They followed the money

Posted: Oct 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Here's a bit of irony: It was on Nov. 17, 2002, that GOP consultant Mark Abernathy and anti-tax crusader Ted Costa first discussed waging a recall campaign against Gov. Gray Davis, Abernathy told the University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies at its Saturday confab on the recall election. Now, Nov. 17, 2003, aides say, is the likely date Arnold Schwarzenegger will be sworn into office as governor.

 It's apparent that Team Davis didn't quite see the recall coming. Yes, the Davis camp knew that Davis garnered 1.3 million fewer votes in 2002 than in 1998. Yes, they saw the rollout of recall petitions. Yes, they heard the rumblings from angry voters as Sacramento stumbled on and then stonewalled the budget process.

 When asked what Davis was thinking as the recall effort began, Steve Smith of Californians Against the Costly Recall answered, "I don't think he took it at all seriously until (GOP Rep.) Darrell Issa put his money in."

 Live by money; die by money.

 Davis was right -- chances are that the recall would not have qualified for any ballot without Issa's money. However, it is conceivable that, fueled by the grass-roots effort alone and bereft of Issa's paid signature gatherers, the recall could still have qualified for the March 2004 ballot. With different timing, it could have been a different election, or it might have yielded the same results.

 This much would have remained: Davis would have focused on money, and that focus would have kept him isolated.

 While the governor's office waited to see if big money would back the recall, other Democrats were more nervous -- like Carroll Wills of California Professional Firefighters. "The psychology in the horseshoe (the term for the governor's office based on its shape) was that recalls happen all the time. But outside, the people who are involved with politics ... we have to keep our eyes open about stuff," Wills later explained.

 But with Team Davis, it was all dollars. Smith noted how the anti-recall effort he led concentrated on -- what else? -- scaring away money from the pro-recall side.

 Hence, the personal attacks on Issa.

 A panelist asked Smith if his side hit Issa too early. "We actually didn't play it early enough. At least Congressman Issa didn't get the message early enough," Smith replied.

 The showstopper at the confab, however, came when California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, announced that he had voted no on the recall, but then for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

 "I'm just doing what I think is right. It's a new me," he explained.

 Leading up to his confession, Lockyer had told the group that, following his new marriage and the birth of his infant son, he was a changed man. He even recited a poem ("Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold,
which calls for true love in a world that offers beauty but no certitude). It was a quintessential California moment: new wife, new baby, new politics. Apparently, the A.G. is too happy to endure what he earlier had dubbed Davis' "puke politics."

 Lockyer called the Davis 2002 strategy "the politics of subtraction,'' as it entailed deliberately running a campaign so dirty that voters would stay home.

 "These aren't smart bombs," said Lockyer. They don't just make one group cynical; they taint the whole neighborhood. So Lockyer decided to go for the candidate who offered something different. In his words, "hope."

 I don't care if Lockyer was being opportunistic (as most insiders suspect) or genuine. At least the A.G. got the message of the recall: Californians want more results, less carping. And they want to be heard above the dangerous din of the almighty dollar.