California WIll Regret a Recall

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Are California voters prepared for the political anarchy they’ve unleashed now that more than a million of them have signed a petition to recall Governor Gray Davis? While Davis fights to save his job and Republicans fight each other for the privilege of replacing him, the state will be doing nothing to solve its $38 billion budget crisis. And no matter who ends up in the governor’s mansion once this fight is done, few voters — if any — will be happy with the results.

The backers of the recall petition — bankrolled by Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who sees himself replacing Democrat Davis — announced last week that they had collected more than one million signatures. The names have been forwarded to the secretary of state for review. Getting that many signatures in a state of more than 34 million people wasn’t hard: Plenty of Californians are angry after witnessing their state get sucked down a financial black hole during the past three years. In 2001, price gouging energy companies took advantage of botched deregulation to subject the state to rolling blackouts. Shortly afterward, Silicon Valley’s tech bubble burst, ending the state’s incredible economic growth. Now Davis and state legislators can’t seem to work together to pass a budget. It’s enough to make anyone call for heads to roll, and Davis certainly deserves some of the ire.

But all efforts to find a solution for the budget are on hold as the players in the recall drama battle it out. Davis' political committee for fighting the petition has filed a lawsuit alleging recall backers broke election laws while collecting signatures. The legal challenge is most likely doomed to failure, but could delay a vote until next March, when it would coincide with the state’s presidential primary, which is bound to draw a high Democratic turnout to the polls — a move that could help Davis. But by fighting the recall in court, the Governor may anger many of the voters whose support he needs.

No matter what strategy Davis takes, he will have to focus much of his time and a huge amount of campaign cash on the recall. That leaves less time for the budget, which he has not handled well up until now. His party faces a tough choice: How long to stand behind Gray? If it looks like the governor has no hope of beating back a recall, at what point do other Democrats put themselves on the ballot?

Davis’ Republican detractors shouldn’t be cheering this recall either. This is a lose-lose situation for them. There’s no limit to the number of replacement candidates on the recall ballot. That means Issa may be joined by fellow Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, losing gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, and others, not to mention various third party candidates and opportunists. Whichever candidate wins the largest share of votes, even if it’s 5% or less, becomes the new governor. The Republican state party chairman has made noises about trying to rally the party behind one candidate, but no one has responded, leaving the possibility of Republicans spending the next few months attacking one another as much as Davis.

If voters decide not to boot Davis out of office, it means the G.O.P. will have lost three elections in five years to a man with the personality of lint. If a Republican does beat him, the winner will face a $38 billion deficit, a legislature controlled by ticked-off Democrats and a reelection fight only two years away. The only positive that could come out of this mess is that it might anger California voters enough to back a new petition — one ending the insanity of the recall law.