Monday :: Jul 28, 2003

The Recall: Keep Your Eye on California In The Next Two Weeks

by Steve

After returning from a weekend away from work and politics, and enjoying a good concert by Steely Dan at Stateline, Nevada, I return somewhat refreshed and ever grateful to the fine work by Mary and CA Pol Junkie in my absence.

As you know from reading this site, I have stayed away from commenting on the recall madness we in California will now be facing on October 7th. Part of my reluctance is the fact that I am aghast at the legal opportunity that our state constitution presents to millionaires like Darrell Issa to buy an election to undo what the voters just voted on last year. Another part of my reluctance stems from the fact that I would prefer to not comment specifically on Davis or his performance for reasons of self-interest: I work in state government.

However, California Democrats need to take a long view at this point for the future of the party not only here but also nationally. Although a GOP victory by one of the many Republicans who are interested in replacing Davis would not easily deliver California’s electoral votes to George W. Bush next year, it would put the state in play more than it is now. And since the Democrats cannot think about winning next year without the Pacific Coast in their back pocket, the question needs to be asked if the Party’s prospects are better off with a weakened and disliked Davis at the top of the machinery here. While the news over the weekend that Jack Kemp is thinking about entering the race cannot be easily dismissed, it does show that GOP candidates who are attractive to moderate Democrats and independents can enter the race and make it easier for voters to dump Davis with the first question on the ballot so that they get a chance to vote for someone they think is better with the second question on the ballot.

Up to this point, Davis has been assuming that he will be running against the group of Republicans with no significant Democratic opposition on the second half of the recall ballot to tempt Democrats from dumping him. Davis has also been planning to run another negative campaign against the GOP candidates en masse and make an issue out of how much the special election is costing the cash-strapped state, as well as drum up a “right-wing conspiracy” argument. This strategy would probably work if Davis was running against a group of nobodies on the GOP side, since the recent Field Poll showed that even those Democrats who would dump Davis in a recall would be less likely to do so if their only other choice was a Republican. Davis also knew that former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, whom Davis engineered to defeat last year in the GOP primary, stated that he would not run if Arnold Schwarzenegger made the race.

But there are reports today that Schwarzenegger has decided not to run himself, although his consultant denies that the actor has made such a decision. If Schwarzenegger did not run, it would mean that Riordan would run, as would possibly Kemp, thereby negating the calculation that Davis was counting on of running against a weak field. Frankly, despite any bluster from Davis, if the GOP took the correct steps and cleared the field for Riordan, a significant number of California Democrats would consider dumping Davis, even if there were no other Democrat on the second half of the recall ballot. The Davis people knew this last year when they ran negative ads against Riordan during the GOP primary so that they could run against political newcomer Bill Simon. The strategy worked, but even then Davis could not score a significant margin over the inept Simon. If the ballot looked like it were going to have Riordan and a bunch of nobodies on the GOP side, California Democrats would be worrying immediately.

The truth of the matter is that the Schwarzenegger decision must be kept quiet until as close to the August 9th filing deadline as possible. Why? Because the GOP doesn’t want to tip its hand too soon that Riordan will definitely get in, only to see the Democrats immediately maneuver to dump Davis. If the GOP can wait as long as possible to firm up it’s A-List candidates, it presumably precludes the Democrats from arranging for their own stars to jump in and undermine the GOP’s work.

But savvy California Democrats are already planning ahead for a variety of scenarios, with the savviest of them all, San Francisco mayor and former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown convening meetings amongst the key players to explore options.

Which is why there are two people to keep your eye on the next two weeks. Former Governor and current Oakland mayor Jerry Brown has stated that since there will now be a recall election, he will seriously consider getting on the ballot himself, thereby undercutting the assumptions that the Davis team has been making that no other Democrat would jump aboard and undermine an incumbent. In my mind Brown’s talk is an indication that he and other Democrats think that Davis is very vulnerable, and they do not want to uphold a pledge to keep the ballot free of other Democrats only to lose the statehouse to the GOP. Having Jerry Brown on the second half of the ballot does not mean that he has a serious shot at winning the election. But his presence on the second half of the ballot increases the chances that a significant number of Democrats would desert Davis on the first half of the ballot. With Riordan on the second half of the ballot along with Brown, the chances for the GOP to win the statehouse are much higher than Davis would ever admit.

And that is why the other person to keep your eye on is Dianne Feinstein. If a scenario unfolds that Schwarzenegger drops out and clears the way for Riordan, and Brown indicates he is running, state and national Democratic leaders will increase their pressure on the popular Feinstein to jump in, throwing Davis overboard.

Feinstein has many reasons not to run. She is an esteemed member of an exclusive club of 100, albeit a minority member for the foreseeable future. She may not have any yearning to leave that cushy environment, where she is politically invulnerable from the GOP for as long as she wants the job. She especially would have no yearning to step into California’s budget mess over the next 2-3 years, when many tough decisions must be made. However, the recent budget deal struck late Sunday by the state Senate mitigates against such concerns. Although the deal basically pushed tough decisions off until next year, it did close the remaining budget gap to be solved next year to around $10 billion, a far smaller number than what was dealt with last weekend. Also, Feinstein originally wanted the job of California chief executive, when she ran a tough race and lost to Pete Wilson in 1990. Feinstein has also been enemies with Davis since that race, when Davis ran a negative campaign against Feinstein in the Democratic primary, only to see Feinstein beat him and Attorney General John VanDeKamp anyway and then lose a tough race to Wilson.

As Time Magazine notes in their upcoming issue:

(t)he key for Davis is to keep members of his party on the sidelines. "If a solid Democrat files, it would be a vote of no confidence," says Allen Hoffenblum, a G.O.P. consultant, "and then it ceases being a recall election and becomes a gubernatorial election." Davis has constantly been on the phone with top Democrats like House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein. His hope is that in the two weeks before the Aug. 9 deadline for filing, he will cut a budget deal, nudge his poll numbers higher and thus bolster confidence in the party that he can survive.

If not, one Democrat to watch is Feinstein. "Nothing I know right now interests me in running," she said last week. But that leaves her some wiggle room, should things change. She is more popular in the state than Davis and has long been thought to covet the governorship. (She lost a shot at it in 1990.) She also comes to the race with rare experience. In 1983 when she was mayor of San Francisco, she too faced a recall election. She won handily.

Feinstein’s comment is a definite “wiggle room” answer for it doesn’t say she wouldn’t run. And since she made that remark, the budget has been temporarily solved, the GOP’s chances of capturing the statehouse may have increased in Schwarzenegger’s possible withdrawal and Riordan’s likely entry, and Brown indicated he may get in. All three of those developments may now make the opportunity for Feinstein more interesting, since she is the 800-pound gorilla of state politics. A late decision by Feinstein to get in would stop Brown from running, kill off Davis and free up the state and national parties to worry elsewhere, and crush the GOP’s nascent hopes of winning the statehouse.

At this point, if I were a betting man on this, I would not discount Feinstein making the run. And there are plenty of Democrats available for her to appoint to her seat in the Senate.

Steve :: 3:06 PM :: Comments (9) :: Digg It!