The Magazine

Don't Laugh at California

The recall election is no circus.

Oct 6, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 04 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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"IF THERE IS ONE THING non-Californians need to know about this campaign," said veteran GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum towards the end of the mid-September state Republican convention in Los Angeles, "it's that it's not a 'circus.' It's not a 'spectacle.' It's not a joke." There has been a lot of nationwide bemusement at the campaign to subject Governor Gray Davis to a recall vote one year into his second term. There have been understandable worries that the anti-Davis forces--particularly Darrell Issa, the multimillionaire congressman who donated millions of his private fortune to hire signature gatherers--have been a bit too professional in their harnessing of popular outrage, in a way that the framers of California's recall laws a century ago would not have countenanced. After the effort to impeach Bill Clinton and the intransigence of Democrats still stewing over the 2000 Florida recounts, there are points to be raised about Americans' unwillingness to abide by the result of an election--since the lion's share of the misdeeds for which Davis might be ousted were committed before Californians returned him to office last November. There are things to be said about the information economy, and whether it has bred a customer-is-always-right expectation that anything we dislike can be changed now--fine in an economy, perilous in a democracy. But to describe the recall, which will take place on October 7, as some kind of joke is frivolous.

Anyone who has covered a campaign in California has heard the perennial complaint of candidates: No one in California cares about politics. Mayoral, senatorial, and gubernatorial candidates complain that news shows seldom devote more than 30 seconds to politics--45 if you're lucky--and only well into the show, somewhere below pet rescues and Beyoncé Knowles's cleavage. Not so this time. Every night, the networks lead their news programs with 8 to 10 minutes of recall coverage, even when something blows up in Iraq. And when the five top candidates debated for the only time last Wednesday at California State University, Sacramento, a quarter of the state watched as if their lifestyles depended on it.

By now the whole country knows California's problems. It has the worst credit rating in the nation. It is running a $38 billion deficit, higher than all the other states combined. It has a worker's compensation program that operates as a stealth welfare program, subsidizing people who complain of angst and malaise, while offering stingily low benefits for the truly injured. It is a litigation capital and has high taxes. And Davis locked the state into a series of contracts in 2001 that will guarantee California expensive energy for decades.

Ordinarily, the answer to such problems is to Throw the Bum Out. California blew its chance to throw Davis out in 2002, reelecting him 47 percent to 42 percent. But that doesn't mean the recall can be dismissed as sour grapes. Californians have grown convinced in the past year that their entire political system is short-circuited, and that nothing less than a systemic rewiring will fix it.

The state, recall proponents say, has been taken over by special interests, who control the government through their campaign contributions. Davis may be the most egregious practitioner among recent governors, but this "pay to play" system, as it's called, is rife in all corners of government. Detailing the varied workings of pay-to-play over the past five years would make a book. Let's content ourselves with the week before this magazine went to press, which was not atypical. The owners of the NBA's Sacramento Kings gave a $100,000 check to Davis's anti-recall committee the very week he was due to consider a bill that would require taxpayers to fund a new arena for the team. Indian gambling interests are now the biggest special interest in the state, and this week four former agents of the California attorney general's office said the Division of Gambling Control systematically undermined enforcement of corruption and embezzlement laws at the state's Indian casinos.

Social interests, as well as commercial ones, take advantage of this system, and consistently force through laws that Californians can't stand. A few weeks ago, Davis signed a law--not in the statehouse but at a ceremony to which only the minority press was invited, held in a small motor-vehicle registry in East Los Angeles--that permits illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. An even more amazing new law mandates anti-homophobic sensitivity training for foster parents, and bars any would-be foster parent from steering his child away from his proclaimed "gender identity."