The Blog

California Democrats Regroup

After the big loss on Tuesday, California Democrats have to decide if they want to work with Arnold, or try to duke it out with the Terminator.

9:00 AM, Oct 9, 2003 • By BILL WHALEN
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HERE'S AN UNLIKELY recall winner: George Schwartzman. The San Diego businessman ran as an independent on Tuesday's ballot, wanting to ban cookies and soda pop from public school vending machines (child obesity is, ahem, a growing concern in California). What makes Schwartzman notable? He finished ninth in the race to replace Gray Davis--undoubtedly because the first six letters of his last name coincide with that of the governor-elect's. Let us give thanks that Tom Arnold and Arnold Ziffel sat this one out.

On the day after recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger's mandate grew clearer. In a 161-candidate field (135 names on the ballot, plus 26 write-ins), he collected more votes than either the "no"-on-recall effort or Davis's winning plurality in November 2002. Arnold carried 50 of 58 counties, 36 of them by a majority vote. The only region where the running man ran afoul? You guessed it, the Bay Area, where Arnold pulled down an anemic 33 percent.

So, naturally, California Democrats have figured out the scope of their setback and plan to honor the public's will and help Schwarzenegger get on with the business, right? Well, that all depends on who's doing the talking for the suddenly rudderless party. Arnold, it seems, did more than pancake his opposition. He's managed to divide the Democrats into at least four groups of very unhappy campers.

First, there's the "get over it" crowd. They fought recall as a continuum of the Florida recount and Texas and Colorado redistricting. For some reason, they think that Tuesday's vote, with its enormous turnout and unprecedented media attention, is a stain on democracy. The headmistress of this school: House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who called Davis's ouster "a sad night for our state and a sad night for our country. It shouldn't be that public officials have to watch their backs every moment for fear of recall. We have a system where we elect people, the public holds them accountable in subsequent elections, and now we have a cavalier notion that a recall without just cause is okay." Add to this group Terry McAuliffe, the national Democratic party chairman and the Navy chaplain of American politics (if he lends his support to your campaign, you're dead).

The second class of Democrats: the "spitballers." They're the juvenile wing of the party; they could use a time-out, a reality check, and maybe some anger management. The star students: the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who thinks recall's outcome should be challenged because, he alleges, minority voters were disenfranchised when polling places were consolidated (a wild accusation even the Democratic state chairman won't dignify); and Bob Mulholland, the state party's executive director, who wasted no time Tuesday night in threatening a re-recall: "The people will give [Arnold] 100 days. If he doesn't fix all of California's problems, he'll find that what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander."

Class three: the "high road" Democrats who say they want to work with Arnold. That includes state controller Steve Westly, who phoned Schwarzenegger on Wednesday to offer his congratulations (Westly's one of several state constitutional officers who might challenge Arnold in 2006--that's another sandbox fight on the horizon). Also: Assembly speaker Herb Wesson, who conceded on election night that Californians are tired of gridlock. "They want us to act--without partisan rancor--on the issues that matter most," Wesson told reporters. Or so he says until the legislature reconvenes. Team Arnold would love to add state Senate president John Burton to this list, but he's a complicated topic. Schwarzenegger said yesterday, during his press conference in Los Angeles, that he had a good phone call with the senator. Burton, who was in Sacramento, told reporters that the conversation lasted all of one minute--and, by the way, he won't stand for any cuts in social programs and by the way, he thinks Arnold has no legal grounds for single-handedly abolishing the car tax increase.