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Big $ Fuels Calif. Recall Campaign

Gray Davis headshot, as California Governor, 5-23-01
Hundreds of thousands of Californians are signing petitions to kick Democratic Gov. Gray Davis out of office, spurred on by a campaign bankrolled by a Republican congressman who wants to take his place.

Rep. Darrell Issa, a conservative whose multimillion dollar fortune comes from the car-alarm business he built, has so far contributed $645,000 to the effort. He says it is "not a means to be governor. It's a means to eliminate a bad governor."

At the same time, he acknowledges, "I'd be very interested in being governor. I've made that clear."

Democrats who are increasingly worried about the recall said Issa's cash infusion looks like political opportunism by a man too inexperienced to be governor. They note he has two-and-a-half years in elected office and a previous failed U.S. Senate campaign.

"He is someone who wants a position," said Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif.

The idea for a recall was raised by Republican activists after Davis' narrow re-election victory over Republican businessman Bill Simon. They say Davis has mismanaged the state and lied to voters about the size of the budget deficit, projected to be as much as $38.2 billion by July 2004.

Recall efforts have been begun against every California governor in the past 30 years, but none has collected the needed signatures. This effort seemed headed for a similar fate until Issa started pouring money in. Supporters say they now have more than 600,000 of the 897,000 signatures they need.

If organizers reach their goal, a recall election could be held as early as this fall. If voters then decided to oust Davis, they would choose his replacement from a list of candidates on the same ballot.

Topping most Republican lists is actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has criticized Davis in campaign-style speeches while deflecting questions about whether he would be a candidate to replace him. Potential Democratic candidates are especially cautious, not wanting to lend any additional credibility to the recall effort. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante are the most frequently mentioned.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Davis has only belatedly awakened to Issa's challenge. She advises him to campaign "as if he were running against the roughest, toughest opponent out there."

While attacking the recall campaign, Davis supporters also are focusing on Issa (pronounced ICE-uh). They contend he is too conservative for heavily Democratic California, opposes abortion rights and would allow offshore drilling for oil.

In an interview in his congressional office, Issa said he would not try to alter laws relating to abortion in California, despite his opposition, and has backed bans on offshore drilling, including a Democratic-backed measure in the House last year.

The San Diego-area congressman also is facing a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission contending he is violating the new campaign finance law by soliciting money for and contributing to the signature-gathering campaign.

"This is about the recall of the governor. If the governor wants to make it about the person, if he wants to talk about my personal life and my personal beliefs and say that's somehow going to offset his failures in office, he's missing the point," Issa said in the interview.

He said the FEC complaint, filed by a Davis backer, is frivolous and an act of desperation.

Issa also addressed concerns that he is not temperamentally suited to be governor. "Am I somebody who is a hard-charger and a Type A? Absolutely," he said. "I care enough to get upset about things going wrong. And I consider that a virtue. I'm not a violent person."

The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, he has asserted he was denied a seat on an Air France flight to the Middle East shortly after Sept. 11 because of racial profiling.

The governor has joined the chorus of Issa critics who complain the congressman is trying to win the governor's office on the sly.

"Stand up and be a man. Run like most people do," Davis said in The Los Angeles Times.

Issa said he found Davis' criticism ironic since the governor spent millions of dollars on television ads during the Republican primary for governor last year to weaken former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, presumed to be the strongest challenger to Davis.

"I'm very aware that the governor is the one who won't stand up like a man but uses the money and power to distort the system," Issa said.

The prospect that the recall might succeed also has unsettled some Republicans. They fear their sagging fortunes in California actually could decline if a Democrat replaces Davis. Others have said their party would benefit from keeping the unpopular Davis in office in a state in which Democrats control every statewide office, both houses of the Legislature, 33 of 53 seats in the House of Represenatives and both U.S. Senate seats.

By Mark Sherman