With the move to recall our lemon governor taking new twists each day, and even E-bay hawking a Gray Davis-recall web address, it's hard to imagine more exciting news for California Republicans-or more gut-wrenching news.
For Republicans to have a tantalizing possibility like a Davis recall dangled before them, yet to know that success in such a tricky endeavor rests on their own political competence and-shudder-coalition-building with non-Republicans, it must be a maddening thing.
You see, when crucial moments are upon them, California Republicans are screw-ups, and we in the media love to yap about that. After all, here I am, writing about a screw-up that hasn't even happened yet.
Yet things have already begun to unhinge a bit, and by the time Republicans wrap up their state convention in Sacramento this weekend, electing a new chairman and passing an expected resolution supporting the Davis recall, I'll be stupefied if the Republicans aren't in full screw-up mode.
Even as news hit some days ago that conservative tax-fighter Ted Costa of People's Advocate was filing recall papers-the first step toward a ballot measure process that gives his group until late summer to gather 898,000 signatures from voters-the Republican urge toward failure was painfully evident.
Costa had been in talks with Pat Caddell, former Democratic speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, who has been openly discussing a Davis recall since November, and Shawn Steel, irascible outgoing chairman of the California Republican Party.
Everything was going fine until-Republican screw-up!
Caddell explains to me: "Ted Costa jumped the gun totally on this thing by filing the recall papers right away, before a broad-based coalition was ready, before a non-partisan citizen effort was ready. I tried to talk him out of it on the phone but he felt compelled to do so. Everybody was unhappy with Ted's going forward like this."
A Republican strategist to whom I spoke added ruefully: "You look at what the recall movement has now, just a week after announcing, and it has a Republican lawyer, a Republican signature-gathering firm, Republican state chairman as the first person involved, and a Republican consultant. They trot Pat Caddell's name out as an afterthought, and it's very awkward."
Where is the Republican leadership when yahoos like Costa act out? If they were smart-if they wanted great press after their long dry spell, and widespread public kudos after their long dry spell-they would be transparently and publicly fighting to make the 160-day petition drive a broad-based, non-Republican effort. Instead, Republicans leaders are in complete denial. They are hurtling toward the next blunder.
Already, I see the makings of a classic Republican political murder-suicide. This occurs when California Republicans fail to unite behind an effort or candidate, usually because the far-far right feels left out, and Republicans end up fighting each other to the death while Democrats emerge victorious.
Thus it took only hours before two Republican recall efforts crystallized, each competing for money. The second Davis recall bid, which has not yet filed papers, was launched by former state Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian. It has a website (recallgraydavis.com) and help from has-been Republican consultant Sal Russo, who ran the Bill Simon gubernatorial campaign into the ground.
Costa tells me he couldn't do anything about Kaloogian-naturally, it's the Republican way. "We are saying anyone who wants to get the financial house of California in order is welcome under this umbrella, OK?" says Costa. "I hope we have meetings with the other group and they will circulate our petitions, because if they file separate recall papers it will be tough on us, OK? But no, we haven't exactly spoken, OK?"
One consultant to Republicans, busily preparing for this weekend's state convention, was a mite defensive when I asked how badly the recall could backfire on the party if it devolves into nothing but Republican sour grapes, as Davis accused on Feb. 12.
The consultant politely told me: "How could this hurt the Republican Party? Shawn Steel is the chairman for only a few more days. I expect the delegates to support a resolution to recall Davis, but that doesn't mean the party is going to play a central role. The party is going to focus on the Bush 2004 re-election. It's not the party's effort. If this thing flounders, I don't think anybody will blame anybody except goofy Shawn Steel and Ted Costa for promising things they can't deliver."
What makes a really sharp guy say such dumb stuff?
Voters don't know that the state Republican Party is in any way different from hacks like Sal Russo. Few members of the public have ever even heard of Shawn Steel or Ted Costa. Of course the Republicans will be blamed if the Davis recall effort dies. Jeez, don't you high-paid guys try to think like poorly informed voters anymore?
Look at the fallout already for the Republicans because of Costa's premature exclamation. On Feb. 12, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a damning story that Davis is using 112 employees from other state departments to grossly pad his personal staff, burning up $7.7 million in taxpayer funds. (To wit, Davis' $96,480-a-year deputy press secretary Hilary McLean is actually employed by the Department of Consumer Affairs, which licenses professional workers and protects consumers; Davis' $112,320-a-year chief lobbyist Linda Adams is actually employed by the Department of Water Resources; and Davis' $121,992-a-year policy advisor Nancy McFadden is actually employed by the Department of Industrial Relations, which protects the well-being of workers; and so on.)
That story should have been huge. It should have helped the Republicans make their case that Davis and the Dems still are not cutting bureaucratic fat. But it was ignored-overshadowed by the clumsy and premature recall story.
Public anger is so intense that the Davis recall will make the ballot-but only if Republicans heed sharpies like Arnold Steinberg. Steinberg is an insightful Republican consultant who was rather famously ignored by bumbling candidate Richard Riordan during the Republican gubernatorial primary.
On Feb. 6, Steinberg wrote a piece for the op-ed page of the Daily News in Los Angeles. He urged the campaign to start over-without Republican dominance-and focus on Davis' unique incompetence as seen in the energy crisis, and his markedly more egregious behavior, compared to other politicians, in linking major policy decisions to his campaign contributions.
Steel insists that such advice has been heard, but I see no evidence. "We understand that this cannot be a Republican effort and we are changing that," Steel tells me. "Plenty of Democrats and Greens and others understand Davis cannot run this state and that he is the greatest political problem we in California have because nobody on any side trusts him."
Caddell says the model has to be Hiram Johnson's historic movement, "when Republicans and Democrats and peoples of Los Angeles and San Francisco came together to overthrow Southern Pacific Railroad's control of California government."
That ouster of railroad barons and their politician-puppets from Sacramento more than 80 years ago led to the Progressive Era, during which California enjoyed among the cleanest statehouse politics in the United States.
It's certainly time for another housecleaning. And Gray Davis is the biggest dust bunny in Sacramento. Davis' approval ratings hover in the 20-percent range-a level described as "Nixonian" by Republican consultant Allen Hoffenblum. He's deeply vulnerable because he's perceived as slimy and badly bungled the electricity and budget crises, but also because the loner Davis has made almost no political buddies in the capitol.
Newspapers have predictably editorialized against the recall, saying the "chaos" a petition drive would cause this spring and summer during budget crisis deliberations isn't worth it. At first, that made sense to me. But the truth is, without an angry and diverse public threatening to remove the Democrats' leader, it's unlikely that our tax-happy legislators will cut the fat and avoid draconian tax increases.
Although it will cost petition-gatherers a steep $2 million to gather signatures over five months, 898,000 is not a lot of signatures. The San Fernando Valley secession movement, by comparison, gathered 220,000 in Los Angeles alone to place that local issue on the ballot.
And therein lies a terrific irony. Under state law, a gubernatorial recall hits the ballot only if signed by voters representing 12 percent of the turnout in the last general election. Because Gray Davis and Bill Simon ran the most offensive campaign in decades, voters stayed home last November. Turnout was driven to a record low. Unwittingly, Davis made it far easier for citizens to put him on a recall ballot, because so few signatures are now needed.
God I love democracy.
Caddell insists there's time to save this effort.
"I am talking to people with power and resources and constituencies who agree that this must be done, and by a broad base," says Caddell. "This movement doesn't even need Republicans. Not only could the Republicans screw themselves if they mishandle this, but lately, when have they not mishandled things?"
This weekend, Republicans will replace Steel as chairman and conduct long-planned work to help George Bush win California in 2004. But all that work could be moot if they fire up the public about delivering Davis on a platter, and deliver Republican crow instead.