Californians are used to earthquakes. Even stomach-flipping jolts of the ground beneath us are met with a shrug and a ho-hum yawn. Wait a few seconds, and they're over. Life goes back to normal.
But this one's different. It started slow, but it just won't go away. In fact, it has so rattled the political landscape in the Golden State that it has the state's political establishment running for the doorjambs and stocking up on bottled water and canned goods. It's swiftly dawning on them: this could be THE Big One.
I'm talking, of course, about the snowballing effort to oust Gov. Gray Davis in a special recall election. What just a few short weeks ago seemed like little more than a summer diversion for bored, angry and powerless California Republicans -- the political equivalent of a trashy novel enjoyed while baking on the beach -- is now looking like an inevitability.
All across the state, Democratic leaders are emitting a collective "Oh my god!" as they realize that Davis will now be forced to face the wrath of vengeful voters incensed over the state's $38 billion budget deficit -- which the GOP is blaming on Davis' fiscal irresponsibility while conveniently ignoring the orgy of fiscal irresponsibility being thrown by the White House and its congressional cohorts.
The Democratic establishment's response has been to circle the wagons and attack the recall effort as a right wing ploy. Which, of course, it is. There is no doubt that the campaign to remove Davis doesn't pass the sniff test.
For starters, it feels undemocratic. After all, it was just 8 months ago that Davis was reelected by 363,548 votes (a five percent margin), beating his hapless GOP opponent, Bill Simon, fair and square. This leaves the backers of the recall looking like a bunch of sore losers, trying to do through the backdoor what they couldn't accomplish on Election Day. Which is particularly offensive given Florida and the growing fear that the standard GOP response to elections will become "either we win them or we undo them."
What's more, the pro-recall movement is redolent with unsavory ingredients. For starters, you might not want to stand too close to top recall patron and gubernatorial wanna-be Rep. Darrell Issa, who has spent more than $1 million of his own money on the endeavor. Issa is a real piece of work: a die-hard right winger who, in his college days, was twice arrested in cases involving weapons charges and stolen cars, and who later went on to amass a personal fortune of close to $100 million by selling -- are you ready? -- car alarms. Talk about poetic injustice. If nothing else, his profitable profession has clearly made him an expert in disturbing the peace. Too bad we can't do a career recall on Issa and his alarming bankroll.
Then there's the fact that many of the people gathering signatures on the anti-Davis recall petition aren't concerned Californians but a bunch of hardened hacks shipped in from out of state. These mercenaries couldn't care less about the problems facing the people of California -- just the buck they're paid for every name they get on the dotted line. "I'll work on anything," admits professional signature hound John Mitchell -- not exactly the rallying cry for a populist uprising.
And let's not forget the dog and pony potential of the Terminator putting his name on the recall ballot -- a prospect that has the national media licking their chops, and giving a significant amount of ink and air time to the recall story (to say nothing of millions in free publicity to "T3"). How many headlines playing off the idea of a "Total Recall" do you think we'll have to endure over the next few weeks? The smart money says the figure will be equal to the number of dollars "T3" raked in over its opening weekend.
But even given all this, it's time for California Democrats to step back, take a deep breath and admit to themselves that there is more going on here than an underhanded power grab by disgruntled Republicans with too much time and money on their hands.
A new poll released last week by the Los Angeles Times found that 51 percent of California voters now support the removal of Davis -- up from 39 percent in March. Perhaps even more meaningful is the fact that 33 percent of Democratic voters back the proposed recall.
Those kinds of numbers speak of a voter discontent that goes way beyond the ambitions of Issa and the GOP.
It shows that voters are sick and tired of having their electoral choices severely limited by a ruling class that has done everything in its power to maintain the status quo -- including the latest round of under-the-radar redistricting deals that make it all but impossible to unseat incumbents. And this is a bipartisan power play: In California, for instance, a secret redistricting deal agreed upon by both parties in 2001 created safe (i.e., voter-proof) seats for almost every member of the state Legislature.
And no one is more masterful at using the advantages of incumbency to shrink the choices voters are given than Gray Davis. Remember how he virtually handpicked his own opponent in the last election by digging into his massive campaign war chest to alter the outcome of the state's Republican primary? As the result of the $10 million he spent on ads attacking GOP-favorite Dick Riordan, Davis didn't have to face the rival he most feared. Instead, he got to take on the far less electable Bill Simon.
So, eight months ago, Davis gamed the system -- and now the system is about to strike back.
California's recall provision was added to the state constitution in 1911, one of a host of progressive era reforms designed to put more power in the hands of voters, and less in the hands of powerful corporations, such as the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the political bosses that did their bidding.
Big money is once again calling the tune in California -- Davis never met a check-wielding lobbyist he didn't cozy up to -- and it appears that disgruntled voters will use the recall to break through the special interest din and let their voices be heard. The same impulse can be seen on the national level in the burgeoning influence of MoveOn.org, and the Internet-based fundraising success of Howard Dean. As Joan Blades, cofounder of MoveOn.org, told me: "Individuals have been locked out of the candidate selection process for too long. That's why when a new way to participate emerges, there is such a powerful response."
So, however corrupt the parentage of the recall, it offers Californians a golden opportunity to send a historic message: that it's time to reorder our policy priorities and get back to serving the people. It can also be used as a cudgel with which to attack the Bush administration -- hammering home how its tax cuts uber alles economic policies, to say nothing of its way-too-cozy relationship with crooked energy companies like Enron, have led California to the brink of financial disaster.
If handled correctly, the California shake-up could turn into THE Big One -- an 8.0 on the political Richter scale with aftershocks felt as far away as the Oval Office.
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