Several hundred angry people rallied today in front of the state capitol in their opening bid to recall California Gov. Gray Davis (D), insisting that Davis has so mismanaged the state budget crisis that he deserves to get the boot.
Whipped up by speeches from conservative talk radio hosts, out-of-office Republicans, and representatives of third parties and tax-reform groups, today's inauspicious rally did not look like the beginning of a mass movement in a state that smashes all records for campaign spending.
Every California governor in the past 30 years has faced similar stabs at a recall, but none of the measures has ever gone before the voters. This one could be different for two reasons. Davis is enormously unpopular, with three out of four voters polled saying he is doing a poor job. And then there is the Internet.
Sal Russo, the political strategist who ran GOP gubernatorial challenger Bill Simon Jr.'s losing campaign, said that his group's recall Web site had more than a million hits in two weeks. Russo said that the governor would see a groundswell of the kind of grass-roots anger that in 1978 turned the tax-cutting Proposition 13 into law.
But Davis said the recall activists were suffering from "sour grapes" over his 47 percent to 42 percent win over Simon in November, and charged that the effort was the work of a "handful of right-wing politicians."
"This is not the way to resolve petty political differences," said California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres. "He's committed no crime. It's absolutely irresponsible what they're trying to do."
To get the measure on a ballot, the recall activists must gather 897,158 signatures from registered voters -- 12 percent of the ballots cast in the last governor's race -- within 160 days of the California secretary of state's approving the petition, which he received on Friday.
Using volunteers and professional signature hunters, the "recall-istas" say they can gather the names for a cost of about $2 million, though they have not yet begun to raise that kind of money.
"This has the potential to just go like wildfire. We're going to go all out to get the signatures," promised Ted Costa, leader of the anti-tax organization People's Advocate, who is spearheading one of the two recall groups.
If they do succeed, a special recall vote could be held this fall -- at an estimated cost of $25 million.
It would be another political embarrassment for the already battered Davis, who once was seen as a possible White House contender -- before California faced energy and water crises, and before Davis's own prolific fundraising, which was attacked by his opponents as a "pay to play" shakedown of rich donors, corporations and unions.
A recall election would mean that Davis and his supporters would be required to mount their own costly anti-recall effort, just as the state is reeling under the crushing weight of a budget shortfall that could top $35 billion and is bringing deep cuts in services and increases in taxes.
The state's leading newspapers have branded the recall as pointless and vindictive. But there is little love for Davis. An editorial that ran in the Los Angeles Daily News was typical: "Davis may be corrupt and incompetent, but certainly not any more than he was on Nov. 5, when California voters decided to give him another term."
Though many Republicans might not mind seeing Davis squirm, the state GOP leadership has shied away from the effort. Dave Cox, the Republican leader of the California State Assembly, said that if the recall is on the ballot, he will vote for it, but he did not think the movement should be led by elected Republicans or their party.
For his part, businessman Gerald Parsky, the White House point man and Bush fundraiser in California, said the recall was misdirected and would take momentum away from campaigns to reelect Bush and defeat Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in 2004.
The California GOP is meeting today in Sacramento, and the two men vying to be chairman of the state party have come out in favor of the recall. But the California Republicans have their own problems; none of their candidates won a statewide seat in the last election.
If the recall election is held, voters will be asked simply to mark "yes" or "no," and then they will be given a slate of contenders from which to choose a successor if Davis is ousted. This could spark a wild race, and even draw top Democrats into the fray.
Asked who should replace Davis if his recall effort wins, Howard Kaloogian, a Republican former state assemblyman, today waved the question away. "Who cares?" he said. "I'd rather pick someone out of the White Pages."