The Blog

Putting Recall in an Uncomfortable Position

A March recall may wind up frustrating California liberal interest groups and putting Gray Davis in a sticky situation.

12:00 AM, Sep 18, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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FOR GRAY DAVIS, old habits die hard.

A day after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals postponed the October 7 recall, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen donated an estimated $50,000 to the governor. That was four days after the legislature approved a new contract--negotiated by the Davis administration--giving CHP officers one extra day per month of vacation or personal leave instead of a 5 percent raise. Recall or not, it's business as usual for California's pay-for-play governor.

Life isn't as predictable for liberal special interests looking to profit from Davis's weakened political standing. Before the 9th Circuit intervened, the left had Davis over a barrel. Facing recall in a special election, the Democratic governor needed every left-leaning vote he could find to help offset a strong turnout by angry conservatives. That explains Davis's willingness to sign a bill granting drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants after twice vetoing the measure.

But if recall gets moved to March 2, Davis no longer has to urgently pander to the left--his fate is decided in five months, not three weeks and thanks to the presidential primary, turnout won't be a problem for his party. Instead, the governor can turn his attention to the task at hand in Sacramento, which is the 30-day period known as "bill-signing" that ends on October 12 (Davis has about 600 bills to sign or veto--if he fails to act on a measure, it automatically becomes law). This should worry the governor's newfound friends on the left. If he doesn't have to pander for votes, Davis just might return to his old incarnation as a milquetoast, middle-of-the-road governor.

It could be the left's loss and the state's gain--reverse logic, if you will, from the 9th Circuit's thinking that 8 million voters should suffer because 40,000 Californians' votes might not count. For if he remains in pandering mode, Davis has the potential to do serious long-term damage to the California economy. That's certainly true in the case of SB 2, which requires California-based companies with 20 or more employees to pay 80 percent of their workers' health coverage or pay into a statewide pool that would buy health coverage for uninsured workers. Big Labor, which is underwriting Davis's anti-recall campaign, is counting on their man to deliver. California's business community estimates the bill will tack on billions in added overhead costs, forcing entrepreneurs to shut down or relocate to nearby states.

Davis won't tip his hand on SB 2. "In principle, I would like to extend health care to people," he's told reporters. And why hurry? Recall was scheduled for five days before the end of bill-signing. If Davis feels he needs to blow one final kiss to labor, he could sign it during the first week of October. But if recall is delayed, Davis has to make a different sort of calculation: not his immediate survival, but his good versus the good of the state.

DICK MORRIS once theorized that there are two Bill Clinton's--the bawdy "Saturday Night Bill," who spends time with Monica Lewinsky, and the more pious "Sunday Morning Bill," who'd rather be with Chelsea. In California politics, there are two shades of Gray: Candidate Gray, the ruthless unprincipled campaigner obsessed with fundraising and quid-pro-quos; and Governor Gray, who's simply lousy at the mechanics of overseeing the world's fifth-largest economy. Candidate Gray will sign SB 2 in a heartbeat if his job is riding on it; Governor Gray might veto it to avoid picking a fight with California's business community, which already has threatened legal action or a ballot referendum if the measure becomes law (the National Federal of Independent Business believes SB 2 violates the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which prohibits states from regulating employee benefit and pension plans).

But that's not the only tough decision facing the two Grays in the next month. The governor can sign or veto a measure requiring companies that want to do a minimum of $100,000 in state business to offer the same employee benefits--health insurance, relocation costs--to domestic partners as they do married couples. Davis must also choose sides on a bill giving California farm workers the permanent right to mandatory mediation in labor disputes. The United Farm Workers union sorely wants the leverage; California's agriculture community (a $30 billion industry) thinks the bill denies their constitutional right to contract bargaining.

Let's suppose Candidate Gray prevails. There could be blowback--and it might come in March, when the governor's future is on the line.