Recall backers are critical of Gov. Davis' fund-raising, attack ads
and response to the budget and power crises.
By Peter Nicholas and Jeffrey L. Rabin
Times Staff Writers
August 31, 2003
The California recall campaign took root on a day best remembered for
On Feb. 1, Ted Costa was keeping to his Saturday routine. He went
outside to feed the small flock of chickens he raises on his one-acre
property near Sacramento, then back in to switch on Fox News.
The financial show he was expecting had been preempted by reports that
the space shuttle was lost. Costa began watching.
The phone rang — a friend from Bakersfield talking about an idea they
had been kicking around for months: pushing the governor out of office.
The head of a conservative, anti-tax group, the 62-year-old Costa
pulled up to the home computer he had built himself with parts
purchased from Fry's. Glancing over his shoulder from time to time at
the shuttle coverage, he tapped out a one-page, double-spaced recall
petition. By the time television announcers confirmed that Columbia had
disintegrated, he was finished, ready to submit a document that would
upend the political order in California.
In its infancy the movement was propelled by the accusation that Gov.
Gray Davis had mismanaged the state's finances and concealed the true
dimensions of the problem when he ran for reelection last fall.
But the recall soon morphed into something broader — an expression of
deeper misgivings about the governor and grievances toward the state's
In Davis, the recall forces found a vulnerable target.
He is widely seen as an indecisive leader who stumbled badly in the two
major tests of his tenure: the energy shortage and the budget crunch.
Through both crises, Davis made time to raise campaign money at a
record pace, much of it from donors who stood to profit from his
actions. And after nearly five years in power the governor is
associated as much with his vitriolic campaign ads as any of the health
and education initiatives he has embraced.
Yet the slashing campaigner is proudly bland and somewhat aloof. For
all his success in politics, Davis, 60, has never built much of a
rapport with the electorate or a relationship with colleagues whose
backing he now needs.
Forty-seven states faced major budget shortfalls this year, and polls
show widespread voter anger toward governors, legislators and state
officials alike. But only California has a recall on the ballot.
That has as much to do with the peculiarities of California law as it
does with Davis.
A California governor can be recalled because voters think he stole
money or because they don't like the way he combs his hair.
While 18 states permit the recall of elected officials, seven demand
specific grounds, such as incompetence, malfeasance, corruption or
neglect of duties, according to the National Conference of State
In California, there is no standard. What's more, California requires
petition signatures from only 12% of the number of people who voted in
the last statewide election — the lowest threshold of any state.
Introduced in the early 20th century by Progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson,
the recall was seen as an exercise in direct democracy. If people
wanted the governor out, they didn't need to wait until the next
election, nor did they need to prove high crimes and misdemeanors.
As with any political controversy, the recall has more than one side.
Davis dismisses it as a Republican power grab with parallels in the
2000 presidential election and the redistricting fight in Texas.
Opponents in both parties condemn it as a dangerous precedent that
could trigger fresh attempts to boot politicians prematurely — an
unwarranted effort to unseat a duly elected governor.
But architects of the recall present a case against Davis that hinges
on four broad themes: lack of leadership, bungling of the state's
finances, excessive fund-raising and negative campaigning.
The energy crisis was complex, but many blame Davis for not acting
It was December 2000, and former Secretary of State Warren
Christopher was lecturing Gray Davis about how to be a leader. The two
men were huddled with utility executives and state legislators in the
Capitol's Ronald Reagan conference room, trying to map out a strategy
to deal with the first crisis of the Davis administration, the
destabilizing power shortage.
Conditions were so bad that the state shut off the lights on the
official Christmas tree half an hour after Davis had ceremoniously
turned them on.
Christopher, a member of Southern California Edison's board, spoke to
Davis about the need to be decisive. To illustrate just where the buck
stopped, state Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) took out a
dollar bill and tossed it near Davis.
But the message didn't take.
The governor noted happily that the bill actually landed closer to one
of the utility executives.
The reasons for the electricity shortage are complex, and investigators
eventually concluded that power companies had manipulated a flawed
system adopted by Davis' predecessor, Gov. Pete Wilson.
But Davis has repeatedly been faulted for not acting quickly enough. In
particular, he vowed for months not to raise rates, delaying the
politically unpopular step that many argued could have lessened the
severity and overall cost of the crisis.
While Davis urged federal intervention and railed against the energy
companies, one utility filed for bankruptcy, another teetered on the
brink and hundreds of thousands of people endured rolling blackouts.
Some who have worked with the governor said his response to the power
crisis reflects a fear of alienating key constituencies and a
reluctance to veer too far from the broad consensus.
"If you're leading, it means that you're out making decisions and
taking risks," said Roderick Wright, a Democratic assemblyman from 1996
until 2002. "And those are things that people may or may not like. Gray
attempts in his politics not to do things that people may not like."
Wright added: "When you're risk-averse, you postpone particularly
difficult decisions until the eleventh hour and hope that things
resolve themselves and you don't have to do anything. That's the energy
crisis in a nutshell."
In describing his strategy at the time, Davis said he was wisely opting
for an "incremental, cautious approach" and warned that "bold, decisive
strokes sometimes backfire."
But the governor's strategy itself backfired, fixing in many people's
minds the sense of weak leadership that persists nearly three years
As Davis points out, widespread blackouts were averted, the utilities
regained their footing and inquiries revealed that Enron and others
bore much of the blame for creating false shortages. Yet, likely voters
who want Davis recalled offered energy as the No. 2 reason in a Los
Angeles Times poll taken earlier this month.
With his job at stake, Davis for the first time is accepting some
measure of blame. "I know many of you feel that I was too slow to act
during the energy crisis," he said in a recent speech to supporters at
UCLA. "I got your message, and I accept that criticism."
The power crisis weakened him just as he pivoted to an even more
serious one, the foundering economy.
"The beginning of Gray Davis' unraveling was the energy crisis," said
Garry South, one of his top advisors. "His numbers started to collapse."
In the spring of 2000, before the energy crisis, voters had a generally
favorable opinion of Davis, though the governor's own focus groups
revealed that people knew little about what he had accomplished after
more than a year in office.
By the fall of 2002, South said, focus groups showed that voters still
knew little — save for the electricity debacle.
"The energy crisis was the political equivalent of autoimmune disease.
It destroyed his credibility," South said. "It destroyed his standing
with the voters in the sense they weren't willing to give him the
benefit of the doubt for anything that came afterward and, frankly, for
anything that came before."
A key fiscal truth is borne out: In the end the governor gets the
credit or blame.
In a state with 28 million cars and trucks, taxing vehicles is
hardly popular. As debate swirled late last year over whether to
restore the car tax to its 1998 levels and generate billions needed to
plug the state's fiscal hole, Gray Davis was steadfastly opposed. He
pointedly left the tax unchanged in his January budget. The following
month, he angered Assembly Democrats by saying he would veto spending
cuts linked to a car tax increase.
Then in March, the governor's top fiscal aide said the administration
didn't have a choice: When revenue dropped low enough, state law would
trigger a tripling of the tax. By June, the Davis administration had
issued an order boosting the car tax to the tune of $4.2 billion.
Republicans dubbed it "immaculate taxation" — a ploy to bypass the
requirement that the Legislature approve new taxes by a two-thirds
vote. They are challenging it in court.
In the end, the increase proved an important step in plugging the
$38-billion budget gap. But it also gave ammunition to those seeking to
drive Davis out of office.
"He's the guy at the top," said Dave Gilliard, chief strategist for one
of the main recall groups, Rescue California. "And if he showed
leadership or had a plan or a roadmap to get us out of the mess, people
would be forgiving."
When it became clear that the average driver would pay an extra $158 a
year, Gilliard ordered 5,000 signs reading, "Mad about the car tax?
Sign here to recall Gov. Gray Davis." People began lining up to sign
The car tax episode typified the budget battles that raged in the
Legislature as the dot-com economy collapsed and California failed to
live within its means. It also illustrated a central truth of the
budget wars: The governor runs the state and, in the end, the credit or
blame falls on him.
Over the last two years, the state set two dubious fiscal records: the
size of its shortfall and the delays in passing a budget. Davis points
to a flagging national economy and Republican intransigence about tax
increases as the culprits.
But voters do not seem swayed. The Times poll found that 23% of those
who said they were likely to vote to recall Davis cited the budget as a
prime reason — either because of the impasses in Sacramento, the size
of the shortfall or suspicions that the governor masked the truth about
state finances when he was up for reelection last fall.
"Gray Davis created these problems in Sacramento, he covered them up to
win reelection and, having been reelected, he presented no solution to
them," said Jonathan Wilcox, who worked with Rep. Darrell Issa
(R-Vista) in the effort to get the recall on the ballot. "Frankly,
people were fed up."
During Davis' tenure the state has moved from healthy surpluses to deep
deficits. The governor, joined by bipartisan majorities in the
Legislature, ramped up spending when times were flush.
In some cases Davis had no choice. Much of the added spending was
mandated by voters — a ballot initiative passed 15 years ago, for
example, requires that as state revenues rise, more than 40% of the
additional money go to public schools. Other spending is a federal
requirement: health care for the poor, for example.
Still, when the stock market bubble burst, the economy lapsed into
recession and state tax revenue plummeted, the governor and legislators
moved slowly to tamp down spending.
To close the multibillion-dollar shortfall last year, state officials
relied on borrowing and creative accounting. They made erroneous
assumptions about future revenue and ignored signs of a weakening
economy. Ultimately, last year's budget was adopted 67 days late.
"It is not a perfect document," the governor said when he signed it.
With the election then just two months away, he sidestepped questions
about the future. "I have no expectations one way or another," he said
when asked about the year ahead. "I think it's absolutely foolhardy to
talk about next year's budget until we get through all the spending
implications of this year."
On Nov. 5, Davis was reelected. Nine days later, the state's
legislative analyst reported that California faced a $21-billion budget
gap. The following month, Davis announced that the shortfall was
approaching $35 billion.
Davis has dismissed suggestions that he knew while running for
reelection that the problem was worse than he was saying.
Some recall supporters are not convinced. "One of the primary points we
were making was that this is a budget crisis without precedent and that
information was hidden from us," said Howard Kaloogian, a former
Republican assemblyman who headed one recall committee.
The recall itself complicated budget negotiations this year. Davis
proposed a balanced budget, but lacking strong allies in the
Legislature, he was unable to advance it. Lawmakers sparred over
whether to close the gap by raising taxes or cutting spending. Once
again, there were delays, missed deadlines and squabbling.
In July, Standard & Poor's dropped the state's bond rating to near
junk status, the lowest in the nation. The downgrade will cost
taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars more in interest.
On Aug. 2, Davis signed a budget that narrowed the gap through a mix of
borrowing, spending cuts and increased fees that were especially
painful for students at public colleges and universities. Because the
solutions did not address the fundamental gap between the money the
state takes in and what it spends, there is at least an $8-billion hole
in next year's budget.
Davis' skill at getting donations, which he sees as prudent, becomes
During his first term as governor, Gray Davis averaged about $1.5
million a month in campaign contributions, shattering state records.
Davis viewed it as the best protection against losing.
Now his fund-raising talent is an oft-cited argument for his ouster.
Davis took in $70 million and plowed the bulk of it into his reelection
drive. He raised money as the state was battling budget and power
crises. He courted donors while traveling outside California on
official business. He took from Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia and others
implicated in the corporate scandals. His donors read like a who's who
of those with business before the state.
Davis has defended his fund-raising as necessary to ward off rich
rivals who can bankroll their own campaigns. He's been there before. In
the 1998 Democratic primary for governor, Al Checchi, the ex-Northwest
Airlines executive, spent $30 million on a losing campaign. Davis was
so short of funds he sweated a small purchase of radio ads.
Running for reelection last year, the governor had millions in the
bank, but his two potential GOP opponents — businessman Bill Simon Jr.
and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan — each boasted personal
"He's known from Day One that he would be facing a very well-financed
millionaire opponent," said Steve Maviglio, the governor's spokesman.
"That's the type of person who can afford to run for office in
California right now. The governor lives in a 1,000-square-foot condo.
He has just the 20 years of salary in public service. And so part of
his time has to be dedicated to raising funds."
The concerns have centered on just how much time, and on the potential
for putting contributors' interests ahead of the state's.
In his first term, Davis often coupled fund-raisers with public
appearances, stopping to collect campaign funds no matter what business
was pending in Sacramento.
A few months after 9/11, Davis flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and ask for federal help in
covering the state's extra security costs. In town for just 24 hours,
Davis picked up $422,000 at a union fund-raiser.
The governor took time out from a lengthy budget standoff in Sacramento
last August to go on a fund-raising swing through Austin, Texas,
netting $150,000. He left town again that month to attend a conference
of Democratic governors in San Francisco, where he plotted election
strategy and collected a $200,000 donation.
Amid the power crisis in March 2001, Davis went to a Palm Desert
country club to raise more than $100,000 from the health-care industry.
That same day, lawmakers were back in the capital struggling to pass
energy legislation that Davis had sought.
On Valentine's Day last year, he used his Capitol office to solicit a
$1-million campaign contribution from the California Teachers Assn.
during a private conversation with union officials about policy.
"There's something broke," said recall organizer Costa. "Policy is
being articulated by people who put money into the political arena, and
that's a no-no."
State Sen. John Vasconcellos, a Democrat who has served in the
Legislature longer than any other current member, said the governor's
fund-raising practices "hurt him a lot. It gave a strong impression
that he spends most of his time raising money. And that's not a healthy
Vasconcellos, though, portrayed the system as inherently flawed. It
happens routinely in U.S. politics: Donors with interests before the
state give to politicians with the power to advance those interests.
"The system is corrupting by the way it's constructed," he said. Davis
"was a victim of it as well as a perpetrator of it. It's awful."
The governor receives money from individuals and groups who have an
agenda and want his favor, be they state employees or trial lawyers or
He has consistently denied that he rewards contributors in return for
"There is not a major supporter of mine who has not had at least one or
two of their measures vetoed," Davis said in 2001. "I take each issue
as it comes. If you look at the whole history of what I've done, you
won't find a single person — business, labor, the environmental
community, the consumer community — that can't point to several
successes and several failures. That's the way I intend to govern."
There were times he disappointed donors. Early in his first term, he
called for merit-based pay for teachers, angering the California
Teachers Assn., one of his major contributors. He vetoed legislation in
2000 that would have given tax breaks to WorldCom, a campaign donor.
But he's also made decisions that helped contributors. In some cases,
those policies proved costly to taxpayers.
The prison guards union, which has donated to many officials, gave
Davis a total of $1.4 million during his first term. Last year he
collected $251,000 from the union just weeks after he signed
legislation that gave the guards raises worth about $1 billion. It was
the biggest check Davis had received since taking office three years
Demonizing foes leads to victory but makes him even less popular.
The grainy footage of Richard Riordan was 11 years old, but the
message was explosive. The man vying for the Republican gubernatorial
nomination was shown on a cable talk show equating abortion with murder.
Riordan was doomed. He was forced to counter the broadcast by speaking
repeatedly in support of abortion rights, thus alienating conservative
voters. And he couldn't win back more moderate Republicans who no
longer trusted him.
The $10-million ad campaign was bankrolled by Democrat Gray Davis, a
successful foray into the other party's primary to weaken a candidate
who would have posed a serious threat in the general election.
The tactic helped a more conservative candidate, Bill Simon Jr., defeat
Riordan. But it was part of a blistering campaign strategy that left
even some Davis sympathizers disillusioned.
Turnout was the lowest in state history, and exit polls showed that six
in 10 people who voted disliked both Davis and Simon.
"One of the reasons we're in this place is that campaign," said Ben
Austin, a Democratic political operative who is close to Riordan but
now working against the recall.
Pointing to the money Davis spent on the campaign, Austin added: "If he
had spent some of that $70 million in explaining to voters what he
believed in, or engaging in a public policy debate about the future,
voters would have walked away liking him. Even as a political junkie, I
couldn't watch it. It was like a 'Seinfeld' episode: It was about
Some Davis associates said he had little choice.
"The circumstances were to get someone who is unpopular elected," said
Phil Trounstine, Davis' former communications director. "What happened
is they ran a negative campaign. You become unpopular when you do, but
you defeat the other guy."
The governor considered a more affirmative message, going so far as
preparing a series of ads laying out his record on the environment,
health care and other issues, South said.
"Most of those didn't see the light of day," South said. "They didn't
pass muster in focus groups. People didn't believe it."
Opponents of the recall are working to draw attention to Davis'
accomplishments. Student test scores have risen under his watch. He
signed family leave legislation that extends disability payments to
people who leave work to care for newborns or sick family members. He
pushed coastal protections, gun control measures and global warming
initiatives meant to ratchet down the greenhouse gas emissions pumped
into the air from cars.
But much of that remains eclipsed by the 2002 campaign, a race largely
remembered for its rancor.
That is not out of the ordinary for Davis, a politician who has
compiled a remarkable record of electoral success, winning five
statewide contests over two decades.
In his unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 1992, Davis likened
his opponent Dianne Feinstein to the convicted tax cheat and hotel
queen Leona Helmsley.
Then state controller, Davis ran ads showing Feinstein and Helmsley
side by side, equating Helmsley's crimes with a state lawsuit accusing
Feinstein of improperly reporting more than $8 million in campaign
donations from her 1990 gubernatorial bid.
"Helmsley is in jail. Feinstein wants to be senator?" the announcer
said in the ad.
Kam Kuwata, then Feinstein's campaign manager and a former Davis
consultant, at the time called him a "cheap, sleazy politician."
Former Assemblyman Wright has known Davis since they both worked for
former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in the early 1970s. "Gray's
politics have never been the politics of making you like him," Wright
"What Gray's politics have always been is, 'I'm going to make you not
like the other guy and I'm going to emerge as the lesser of the evils —
not the positive of the group — but the lesser of the evils."
For the first time, Gray Davis has no opponent. The recall is a
referendum on the man.
In the crowded field vying to succeed him, many are offering reasons
for voters to turn Davis out.
State Sen. Tom McClintock is hammering Davis on state finances, Arnold
Schwarzenegger says the governor has mortgaged the state to special
interests, and Peter V. Ueberroth calls the recall effort a mandate for
change. Even Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only prominent Democratic
candidate and an opponent of the recall, has obliquely accused Davis of
arrogance as a leader.
Their criticisms resonate with voters. In the Times poll, more than
half said they strongly disapproved of the way Davis was doing his job,
and an additional 20% disapproved somewhat.
Lacking popular support, Davis has focused his message on condemning
the recall as illegitimate. However much people dislike him, he argues,
nothing he has done justifies overturning last year's election.
That is the argument most commonly cited by those who plan to vote no.
Even groups most enthusiastically embracing Davis' cause, like labor,
do not often speak about him with warmth, or even sympathy.
In recent days, as the governor has attempted to be more outgoing,
poking fun at himself and joking about an ancient fling with Cybill
Shepherd, he has acknowledged that he is not a charismatic figure.
"I would love everyone to love me," the governor said last week. "If
you ask me if I'm Bill Clinton, I'm not At the end of the day, I think
what people really care about is: Did you do your job, did you keep
The state's Democratic establishment is scarcely more supportive than
are voters. Though he is a career Sacramento insider, the governor is
on the iciest of terms with political leaders whose support he now
Early in his first term, Davis, a former assemblyman, alienated
lawmakers by saying the Legislature's job was to "implement my vision."
Just after the recall effort had qualified for the ballot, Democratic
state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer cautioned Davis to run a positive
campaign, denouncing his penchant for "puke politics." Davis fought to
keep a Democrat off the ballot in hopes of dampening the recall's
appeal, but his own lieutenant governor defied him.
"Gray has never been one to go bowling with the guys after the
session," said San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a former Assembly
Nor has Davis shared his campaign riches, as is often done.
"There's a perception among a number of my colleagues that he's rarely
been helpful in the past — helpful in either promoting their public
policy or political goals," said Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio
Villaraigosa, also a former Assembly speaker.
Davis' detachment has proved costly.
"There's no reserve of goodwill you can call upon to help," said
Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, a Democrat from the Bay Area city of
Pittsburg. "He either has political allies or foes — and neither is
reliable when it comes to a crisis."
Several people who know Davis well describe his style as
"transactional," making him dependent on friendships based on
expediency that can dissolve in the face of trouble.
"It is in the fundamental nature of Gray Davis to stand alone," said
Darry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant.
"With his career on the line, you might expect people in his situation
to go to key players in the Legislature and say, 'You know what? I
screwed up. And I'm in a real fix here. I need your help. I can't do
this without you. If you'll stand by me at this crucial time and help
me through this, I'll always remember you and take care of you and
return the favor,' " Sragow said.
"Even now he doesn't do that. He stands alone."
(Begin Text of Infobox)
Candidates on the recall
Arnold Schwarzenegger , Republican
"I feel the same way as 1.6 million people felt who put the signatures
down to recall Gray Davis. We are mad as hell, and we are not going to
take it anymore How many more times can you go up and pick up the
newspapers, listen to the radio or watch television and hear things
like that California has the largest budget deficit in the nation, or
that it has the worst credit rating or that our government is rated
last in money management. The list goes on. Every time you look at the
news, there's something negative about California. Which basically
means that the last few years the Davis administration has gone
downhill. And we have to stop it. We have to take the government back."
Peter V. Ueberroth, Republican
"I have not provided, and will not provide,
financial support for the recall initiative; have not, and will not,
campaign in support of the recall; and I did not sign the recall
petition. But the recall has now become a mandate for change in
Sacramento from the people of California. I intend to lead that change,
and I will vote yes."
State Sen. Tom McClintock, Republican
"I was one of the earliest supporters of the recall.
The recall exists, in the words of its original sponsors, to allow the
voters to 'dismiss an unsatisfactory public servant.' Gray Davis'
policies have bankrupted our state's finances, devastated our economy
and decimated our public works. If that isn't an unsatisfactory public
servant, I don't know what is."
Arianna Huffington, Independent
"This recall started as a power grab backed by a bunch of Republican
sore losers looking for a back-door way to overturn the defeat they
suffered in November. But, however corrupt the parentage of the recall
effort, it has given Californians an unprecedented opportunity to take
back our political system — to reorder our policy priorities so that
our public servants will finally get back to serving the public."
Peter Miguel Camejo, Green
"There are very good reasons why Davis should be recalled. The
governor's incompetence in allowing a massive surplus to turn into a
deficit is unacceptable. Davis lost California $32 billion by signing
long-term energy contracts without 'hedging' — buying insurance against
a loss. He is surrounded by an aura of corruption, with numerous
examples of his 'pay-to-play' actions being reported in the media. The
recall is the people's right to remove a governor who can no longer
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Democrat
Opposes the recall. "Californians are a very forgiving people. What
they don't forgive is arrogance — arrogance in leadership, arrogance in
government, arrogance in people."
Los Angeles Times
The Broad Themes of Discontent
The leaders of the recall movement tapped into widespread disaffection
and anger targeted at Gov. Gray Davis. Though the ouster effort has
drawn support for many reasons, the case its backers present hinges on
four broad themes: Leadership, The Budget, Fund-Raising, Negative