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Full disclosure No. 1: Even though I live most of the year in Washington, D.C., I still maintain my primary residence in California’s Marin County – where I pay taxes and vote.

Full disclosure No. 2: I plan to vote NO in the California recall election. Not because it’s bad politics, but because it’s bad public policy.

For those of you not up to speed on the wackiest news yet from the wackiest state of all: This week, disgruntled California Republicans managed to qualify for the ballot a special election to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Secretary of State Kevin Shelley certified that recall proponents collected 1.3 million valid signatures, far more than the 897,000 required. Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante must now set a date for the recall election within the next 60 to 80 days.

There are only two words for this recall: sour grapes. Davis’ opponents claim a recall is necessary because the governor has mismanaged the state’s finances. And they praise the recall as pure populism. They’re dead wrong on both counts.

Granted, Davis is not the most personable character to occupy the governor’s office. As Alice Roosevelt Longworth said of Calvin Coolidge, he looks like “he had been weaned on a pickle.” And he certainly doesn’t deserve high marks for the way he handled the state’s 2001 energy crisis or its current $38 billion budget deficit. But that in no way justifies a recall.

Even though Davis wavered for months before taking strong action to prevent rolling blackouts, he has been somewhat vindicated by proof that Enron’s outlaws deliberately created and manipulated California’s energy crisis. Nor can Davis, like any other governor, be held personally responsible for the state’s deficit. Thanks to the sluggish economy, every state is gushing red ink. California, the largest state and most dependent on high-tech manufacturing, is naturally gushing more than others.

But the point is: None of this is new. The energy problems, the budget crisis and Davis’ charismatically challenged personality are well known to California voters. They were, in fact, major issues used by Republican Bill Simon against Davis in last year’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign. Yet last November, just nine months ago, Californians voted to re-elect Gray Davis, warts and all. There is no reason to rerun that election in 2003, just because Republican crybabies didn’t like last year’s result.

They call this populism? Far from it. Sure, the initiative, referendum and recall were populist reforms when created by Gov. Hiram Johnson in 1911 to help wrest the state from the grip of the big railroads. But that changed a long time ago.

Full disclosure No. 3: I chaired a California initiative campaign in June 1980, to divert excess profits of oil companies into public transit. We were the last campaign to qualify with volunteer signature gatherers. Every campaign since has used paid petitioners. With enough money, you can qualify anything for the ballot, even an undeserved initiative.

The Davis recall qualified only because Republican millionaire Congressman Darrell Issa plunked down $1.7 million: enough to import campaign workers from other states, put them up in motels and paid them $1 for every signature. This isn’t populism. It’s big business. It’s California for sale.

It’s not democracy in action, either. The way democracy works is: Both sides square off in an election, voters make their choice, then winners take over and losers regroup for the next election. Losers should not be able to demand an instant replay of every election. Else how can anyone, Republican or Democrat, ever govern?

This is a fundamental tenet of democracy that today’s Republicans don’t seem to understand. In 2000, they didn’t like the outcome in Florida, so they asked the Supreme Court to overturn it. In 2002, they didn’t like the outcome in California, so now they’re asking voters to rerun it. Win or lose, why don’t they just accept the will of the voters? Isn’t that what democracy’s all about?

That’s why I’m voting NO. And whether you are a California voter or not, you should hope the recall fails. Many ideas, good and bad, start in California and spread east like wildfire. If this recall succeeds, all of our votes will become meaningless because, with enough money, disgruntled crackpots can undo every election in the country.

Just think: a colorless political leader who does nothing to solve the energy crisis and runs up huge deficits? Why, somebody might even try to recall President Bush.

 

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