats' days of chaos

Top state and national Democrats have insisted they will back Gov. Gray Davis against the recall. But their unity is quickly dissolving.


Tim Grieve
August 3, 2003 2:42AM (UTC)

Two weeks ago, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe flew into California and made what sounded like an ironclad guarantee: If the drive to recall Gov. Gray Davis made the ballot, Democrats would stand behind their governor and refuse to run against him. "I want the folks here in California to know that we are not going to have another Democrat on the ballot," McAuliffe told reporters in Los Angeles. "So if you're a California voter and you want to vote to recall Gray Davis, you are not going to have an option but a bunch of right-wing conservatives on the ballot."

But that was before -- before the recall made the ballot, before 123 candidates took out papers to enter the race to replace Davis, and before first one and then another and then another elected Democrat came forward to say that the party had better offer a big-name Democratic alternative to Davis or risk handing Republicans the keys to California. McAuliffe was asked again this week whether Democrats will stay out of the race to replace Davis. Suddenly, he was a bit more equivocal. "There are no guarantees in politics," McAuliffe told NPR's Mara Liasson. "I can tell you that we are unified today."

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It's too bad those comments came on the radio, says U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who represents the San Fernando Valley. "You couldn't see whether Terry was looking at his watch."

Clearly, time is running out for Gray Davis. On October 7, Californians will go to the polls to decide whether to recall their governor and -- if so -- to choose a replacement for him. The national press and both major parties are focused on the circus atmosphere of what seems like an impossibly fast 10-week race for the governorship. The White House is watching, national Democratic leaders are talking, and -- as if that's not enough excitement in the summer doldrums -- Arnold Schwarzenegger will appear on NBC's "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno Wednesday to announce whether he's going to get into the race. Meanwhile, the California Supreme Court will be considering a legal challenge that could cancel the race to replace Davis altogether, leaving Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante in charge of the state if voters approve the recall. One way or another, in a country used to never-ending campaigns, this one will be over almost before it begins.

But for Davis, time may be moving even more quickly. By next Saturday, Aug. 9, candidates must decide whether to enter the race to replace the governor. And unless he can somehow turn around his abysmal poll numbers by then, or at least create some upward momentum, it appears almost certain that a prominent Democrat -- mostly likely U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein -- will enter the race to protect the party in case voters decide to oust Davis from office. While Democrats aren't particularly thrilled about rescuing Davis, they do want to save the state from a Republican governor and from the boost the recall might give California Republicans heading into the 2004 presidential election.

"There's a very short period of time here," a source close to the Democratic leadership told Salon. "What folks have done is given the governor an opportunity to ramp up." Another Democratic source told Salon that Feinstein is watching the polls closely. "She's looking to see what the polls would show about her jumping in, not jumping in, how this plays out," the source said.

Meanwhile, Democratic members of Congress are pushing Feinstein hard to join the race. Sherman, a leader in the movement to draft the state's senior senator, said he talked with her Friday and urged her to run. "She listened carefully and asked about the details of what I was saying," Sherman said. Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez told Salon that she spoke with Feinstein earlier in the week. While Feinstein said she was "not inclined to get in," Sanchez expressed optimism that she "might be talked into it."

Feinstein's office declined Friday to discuss the possibility that she would enter the race, referring reporters to prior public statements in which she condemned the recall but stopped just short of ruling out a candidacy.

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Feinstein and Schwarzenegger would be instant front-runners in the race to replace Davis; if the Terminator decides, as rumored, to bow out, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican, would likely emerge as a front-runner in his place. With all three of them on the sidelines, at least for now, Davis has a few days in which to sell himself to a skeptical public.

Davis barely won reelection in November over a weak Republican challenger, millionaire businessman Bill Simon. When right-wing activists began their recall campaign earlier this year, Davis all but ignored it. When it finally caught steam -- powered by $1.6 million from Republican Rep. Darrell Issa -- Davis began to denounce the recall drive as a coup attempt by disgruntled Republicans. When the recall made the ballot in July, Davis' team stressed that it would cost the taxpayers $30 million to $60 million at a time when California is already facing a fiscal meltdown. And then, as in both of his runs for governor, Davis' surrogates went on the attack against potential Republican rivals.

On Thursday, however, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer warned Davis publicly that Democrats would desert him if he engaged in another "puke" campaign. And by Friday afternoon, Davis spokesman Gabriel Sanchez was out with a new message, suddenly pitching Davis a problem-solver who had made progress in cleaning up California's air and water and improving California's lagging public schools.

Saying he had not "heard anything" about a deadline for Davis to show improvement in his polls, Sanchez said: "He's the governor, and he will continue to be the governor. He's about finding solutions, and that's what he's doing right now."

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That may be the case, but it's not clear that Democrats will wait much longer. While the Davis campaign and the national Democratic leadership apparently believe that the best way to stop the recall is to keep a viable Democratic alternative off the ballot, those in the draft-Feinstein movement see that strategy as too risky and unlikely to work.

Republicans will be energized to vote on Oct. 7 -- not just against Davis, who inspires in them a Clintonian level of disgust, but for Schwarzenegger, Riordan or one of the other Republicans who may be on the ballot. But if Davis is the only Democrat on the ballot, there may be little reason for Democrats to leave their homes because so few Democrats see the governor as worth saving.

"I think if you have an energetic candidate, a good, strong candidate like Dianne, then more Democrats will come out to vote," said Sanchez. "She's enough of a statesperson to campaign and say, 'Vote no on the first question and vote for Dianne on the second question.'"

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As Sherman says, California Democrats "can walk and chew gum at the same time." Party leaders have to present their voters with a two-step strategy if they want to maximize their chances of holding on to Davis' seat -- with Davis in it or not.

"The unfortunate fact is that we need the best possible strategy to maximize all of our chances of winning," said Sherman. But, he said, the national Democratic leadership remains in denial about the recall drive. "When somebody gets bad news, they go through those eight steps, starting with denial. That whole grieving process can last a while, and it often lasts right until you have to respond logically. And we don't have to respond logically until next week. For now, we can react with denial, with anger, with all those steps, because we are angry and defiant. And only when those emotions decline do you do what you have to do."

Sherman said he was less than confident that the Democratic leadership would get through the denial stage and into something else before next week's deadline to enter the race. "If they had a month, I'd be confident that they would," he said. "We all have a belief that this whole process is unfair to Davis, and so there's a tendency to want to follow his lead and to embrace solutions that are not only in the state's interest but also his own."

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California State Sen. Dean Florez said Democrats should be careful about tying their political future too closely to Davis' -- a point he said local elected officials might grasp more clearly than national Democratic leaders like McAuliffe. "I think it's important for Democrats to show that this is bigger than one person," Florez told Salon. "This is about the best strategy for the state and the best strategy for Californians. It makes me very upset that the national party would send someone out here and say I don't get a right to a choice. I think party unity is a good thing, but I'm not up for a Thelma-and-Louise suicide off the cliff."

Florez, who said he may enter the race if Feinstein does not, said he believes the national Democratic leadership suffers from "political deafness" in California. "There's this attitude that somehow we know better -- forget the 35 percent of the people who signed the recall petitions were Democrats, forget the fact that as many Democrats are dissatisfied with Davis as Republicans are," Florez said. "They think they can play this off as some sort of Republican cabal, but I think it is an overall sentiment of both Republicans and Democrats that they are not happy with the direction the state is heading in. We ought to be listening to that, and we ought to be providing candidates who respond to it."

McAuliffe didn't return a call from Salon. But Jennifer Crider, deputy communications director for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said that the Democratic leadership has reasons to fight the recall that go far beyond saving Davis' job. The recall, she said, is part of a larger Republican pattern, and Democrats have to stand up and stop it.

"If you look at what happened in Florida during the 2000 election, if you look at what the Republicans are tying to do in Texas with redistricting, and you look at what the Republicans are trying to do in California -- it's a pattern where Republicans are trying to use the system to change elections," Crider said. "It's really concerning to the leader as an attack on representative democracy."

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The Republican coup theme isn't the only way in which Florida 2000 may echo in California 2003; there could be politically motivated judicial intervention as well. Several California taxpayers have filed petitions asking the California Supreme Court to cancel the second half of the recall vote -- the part of the ballot on which voters are asked to name a successor to Davis in the event that he is recalled. The taxpayers argue that, under the California Constitution, the lieutenant governor is to fill "any vacancy" in the governor's office, even one caused by the recall of the sitting governor.

It's a plausible but not overwhelming legal argument, says UCLA law professor Daniel Lowenstein, an expert on election law. The question is whether the Republican-dominated Supreme Court will bite. Lowenstein believes that is unlikely, but other political observers aren't so sure. Tony Quinn, who edits the California Target Book, a sourcebook for political operators in the state, says that the court has a history of deferring to what he calls the "political ruling classes." And Republican or Democrat, he says, the members of that class are opposed to the chaos that the recall has wrought -- not to mention the fact that it has opened the door for nontraditional candidates like Arianna Huffington and Green Party member Peter Camejo to make serious runs for the governor's office.

The court has asked all parties to file their briefs in the case by Wednesday, suggesting a rushed schedule that could lead to a decision even before the candidates' filing deadline on Saturday. Quinn suggests that such a scenario is likely. "I've kind of had this view all along that the pro-recall people don't really understand how much they're taking on the political class," he said. "The political class is made up of sophisticated people who will frustrate them at every turn."


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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