In chaotic Sacramento, few seem to realize that the Democrats' strategy against the recall of Gray Davis will probably parallel the Dems' surprisingly successful fight last year against the San Fernando Valley's attempt to "throw the bums out" by seceding from the city of Los Angeles.
But if those who want to recall the governor don't take notice soon, I predict Davis will be safely ensconced for the rest of his term, and the recallers will end up with a massive, four-egg omelet on their collective face.
San Fernando Valley voters were disgusted by longtime control of their taxes by flagrant overspenders at City Hall, 20 miles away. By early 2002, secession fever was so strong that the possible loss of the valley and resulting slippage of Los Angeles from second to third-largest city in the nation sent the power elite into a controlled panic.
A huge coalition was formed to protect the status quo, led by entrenched business, unions, race-based identity groups and highly partisan Democrats. Their strategy was to use every imaginable legal roadblock to keep the question of San Fernando Valley cityhood off the ballot and thus deplete the energy of the secessionists, followed by a campaign that played on race and fear once the cityhood question finally made the ballot.
Talk about your eerie similarities to the Gray Davis recall defense.
I recently bumped into political consultant Kam Kuwata as he emerged from the doors to the private "horseshoe" where top aides sit arrayed around the embattled Davis. Kuwata oversaw the defeat of Valley cityhood. His sudden appearance in Sacramento is no accident.
"I'm just offering whatever help I can because I think this is wrong, and it's going to create a whole new era of recall attempts and put California into a risky new scenario that nobody wants," Kuwata told me.
That tracks what Kuwata used to say about secession, which he argued would create a costly new world of frightening risks that voters simply could not permit.
Arnold Steinberg, a Republican consultant, believes, and I agree, that the Democrat strategy will work this way: the Dems will use every trick possible to stall the Gray Davis recall vote until spring 2004. Then, Steinberg predicts, "they are going to spend a lot of money, via the special interest and pressure groups who are all in the business of playing the race card, to fight Ward Connerly's Racial Privacy Initiative. At the same time, they will turn out those same non-white voters against the Davis recall. It will be sold to those voters as a package deal."
Why haven't you heard this probable scenario? Because the media are focused on the record pace with which signed recall petitions have been collected ever since Congressman Darrell Issa poured $800,000 into a petition-gathering drive recently mailed to 2 million Republican voters.
I'm not saying the petition response is irrelevant. I stood in the tiny offices of the Rescue California headquarters in Sacramento the other day and watched as college students poured through stacks of returned envelopes filled with signed recall petitions and modest checks from everyday people.
One woman enclosed three stamps because she could not afford to send money. Another enclosed a signed blank check, too frail to make it out and asking them to fill in $5 for her. Rescue California has collected $150,000 from 7,000 small donors in this manner. Some experts say this is the largest participation by small California donors since voters stormed local post offices with checks during the Proposition 13 property tax revolution of 1978.
But the current excitement is a meaningless snapshot in time.
I would love to see Davis recalled if he is replaced by a moderate Democratic who is a fiscal conservative, or a moderate Republican who won't be a lightning rod for far-right social causes. Republicans, however, are making two grave errors that I believe could spell disaster for the recall effort.
First, Republicans are failing to put forth a moderate Republican candidate, displaying an almost willful cluelessness about how to challenge the spineless Davis. Second, they are failing to recognize the Democrats' emerging campaign, based on the powerful combination of race and fear they used to stop San Fernando Valley secession.
The Democrats closed ranks around Davis in recent days as many viable top Democrats including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante announced they would not run on the recall ballot. (Voters will pick a new "instant winner" governor the same day they vote on the recall.)
Even as the Dems did this, the Republicans were discussing a passel of candidates who may be seasoned enough to run in 2006 but look pretty bad today. Of the top three-Congressman Darrell Issa, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and multi-millionaire Bill Simon-two immediately stuck their feet in their mouths.
Issa, speaking of his views on Prop. 187, which restricted benefits for illegal immigrants, boldly declared: "I was on all sides of that issue!" Schwarzenegger was quoted casually using the "t" word to describe women's breasts, as he miserably flailed around while trying to discuss female intelligence.
For his part, Bill Simon was on the radio explaining he is wiser now but sounding exactly like the naïve and vague public speaker voters rejected last year.
Don't the Republicans get it? You can't rely on dislike for Gray Davis alone to get voters to the polls. Yet Dave Gilliard, the lead consultant at Save California, told me, "The one thing doubters don't accept yet is there's a huge level of anger directed at one person, the Governor. That is why people are lining up who will vote in the recall election."
Inside the Capitol, Republicans are also in denial about the ugly new role the recall is playing in the state budget debacle.
State Assemblyman John Campbell, the leading Republican on budget matters, said the $10,000 he gave to the effort to recall Davis has not affected his ability to work with Davis or Democrats on the budget. Campbell said, "It's just like any other election, like last year when I believe the Governor came out for my opponent and I am sure would like to have seen me gone. Yet we still worked on budget matters and did business like adults."
Except it's nothing like any other election year. Davis fired the first volley in this battle when he meddled in the 2002 Republican gubernatorial primary. On the suggestion of Bill Clinton, Davis spent millions to turn voters against moderate Republican Richard Riordan, who the Davis camp feared might later beat Davis in the general election.
Davis' push into the Republicans' primary domain created a supercharged partisan atmosphere in Sacramento that grew worse as Davis failed to reign in costs for 18 months and refused to heed Republicans' fiscal warnings.
Now, everything in Sacramento is weighted with the hypersensitivity of the recall.
I attended a recall debate one evening, but at the last minute the Democrat debaters cancelled. The Republicans, consultant Sal Russo and state Sen. Rico Oller of San Andreas, were the only participants.
The Democrats cited a strike by Justice for Janitors against the building owners, but in all likelihood the Democrats knew long before the debate that the building was being struck. I suspect a play for media coverage to win public sympathy. (You know: We Democrats are so decent we do not cross picket lines, like those other people.)
As Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown told me, after a press conference at which Brown came off as moderate, calling not just for taxes but more cuts: "The recall is a catalyst for more intense partisanship, like adding in a chemical ingredient that speeds up the mechanical reaction. It is making things much tougher."
It's going to get worse. The Democrats are about to launch a series of widely anticipated legal maneuvers to prevent the recall from making the November ballot. They want to delay the vote to coincide with the Democrat presidential primary in 2004, to give Davis more Democrat votes. Steinberg, the Republican political consultant, expects the Democrats to heavily push a baldly racial strategy of appealing for Davis support among non-whites who oppose the Connerly initiative.
The victimologists will be easy to attract to the polls next spring, because they deeply despise Connerly. Connerly's Prop. 209 ended racial preferences in college admissions, and horribly embarrassed the left by resulting in higher minority admissions to the University of California system. As Connerly predicted, black and Latino enrollment has fallen by several hundred students at UC Berkeley and UCLA, which have extremely tough requirements, but has surged by roughly 3,000 at the other schools. The racial-identity types, so sure the kids needed a crutch, had hysterically predicted a return to the days of whites-only.
So, as we lurch toward this potentially historic vote, there's a fine chance California will be put through a pressure-cooker campaign filled with the Democrats' divisive race claims and scare tactics that are about everything but the record budget deficit caused by Davis and his overspending Legislature.
On top of that, with the Republicans ill prepared, it doesn't look like we'll be given any good choices for governor.
And that includes, of course, the governor who's sitting there now.