Bustamente elbows into the recall

Debra J. Saunders

7/25/2003 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

The national media swarmed into town Wednesday to see when -- not if -- Secretary of State Kevin Shelley would certify a recall election of Gov. Gray Davis for the ballot.

But Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante was the talk of the town, after spokeswoman Deborah Pacyna told the Sacramento Bee, "Article 5, Sect. 10 of the (California) Constitution states the lieutenant governor becomes governor in the event of a vacancy."

Translation: Voters can kick Davis out, but they can't choose who replaces him.

So, after Dems complained bitterly that the recall was a GOP attempt to overturn an election, a top Dem was willing to deny voters an election.

Like other tops Dems, Bustamante has pledged not to run in the recall. So Bustamante is willing to replace Davis as governor -- but only if he isn't elected.

Returning my phone call, Bustamante distanced himself from the Bee story. He said it was his job to call an election date, but up to Shelley, the attorney general and legislative counsel, to determine if he could become governor by default.

Get used to this: There will be many legal efforts to kill the recall. And like this scheme, they will all become virtual orphans. Other Dems ran from the proposal. Shelley, for example, said his "preliminary view" was that the Bustamante trial balloon wouldn't fly.

The recall folks were happy campers. They got a big kick out of pointing out that the banquet room at Vallejo's -- the Sacramento restaurant where they were throwing a daylong recall party -- was named in honor of the Cruzinator. And here they were, getting ready to feast on leg of Gumby.

Sacramento talk-show host Eric Hogue had started his morning with a "free the signatures broadcast," just to reinforce the contention that Shelley was deliberately stalling the certification process.

Hogue recalled how anti-tax advocate Ted Costa called into Hogue's show one day and announced that he would start a recall effort. Citizens started showing up at Costa's shop to sign up: A movement was born.

While the recall effort has been fueled by egos elbowing out each other to take credit for starting it, Costa was modest when he visited Vallejo's. "If I hadn't created it, someone else would have," he said.

Or maybe Costa knows something most of the right-tilting supporters haven't figured out yet: That months from now, the right will be saying: The recall? Fuggedaboutit.

For one thing, Davis could win the recall -- and emerge stronger than before. The Los Angeles Times poll shows that most Californians oppose a recall if there's no Dem on the ballot.

Meanwhile, it's not clear that the Rs have a candidate who can win.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has the money, fame and charm -- but he may not run. If T3 opts out, his buddy Dick Riordan, Los Angeles' former mayor, may throw his hat in the ring -- but as an independent who will make nice with the Dems. Riordan is not what the recallers had in mind.

If Ah-nold and Riordan sit it out, and state Sen. Tom McClintock (who filed exploratory papers Wednesday) doesn't raise millions, the big two contenders could be -- Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in November, and Darrell Issa, the millionaire congressman who put $1.5 million into the recall.

Issa should bill himself as the "catch me if you can" candidate -- the kid arrested (not convicted) for stealing cars who became an auto alarm magnate. He's a high-school-drop-out-turned congressman -- a great American success story.

Except Team Davis has done a handy job of painting Issa as a shady CEO, and Issa has yet to seriously take on the smear campaign. Last year, Team Davis did a similar job on Simon (who made it too easy for them). If some new blood doesn't enter the arena, the only way the lineup could look worse is if one of the recall-Einsteins decides, "Hey, maybe we can get Ken Lay to run."