Politics & Policy

The Art of The Recall

How many political lives does Gray Davis have?

California languished when aging flower child Jerry Brown was governor a generation ago. His “small is beautiful” approach decimated the state’s infrastructure. It sent jobs elsewhere and aggravated the state’s housing crisis.

Brown’s chief of staff was Gray Davis. Brown fell into Asian mysticism, then political oblivion, before reinventing himself more recently as the first black mayor of Oakland (much as Bill Clinton was America’s first black president).

But Davis immediately landed on his feet. He served eight years in the state assembly, then another eight years as state controller. Then, while Republican Pete Wilson was governor, Democrat Davis was his mischievous lieutenant governor.

In 1998, Davis ran for governor in the Democrat primary. Many thought Davis would lose to the $800 million man, Al Checchi. Indeed, the former Northwest Airlines CEO spent more than 5 percent of his wealth ($44 million) on a frills campaign. But, even by California standards, Checchi’s campaign was bumbling. The Washington Post later revealed Checchi’s campaign fed him phony poll numbers. Checchi thought he was winning, when he was losing.

So it was, in 1998, that Gray Davis conserved his relatively lesser campaign war chest for a strong close against Checchi. Davis then went on in November to defeat Republican Dan Lungren. In other words, Davis led a charmed political life. The campaigns of Al Checchi, Dan Lungren and Bill Simon provided Davis with victory-by-default. Davis has been discounted prematurely. Each time, he has had the last laugh.

For example, in 1992, he ran in a Democrat primary for U.S. Senate against Dianne Feinstein. Davis deservedly suffered a humiliating defeat, and he was thought to be disabled politically. His infamous television ad had compared Feinstein to convicted income-tax felon Leona Helmsley. A prominent Democrat assemblywoman called Davis “desperate and despicable.” NOW’s California coordinator suggested Davis was “uncomfortable with women…a sexist.” The president of Emily’s List called the Davis attack “beyond the bounds of normal politics.” The Sacramento Bee said the Davis ad “raises questions about his fitness and Davis should be ashamed of himself.”

Actually, Davis should be ashamed, of much more. Not that Davis did not quickly redeemed his credentials with the women’s groups. But he went on to become arguably California’s worst governor. His fiscal incompetence has virtually bankrupt the state treasury. He pretended there was no energy crisis, then acted belatedly. He stupidly put the state in debt to buy energy at high long-term rates.

He imprudently increased state spending far beyond the combined growth of population and inflation. He hid a growing budget deficit, until it became overbearing. Along the way, he became known as the egregious “pay for play” governor. His obsession with campaign dollars seemed to compromise, if not paralyze, public policy.

Surely, there is a unique case that Governor Gray Davis should be recalled. Moreover, within a couple of months, a broad coalition could be assembled. People who agree on nothing else would unite. A credible effort could succeed.

But, alas, a premature effort to recall Davis has begun. It is heavy on tactics, light on strategy. It promises to be offensively Republican. As if to provide a second bite at the apple to sore losers. At worst, the recall could falter. Thus, would an emboldened Davis luck out again, perhaps even to run for president someday. At best, the recall could partly succeed, that is, merely replace Davis with a similar Democrat.

There is another way.

If only the recall could be put on hold, postponed, and then done right.

— Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist. In 1979, he created the unprecedented successful citywide campaign to recall Los Angeles School Board President Howard Miller (nemesis of former National Review publisher William Rusher) and in 1995 provided the strategy for the successful recall campaign against Republican-turned-Democrat Speaker of the State Assembly Doris Allen.


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