At the far-right corner of a recent New York Times Magazine cover illustration for political scribe Michael Lewis' hilarious take on the California recall looms a portrait of Darrell Issa-well, technically, two portraits, since the Vista-based congressman is depicted as Siamese twins.
Attached at the midsection, dressed in turn-of-the-20th-century gray formal wear, one Darrell head stares intently at the other, equally intense, Darrell head. The image by noted political illustrator C.F. Payne is a haunting reflection of the multi-millionaire car-alarm magnate, hailed by Republican spin doctors as the "father of the recall" and taunted by some opponents as "Jihad Darrell."
If political lineage is traced through the almighty dollar, then Issa is indeed the political sperm donor of the California moment. And depending on which way voters line up on Oct. 7, the second-term congressman who personally bankrolled the recall with roughly $2 million might have a legitimate claim to kingpin status in California's Republican Party hierarchy, should the recall of Gov. Gray Davis succeed and movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger be elected to replace Davis.
But either a victory by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante or an outright defeat of the recall, and Issa could well become the top target of the post-election blame game. It's a high-level risk that could determine the political future of a man who, prior to the recall, played far-right politics in relative obscurity from the perch of a congressional district considered a perennial lock for Republicans.
"Well, as we know in the state GOP, all you have to be is the last guy to throw some money-you know, a couple million bucks-and you can become the top dog for the month," said Republican political consultant Scott Barnett, who personally experienced the wrath of Issa when he and a few other GOP members opposed the recall, warning it could wind up being a bad precedent that could ricochet through the rest of the nation.
But even Barnett, who charged that Issa and his minions threatened to help downsize Barnett's client base over his anti-recall stance, acknowledged that a recall victory that puts a Republican in the governor's seat would elevate Issa to "conquering hero" status.
"Clearly that would help him and probably make him a front runner" to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer next year, Barnett suggested. "That was always his original goal."
(CityBeat made numerous attempts to interview Issa for this story. An aide said Issa would perhaps respond to written questions, but as of press time, no response has been forthcoming.)
Just what Darrell Issa is up to depends on whom you ask. Republicans publicly laud Issa as the man who gave life to a recall effort that only months ago seemed destined for the trash heap of political intrigue, then fell on the sword of his own ambition by tearfully pulling out of the gubernatorial race.
Schwarzenegger, who last week received Issa's endorsement over the more-conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock, called Issa a "humble, special man."
Democrats, on the other hand, argue that Issa has been one of most conservative voices in Congress and insist the perception of his graciousness is highly overplayed by his image-makers.
Kennan Kaeder, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, made no bones about his distaste for the congressman, who is believed to be worth more than $300 million. "I would describe him as an interloper and a ruthless politician who will do anything to advance his own career," Kaeder told CityBeat. "If he didn't have money, he'd be a nobody. There's no way that he would get elected to anything unless he could buy it."
The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, Issa grew up in a working-class family near Cleveland, Ohio. His biography says his father labored at two jobs, including one as a truck salesman, to support Darrell and his five brothers and sisters. At 17, Issa dropped out of high school and joined the Army, rising to the rank of captain before receiving a hardship release, the story goes, to care for his sick mother. In 1998 stories in the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Examiner, the first hints of Issa's troubled youth centering on allegations of auto theft emerged.
The Examiner story told of a claim by a retired Army sergeant who said Issa had heisted a Dodge sedan from a Pittsburgh-area Army base in 1971, the year he entered the Army. According to the story, which Issa later called reckless, the sergeant recovered the vehicle after approaching Issa and threatening him. Issa was not charged in the alleged theft.
In 1972, 19-year-old Issa and his brother William faced felony grand theft indictments for allegedly swiping a red Maserati from a Cleveland car dealership. The case was dropped, but Issa told the Times in 1998 that he had been unfairly implicated because William had an arrest record.
"I was exonerated of all wrongdoing," Issa told the Times. "My brother went on to have a long and sordid career. I am not my brother. I am not my brother's keeper."
In 1980, San Jose police investigated Issa and his brother for allegedly faking the theft of Darrell's Mercedes sedan and selling it for $16,000 to a car dealer. The two-month probe was heading for trial when the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office decided against proceeding.
Issa has said that he never attempted to conceal his arrest in San Jose-he said advisers told him to talk about it only if asked-and he blamed political opponents for "looking for things other than legitimate policy issues to go after."
In what he would later describe as "poetic irony," Issa in 1982 founded Directed Electronics Inc., a car-alarm manufacturing firm in Cleveland. Its systems-including the Viper, Python, Hornet, Wasp and Sidewinder-are some of the most notable in the car-alarm industry. It was in this atmosphere where Issa sharpened a business style that has been described, perhaps understatedly, as aggressive. During his first run at political office-a ballsy and unsuccessful attempt to unseat Boxer-he frequently boasted of a rags-to-riches life in which he turned $7,000 in savings into a multimillion-dollar empire.
But a story last June in the San Jose Mercury News put a different slant on Issa's personal saga. The story quoted Joe Adkins, the former president of the company, Quantum Enterprises, that Issa transformed into Directed Electronics Inc., as saying that Issa had seized the company quietly through a court order over a $60,000 loan Issa had made to Adkins.
Although perfectly legal, the court maneuver angered and shocked Adkins, who told the Mercury News, "Darrell Issa never built that business. We already had a million-dollar company, and any trained monkey could have grown that business."
Issa has called Adkins a convicted felon who failed to repay the loan, but seven months after seizing the company, a suspicious fire leveled the Cleveland company's factory. Issa had just increased the building's insurance from $100,000 to $460,000, and he was questioned about the blaze. But no charges were ever filed.
In 1985, the company moved to the North County environs of Vista, and soon Issa and his wife, Kathy, were running one of the country's leading car-alarm and audio-systems manufacturers.
"I would say that I am a hard-nosed businessman," Issa told the Mercury News. "In an industry that is historically dominated by Japan, Korea and the like, I was able to build a business that did well."
As the company grew, so did Issa's interest in politics.
John Webster, who did graphics work for Issa during the 1990s, said he witnessed Issa's transformation from businessman to political wannabe.
"I watched Darrell as he became obsessed with [conservative radio mouthpiece] Rush Limbaugh," Webster recalled, adding that Issa was a frequent caller to Limbaugh's show. "I think that Rush was an inspiration to Issa and that inspiration manifested itself in the desire to run for elected office."
Webster, who said those political aspirations were well known among company employees, said Issa began hiring political consultants "to groom him and make over his image. It was a calculated and deliberate attempt to make a radical right-winger palatable to the general public."
Added Webster, "I was astonished at how extreme his views were."
A former receptionist at the company once confided in Webster that she had quit because "she couldn't stand the political atmosphere that had taken over the company."
He said Issa lobbied heavily for NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which greatly benefited his company. "After all," Webster said, "[Directed Electronics] does not manufacture product in the U.S.A. Almost everything, including the printed boxes were manufactured in Asia and Mexico.
"He made millions by exporting manufacturing jobs offshore and reaping the profits."
In 1996, Issa coughed up $50,000 and co-chaired the campaign pushing for passage of state Proposition 209, which eliminated affirmative-action programs. Two years later, he dropped $12 million into his attempt to gain a U.S. Senate seat, only to be knocked out in the Republican primary by former state treasurer Matt Fong.
In 2000, he pounded a fellow Republican, state Sen. Bill Morrow, with a $1.5 million campaign that gained him his North County congressional seat. It wasn't exactly the notoriety he was looking for-one among 435 members of the House of Representatives, rather than one of 100 senators-but as a freshman, he immediately pushed for appointment to the prestigious House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"His agenda is his own," a Republican colleague reportedly said of Issa, who had thought his business acumen and more than $200,000 in contributions to the GOP would seal the deal.
Issa eventually gained his coveted committee appointment at the beginning of his second term earlier this year.
Democrats soon learned why Issa seemed so taken with the appointment. Earlier this year, he attempted to direct lucrative post-war reconstruction contracts in Iraq to Qualcomm for rebuilding the country's cellular phone system. Qualcomm, which sits in Issa's district and is one of his larger campaign contributors, didn't get the contracts, and Issa got grief for such blatant pandering.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Issa has also curried favor with the Bush White House by serving as a go-between in the Middle East conflict. The Mercury News reported in June that "Issa has traveled to the region eight times since the attacks, once meeting with Syria's president to ask him not to harbor Iraqi war criminals."
So what does Issa get for all his trouble-and his money-in California? Some political observers note that Issa, who sold the bulk of his interest in Directed Electronics in late 1999 to a private investment firm in Miami, would have preferred a political role more aligned with his CEO past, such as governor.
With an estimated personal worth ranging anywhere from $90 million to $315 million, Issa certainly has the resources to buy influence, if he so chooses.
Some believe Issa is still trying to run from his youthfully indiscriminate past and into a life of legitimacy and respect from others, a commodity that is hard to buy much less hold onto in the odiferous catbox that is modern-day politics.
Mike Byron, an Oceanside resident and college political science professor, ran against Issa as a write-in candidate last time around and plans to run against him next year as a full-fledged Democratic candidate. He chuckles when he recalls ambushing Issa with four wives of U.S. Marines who were unsatisfied with the congressman's efforts to improve on-base living conditions. He videotaped the encounter, which ended when Issa "ran off."
Byron enjoys recalling tales of Issa, including claims that Issa once refused a Border Patrol agent's request to slow down while driving, only to whip out his congressional identification card and proclaim, "I'm Darrell Issa and this is my congressional district!"
"I'm going to bring this stuff up over and over and over, as publicly as possible," Byron told CityBeat. "His fitness for public office-any public office-is the central point of my campaign. I don't think he can avoid being Darrell Issa, the real, crude, thuggish Darrell Issa, and I want that out in public display for the whole world to see.
"He's learned how to wear the expensive suits and smile and appear honorable, but at heart he's a thug. That's all he is."