Calif. Will Hold Recall Election

California Gov. Gray Davis in his Capitol office in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, July 23, 2003.
Democrat Gray Davis will have to fight to keep his job this fall in the nation's first gubernatorial recall election in 82 years, state officials announced Wednesday after tallying the results of a Republican-led petition drive that seemed farfetched just months ago.

Secretary of State Kevin Shelley said in a news conference that counties had reported 1.3 million valid petition signatures, well more than the 897,158 required for the recall to make it on the ballot. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante was expected Thursday to schedule an election, which could be held as early as Sept. 23.

Davis is a career politician who is less than one year removed from winning a second consecutive term, but his popularity has plunged in recent months amid California's $38 billion budget deficit, its energy crisis and its slumping economy.

He branded the Republican-led drive to oust him "a hostile takeover by the right" and said he will fight and win. "In a strange way, this has got my juices flowing," he said Wednesday. "I'm a fighter."

The only declared major-party candidate so far is Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who bankrolled the recall drive. Other potential Republican candidates include businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in November, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The state's Democratic officeholders have closed ranks behind Davis and say they will not run.

The ballot would have two parts: The first section would ask people to vote yes or no on whether to recall Davis and the second would provide a list of candidates to choose from in the event he is recalled.

If a majority of voters support the recall, Davis would be replaced by the candidate with the most votes, meaning a candidate in a large field could be elected governor with a relatively small percentage of the overall vote.

But Bustamante suggested Wednesday that he may not have the power to set an election to choose a replacement candidate. "The authority I have is to set the date, but not the other," he said. "I don't think I have any other authority."

Bustamante says the decision on a replacement candidate should be up to the state Supreme Court or an obscure five-member body known as the Commission on the Governorship.

Davis allies appealed to the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to block the recall from making the ballot, alleging illegal signature gathering by recall backers, but the court was not expected to act immediately. Some experts thought the legal fight might at least delay certification long enough that Bustamante could consolidate the election with the state's March presidential primary, when a heavy Democratic turnout could help Davis.

Both sides were preparing for a bruising and costly recall election.

Issa said he expected the governor to be recalled "by a substantial margin."

"The only thing that's in doubt is who will replace him," said Issa. He planned to return from Washington on Thursday or Friday, earlier than expected, to formally enter the race, his spokesman said.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Schwarzenegger's top political adviser said the actor had not yet made up his mind on whether to run, while Simon said he would announce his plans on Saturday.

Recent polls have indicated that while the vote would be close, Davis would lose in a recall. The last gubernatorial recall election was in 1921, when North Dakota Gov. Lynn J. Frazier was removed from office.

With the recall's certification now official, California could once again set an example — for better or worse — for the rest of the country, just as it did in 1978 when Proposition 13 launched tax revolts across America.

Although he was elected to his first term in 1998 by a landslide, Davis' standing slipped during California's energy crisis of 2000-01. A budget crisis further eroded his popularity and he won re-election by just 5 points in November over Simon, a political novice.

This year's $38.2 billion budget deficit has already caused the state's car tax to triple, and Davis' approval rating has plummeted further.

But the real fuel for the recall came from Issa, who pumped $1.71 million of his fortune from a car-alarm business into the drive starting in May. That transformed it from a long-shot nursed by Republican activists into a reality. Thirty-one previous attempts to recall California governors had failed to reach the ballot.

The involvement of Issa, a little-known conservative, has allowed Davis and his allies to cast the recall as a right-wing attempt to hijack the Democrat-dominated state.

Polls have also shown that voters are also concerned about the $30 million to $35 million cost of a special election, and about the prospect that a candidate could win with relatively few votes.

Recall proponents argue that the cost of Davis' mismanagement of the state greatly outweighs the cost of a special election. They accuse him of lying about the size of the budget deficit to win re-election, which he denies.

With his approval ratings hovering in the low 20s, Davis acknowledged Wednesday that he has not "done everything perfect," but vowed that he will fight and win the election.

"Remember, there's a lot more people willing to vote against the recall than there are who think I'm doing a good job," Davis said. "If you look at those voters, they say, 'It's not fair to blame this on the governor.' It's that sense of fairness that I think will carry the day."

An experienced and often aggressive campaigner, Davis said that in recent days he had become energized by the prospect of taking on Republicans in the recall.

"My political obituary has been written at least once a year. The voters, however, have responded different and have put me in office because they have supported what I've done," he said.