California: Be careful what you wish for

Posted: Jul 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it. Republicans would do well to remember this old adage as they face the prospect of a successful effort to recall California Democrat Gov. Gray Davis in a special election on Oct. 7.

There's no question that Davis has been a dreadful governor, amassing a $38-billion deficit on a state budget of $100 billion. But Californians had the chance to throw the bum out last year. Instead, they re-elected him, albeit with only 47 percent of the vote. Now, a recall effort, led by Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, will give Californians the chance to change their minds. But is that necessarily a good thing?

California, like 17 other states, can recall politicians; but the only successful recall of a governor occurred in North Dakota in 1921. What's more, California's rules governing recalls leave much to be desired. Instead of allowing voters to recall the incumbent -- setting up a separate, special election to replace him -- California state law combines the process into one election. The rules make it difficult for Democrats to field their own candidate without appearing to be disloyal to their previous standard-bearer. But this may not help the Republican Party -- or indeed the democratic process itself.

Anyone can get his or her name on the ballot under the California rules. All a potential candidate has to do is fill out a form, obtain 65 signatures from registered voters and pay $3,500. Candidates don't even have to come up with the money if they produce more signatures. Signatures from 5,000 registered party members (or in the case of Independents, voters who decline to list a party) will cut the fee in half for those running as Republicans, Democrats or Independents, while 10,000 signatures waives the whole fee. Minority party candidates get a big break, too. They only have to come up with 150 signatures to waive the whole $3,500 fee.

So far, hundreds of individuals have gone to their county registrar's offices to begin the filing process, which closes August 9, though it is uncertain how many will eventually pay the fee or gather enough signatures to have their names appear on the ballot. Bob Dole is thinking of running -- not the former Republican presidential nominee, but a fellow from San Jose who told the local Mercury News that he was thinking of running because, "I have the name recognition."

Every publicity-hungry Tom, Dick and Harriet with a few friends and a little money could end up on the ballot. Worse, one of them could end up governor. The law stipulates that whoever gets the most votes, wins. Depending on how many names ultimately appear on the ballot, a candidate could become governor with only 10 percent of the vote, or even less.

Republicans are hoping that one of their own will emerge victorious, but that's by no means certain. Actor and registered Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger has suddenly gotten cold feet; and 2002 GOP gubernatorial candidates Richard Riordan and Bill Simon could end up replaying last year's primary battle, which helped split the party and elect Davis in the first place.

With Issa already in the race and several other Republicans thinking about jumping in, the GOP vote could be badly split. That might leave the field wide open for someone like socialite author and political chameleon Arianna Huffington to buy her way into the seat. Huffington's ex-husband, former Congressman Michael Huffington, who spent $30 million of his own money in a failed 1994 Senate race, is apparently also contemplating running. The whole election could turn into more entertainment farce than democratic process.

Voters sometimes make mistakes when they pick leaders -- but living with the consequences of those mistakes makes for a healthy democracy. Maybe next time around, voters who feel they were hoodwinked will be more careful when they cast their votes.