Cover Story

Total recall

How grassroots conservatives used the Internet and talk radio in the first successful drive to force a recall vote of a California governor

Issue: "California's total recall," Aug. 2, 2003

TWO EGGS OVER-MEDIUM, bacon, tomato slices, and over a million voter signatures. That's what Howard Kaloogian enjoyed for breakfast at Coco's Bakery Restaurant off Interstate 15 in Escondido, Calif. Mr. Kaloogian, who co-engineered the campaign to recall California Gov. Gray Davis, considered adding a fresh-baked muffin to his plate, then rejected it: too many carbs. The estate-planning attorney and former California assemblyman is hoping Golden State voters will soon reject Gov. Davis.

Mr. Kaloogian sipped his coffee then leaned forward over his breakfast plate, glowering. "There have been 31 attempts to recall a California governor," he said. "But nobody's succeeded because nobody has been as bad as Gray Davis."

Nobody's succeeded, that is, until now. On July 23, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley said the campaign that began in March to recall the state's top Democrat had collected 1,356,408 valid voter signatures. That's nearly 50 percent more than needed to qualify the first gubernatorial recall election in state history.

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By law, a special statewide election must be held within 80 days of the signature verification, and officials set the special election for Oct. 7. That vote will determine whether Gov. Davis will lose his job, and if he does, who will replace him. He is the first California governor to face a recall election since GOP Gov. Hiram Johnson signed a public-official "lemon law" in 1911. State legislatures have impeached governors-Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham in 1988, for example-but only one governor in U.S. history has ever been forced out by voters: North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier.

Mr. Frazier's faults-leftist leanings, cronyism, and fiscal subterfuge-are a lot like those cited by Gov. Davis's critics. When Gov. Davis took office in 1998, California enjoyed a $12 billion surplus. Four years later, the state's budget had plummeted into a hole $38 billion deep, driven by double-digit percentage spending increases approved by Gov. Davis and his Democrat-controlled legislature. (President Bush and his GOP House and Senate face voters next year-and they're open to similar criticism.) But during his November gubernatorial campaign, incumbent Davis downplayed the state's financial crisis, concealing from voters the size of the deficit. Then after he won reelection, the deficit seemed, suddenly and mysteriously, to mushroom.

Meanwhile, Californians are still smarting over the state's energy debacle in 2000, when Gov. Davis signed highly inflated electricity-generation contracts that sent power bills soaring and stuck consumers with higher energy rates for the next 20 years. Add to that a series of "pay to play" scandals: In 2000, for example, a Davis-appointed policy board allowed a refinery to increase toxic discharges into San Francisco Bay shortly after the company donated $70,500 to Gov. Davis's political war chest.

Plus, folks just don't like Gov. Davis much. Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton wrote that Gov. Davis is "arguably the most unpopular, the least respected, the lamest duck of any governor in modern times-virtually without political capital."

And therein lies one problem for conservatives nationwide who would like to see George W. Bush reelected. So hobbled is Gov. Davis that, were he to remain in office, his political infirmity could make it difficult, or at least extremely expensive, for the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate to win California's 54 electoral votes. But if voters boot Gov. Davis, they could conceivably replace him with another, more popular Democrat-particularly if the GOP vote is split among too many candidates.

Democrats and some national pundits have painted the Davis recall as a mean-spirited Republican conspiracy to hijack California's government. But the official original "proponent" of the recall, longtime tax reformer and self-styled maverick Ted Costa, isn't a Republican. And he filed his petition over the objections of Howard Kaloogian and other Republicans who favored a recall, but wanted more time to prepare proper documents and line up financial support.

Neither is it true that the recall is merely an inside game. This gubernatorial recall is not only the first to reach the California ballot; it is also the first even to pass the first threshold of constitutional legitimacy-the gathering of 10 percent of the necessary voter signatures. That milestone was reached on grassroots effort alone.

The prairie fire began Dec. 30 on KSFO, San Francisco's all-conservative talk-radio station. Host Melanie Morgan, chatting with then-chairman of the California GOP Shawn Steel about Gov. Davis's poor performance, asked Mr. Steel why he didn't launch a recall drive. That show sparked a flurry of January phone calls between Mr. Steel, Mr. Kaloogian, veteran GOP tactician Sal Russo, and later, Mr. Costa. All were angry over Gov. Davis's postelection revelations that the state budget was hemorrhaging red ink. They felt he had lied to the electorate to keep his job.


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