Having a Choice on Recall Election Day

Friday July 25, 2003

AC Transit Board and Green Party member Rebecca Kaplan has been circulating an e-mail this summer, calling on Gov. Gray Davis to resign ahead of the impending recall election. 

“We need to make it clear that Davis can win by stepping down,” Ms. Kaplan writes. “In fact, this is the only way he can win. By doing this, Davis can take the moral high road—stepping aside for the sake of his state and his party—saving the taxpayers millions of dollars, and defeating the Republicans who have spent a great deal of their own money to attempt a recall. … For this to work, it must be made clear that it is in Davis’ self-interest to step aside. Let him save face, as someone who ‘saw the light’ and decided to do something for the public.” 

Ms. Kaplan, a politician of intelligence, has not heretofore been known for her sense of humor, but this is a good start. On the day Gray Davis resigns the governorship for the good of the California public ... well ... gee ... I can’t imagine what extraordinary event might happen on that day. The judging of the quick and the dead? A return to 30 cents a gallon gas? No, this seems a to-the-bitter-end kind of guy, at least where his own future is concerned.  

Like a retreating army setting fires and wrecking railroad trestles in its wake, the Davis camp has been using interesting arguments to delay and confuse its pursuers. One such argument is a serpent with multiple heads: the recall is bad because it is a waste of the taxpayers’ money; the recall is bad because you should only recall a governor with just cause; the recall is bad because it comes so soon after the voters of California made their choice. All of these are not really arguments against recalling Gray Davis; they are arguments against the recall process itself. California progressives ought to be beware of repeating such, under the theory that words uttered now might be gleefully used against them at some unforeseen, later time. Recall is the ultimate, popular check-and-balance on unresponsive government. Someday, progressives might want to use it themselves.  

The second Davisite argument against the recall is that the recent petition-signing campaign did not reflect the actual will of California voters, but merely reflected the ability of Republicans (particularly Congressmember Darryl Issa) to pump in gobs of money to distort the political process. In other words, this is a “bought” recall. Coming from the Davis camp, which has perfected the art of buying elections, this is particularly amusing.  

But all of this is smokescreen for Davis’ real recall strategy.  

If the recall petition signatures are certified as valid—the most likely scenario—then California voters will soon participate in an election that presents us with a two-part ballot. The first part of the ballot will be a yes/no question: Should Gov. Gray Davis be thrown out of office? The second part of the ballot allows the voter to choose a potential replacement (Davis, by the way, cannot be one of those choices). If 50 percent or more of the voters vote “no” on the first part of the ballot, Davis stays in office. If a majority of the voters vote “yes” on the first part, the candidate who gets the most votes in the second part of the ballot takes over as governor.  

Davis’ real strategy, successful so far, is to keep any Democrat from putting his or her name on the ballot to succeed him. Potential powerhouse candidates such as Sen. Diane Feinstein, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Attorney General Bill Lockyer have all declined to run. The theory here is that Democratic voters, who are a majority in the state, have never been that tickled to death about Gray Davis, and might replace him if they had a decent alternative. If these Democratic voters look over the recall ballot and are horrified by the alternate choices (Arnold Schwarzenegger and the aforementioned Mr. Issa, for example, whom the Davisites have spent the spring and summer demonizing), then such Democrats will hold their noses, vote against the recall and live the next three years under Davis.  

This is great strategy for Gray Davis. It is lunacy for progressive Californians, however, since it ensures a bad choice (from progressives’ point of view) if the first part of the ballot succeeds and Davis is recalled.  

The recall ballot, after all, allows voters to hedge their bets. A voter can cast a vote against the recall of Gray Davis on the first part of the ballot (if that’s their pleasure), while at the same time making a choice for a replacement governor, in the event that Davis is recalled.  

Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate, has been suggested as one alternative for California progressives. Arianna Huffington, the reformed former Republican, is another. I’m not ready to make my choice just yet. But I’d damn sure like to have a choice, come recall election day.