The Blog

Anatomy of a Revolt

Why Californians chose to roll the dice on a political unknown and dump the state establishment.

8:05 AM, Oct 8, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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AND SO recall comes full circle. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered his victory speech after being introduced by Jay Leno, on whose show Arnold announced his candidacy two months ago. All of that occurred at Los Angeles' Century Park Hotel--local Republicans call it the "Reagan Hotel," since it was the scene of the former president's election-night victories. It was the perfect stage for the soon-to-be-former actor, 37 years after stealing Reagan's act.

Arnold's victory was swift and severe. I spent part of last night doing election analysis for a local San Francisco TV affiliate. That station's network was ready to call the race at 5:00 p.m. West coast time, three hours before the polls closed. A friend doing analysis at a Los Angeles station says that network's poobahs were in a "three-point stance" all afternoon long, poised to call the race the first second they could (8:01 p.m. PST, which they all did).

Then again, Californians had fair warning that a big shift was on the way.

Early Tuesday morning, hours before the political aftershock, San Diego experienced a mild earthquake, just as the tectonic plates shifted in Northern California over the weekend. For Governor Gray Davis, it was if fate kept sending a message. The governor voted Tuesday morning at a makeshift poll in a West Hollywood realty office. A few hours later, voters told him it was time to relocate. After he voted, Davis was even forced to wait to talk to the press because the media's molt box had died. Someone--or something--wanted the Democratic governor silenced. (The final insult: As the networks called the election, Cinemax was airing "True Lies.")

The coming days will bring plenty of talk about a political earthquake--and an avalanche of numbers and statistics. Recall will be likened to 1978's Proposition 13. The Arnold for President movement won't be far behind. There's plenty of delicious irony to be savored. (My favorite: The California Democratic party pays for 2 million recorded phone messages by Al Gore; the next day, the courts decide that "do not call" is back on. A close second: A group of grinning Shrivers and Kennedys cheering on a winning Republican.) We'll read between the lines, and even the music notes--candidate Arnold stumped to the tune of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It"; governor-elect Schwarzenegger prefers Van Halen's more staid "Right Now."

BUT ON THE MORNING AFTER RECALL, as we begin to sift through the rubble that was once the Davis administration and the Democratic stranglehold on Sacramento, one lesson is certain: California's ruling class took it in the shorts last night. Arnold terminated the political elites and their condescending style of campaigning.

In the recall, experience faced off against the experimental--and voters went with the mystery man. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a household name and face, but the fact is he's never governed a day in his life. Still, Californians overwhelmingly went with the novice over a pair of far more ripened Democrats--Davis, who's spent nearly 30 years in the upper echelon of state government; and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, a career civil and public servant. (In another blow to the establishment, voters overwhelmingly struck down Proposition 53, an infrastructure budget grab cooked up by a bunch of Sacramento insiders.)

Those same voters rejected what an elitist message and tactics. Davis's first mistake in recall was not taking the movement seriously. Earlier this summer, he called the growing movement "an insult to democracy." After that, the governor and a never-ending conga line of big-name Democratic surrogates insulted the electorate's intelligence by suggesting that the 1.6 million Californians who signed recall petitions were nothing more than dupes in a Republican power grab spanning coast to coast. That was followed by Davis and Bustamante, treating loyalist Democrats like sheep that could be led in whatever direction they chose. Pandering to the Hispanic vote, Davis signed a law handing drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. Pandering to women, Davis and Bustamante tried to make them believe that a Republican governor would deny their abortion rights.