Role reversal

Posted: Sep 08, 2003 12:00 AM

You could call this phase of the anti-recall campaign the "Gray Davis Hurt Me Tour." The governor has figured out that if he lets regular citizens beat him up on television, as they did during two recent "Town Hall" settings, other voters will feel sorry for Davis, their anger will dissipate and they'll be less likely to vote to throw him out of office.

The Pity Strategy worked before. Gumby (as wags call Davis) won the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary because he was the poor kid on the block -- the man was reduced to living in a condo -- and there he was running against two rich arrivistes. Davis won the sympathy vote. The rest is history.

Today, Davis is facing a recall because voters later decided that as governor, he was too remote, too political and too interested in rubbing elbows with big donors.

So now Humble Gray is back. He plans to be more than accessible to everyday folks. Hey, he'll even be a human punching bag. Berate him for being slow on the energy crisis. He'll agree. Scold him for spending too much time with fat cats. Davis will confess: If only he had more town meetings, then he wouldn't be in the soup today.

Oddly, as Davis is reaching out and touching voters, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is trying to win the replacement election by morphing into the old hyper-fund-raising, fat-cat-schmoozing Davis.

This week, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians announced it would spend $2 million to help Bustamante's gubernatorial effort. This might surprise those of you who voted for Proposition 34, the November 2000 initiative approved by 60 percent of voters that limits single donations to gubernatorial campaigns to $21,200.

Sorry, suckers. It turns out that Prop. 34 has a loophole exempting campaign committees that predate the law. So the Viejas Band and other casino-rich tribes can give close to $3 million to the old Bustamante campaign. The old Bustamante campaign can transfer the money to the new Bustamante campaign. And it's so long, pesky campaign-finance limits.

Here's the best part: Bustamante's campaign lawyer, Lance Olson, should know that the scheme is legit -- because Olson helped write Prop. 34.

Hmmm. Isn't there a familiar aroma to this story -- insiders manipulating the system to thwart the will of voters while sweetening their own coffee? The worst of it is, as Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies said, Bustamante "doesn't need to use the loophole because of all the free media he's getting. The bad press is going to hurt him more than the $2 million is going to help him."

Same play, new star.

Wednesday night at the recall candidates' debate, KTVU's Randy Shandobil asked Bustamante if he would allow tribes to build more casinos and expand slots.

Funny, but the Cruzinator was so busy talking about how much he respected the tribes, and how proud he was to be their buddy, that he forgot to answer Shandobil's question.

Bustamante did remember to mention that he's not rich. (OK, he owns a house, but as his campaign consultant has told reporters, it only has two bathrooms.) Because he wasn't rich, Bustamante explained, the tribes were ponying up big dollars because they were "showing their friendship by helping me in trying to basically level the playing field."

It was 1998 all over again.