I am one of the few people who truly knows what Gray Davis is going through this week because I too once had to go through a recall election. And I won.
I believe there is still the crazy chance he can too.
Long before I was making movies or writing books or going after elected officials, I was an elected official. In fact, I held the record as the youngest officeholder in the country. Just months after the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, I was elected, at the age of 18, to a seat on the Board of Education in the school district where I lived in Michigan. I was still a senior in high school, and the idea of becoming the boss of the high school principal was just too good to pass up.
The day after my election, the assistant principal changed my name from "Hey, you!" to "Mr. Moore," and suddenly I realized I was in a place where maybe I could do some good.
Within nine months, the principal and assistant principal had handed in their resignations. As a school board member, I pushed for student rights, funding arts and music over sports and making sure that the board was beholden to the parents and students and not the business community. This did not endear me to the Chamber of Commerce. When the board tried to hand out no-bid contracts, I went to the state attorney general. When it tried to hold secret meetings, I called the prosecutor. And, when I made a motion that a new elementary school in this all-white district be named after Martin Luther King Jr., the Republicans in town had seen enough and took out recall petitions to have me removed.
The Darrell Issas of my town had the money to gather the signatures on the petitions and stage an aggressive campaign against me. I was making around $3 an hour and had nothing in the bank to fight back. As the recall day approached, I was filled with despair, much as I'm sure Davis is right now. I mean, who wants the entire public to go to the polls to answer the question, "Should we run this bozo out of town on a rail, yes or no?"
Of course, the difference between Davis and me is that I had not spent my term calling myself a Democrat but acting like a Republican. So when the recall happened, I had a lot of support.
Davis took money from Enron. He saw to it that a man who stole $2.98 worth of double-A batteries got a life sentence under the three-strikes law. He probably thought that trying to be more Republican-like would bring him more votes.
What he didn't understand was that if the voters wanted a Republican, why would they vote for the Diet-Lite version in Davis, when they could get the prime rib special in the real thing, like Mr. Universe?
In the week before my recall, I stressed that I would go even further if I were allowed to stay in office. Instead of backing down, I looked and acted as if I could not care less if anyone voted for me because I was never in this to win a popularity contest; I was running to let people know that I actually stood for something.
What does Davis stand for? That seems to be the problem.
Two professors from Manchester College in Indiana did a study of the 1994 congressional elections to figure out how the Newt Gingrich Revolution happened. What they discovered was that those Democrats who tried to modify their message to sound more middle of the road, who tried to make themselves bland because they thought this would make them more attractive — they were the Democrats who lost. Those who portrayed themselves as unapologetically liberal men and women of conscience were the ones who, in fact, got elected and reelected.
It seems since then that few Democrats have gotten the message, but now in the eleventh hour, Davis finally has.
His main problem, though, is who is going to be passionately motivated to leave the house Tuesday because they want to save Davis?
This is what Davis must do in the next few days. He has to give the dispossessed and disenfranchised — that vast pool of nonvoters — a reason to vote.
He has to state, in a forceful way, what he will do for women and blacks and Latinos. Forget trying to win over the angry white guys who make up less than a quarter of the vote; they already have their candidate. He has to inspire young people with a promise that he will take from the rich and give to those in need of a college education. To the millions of relatives and friends of those who languish unjustly in California's prison system, he has to say that the majority who are there for nonviolent drug offenses need treatment, not incarceration. And he has to hold out a loving hand to the immigrants, without whom no one in California would be eating fresh fruit or walking down a clean street.
Davis needs a Capra-esque epiphany, and he needs it in the next hour.
Finally, here's a suggestion to you voters from those of us who do not live in your state: This election is no longer about California. This is about saving our country from the clutches of the fat cats. For California to install a Republican governor would be just the shot in the arm the Bush administration needs right now when the president is hemorrhaging in the polls.
This must not happen.
Yes, the voters in California are angry, and I wish there were a better way for everyone to give Davis a spanking without giving the rest of the country a beating. But there isn't. The stakes now are much bigger than Davis.
As one who beat his own recall, I hope, for the sake of the country, that California can help Davis beat his, too.
Michael Moore, who won an Academy Award for "Bowling for Columbine," is the author of "Stupid White Men" (Regan Books, 2002).
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times