10 years later, 10 California recall moments

12:22 PM, Oct 7, 2013   |    comments
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It was one for the record books, a political firestorm that blew through California and clobbered the status quo in a way that we may never see again.

The removal of Gov. Gray Davis by voters on October 7, 2003 -- the ten year anniversary of which is Monday -- was the first, and to date only, recall of a sitting governor in state history and only the second in American history.  It was a political free-for-all like none other.

So, in honor of ten years, an unofficial list of the 2003 recall's ten biggest moments:

#10 - November 5, 2002: Right about now, you're wondering how a day that long before the recall petition was even written gets a prime spot.  But the entire 2003 saga has its seeds on what happened on Election Day 2002, when Gov. Gray Davis won a second term with only 47 percent of the vote.  It was a pretty brutal campaign for the Democrat who had been weakened by the 2000 and 2001 electricity crisis and an increasingly sour California economy.  Davis' campaign team worked feverishly to get the GOP opponent they wanted, conservative businessman Bill Simon.  But even then, the veteran campaigner couldn't muster a majority of the votes.  As it turns out, the low voter turnout was a gift to Davis' critics in 2003; state election law sets the signature requirements for measures to get on the ballot based on the number of votes cast in the previous election.  That made the 2003 recall a sure bet with just less than 900,000 signatures -- a lot easier to qualify than it might have otherwise been.

#9 - Denial Isn't a River In Egypt:  There were a lot of people who didn't think the recall had a chance when it launched in the mid-winter of 2003, but no one refused to engage on the issue more than the man on the hot seat.  The governor refused multiple attempts by reporters to elicit a comment in the early weeks of the effort, perhaps assuming that this would be like the 31 failed previous gubernatorial recalls in California history books.  But by the spring, with his approval ratings down to an abysmally low 24 percent, Davis began lashing out -- calling the backers of the effort to fire him "losers" and saying they wanted a do-over of the 2002 campaign.  Only once it qualified, on July 23, did he seem to really engage... just a little more than two months before voters went to the polls.

#8 - Feinstein Isn't Running:  No single political figure in California has been revered/feared more in the past decade than Dianne Feinstein, the state's senior U.S. senator.  'DiFi' has enjoyed almost unshakably strong job approval numbers, and handily defeated challengers in 2000, 2006, and 2012.  By the middle of 2003, with Davis' approval numbers on life support and the Legislature not much better, she was easily the most popular California politician.  In comments after the election, both Davis and those close to Arnold Schwarzenegger said that they feared she'd get into the recall race.  Davis knew Feinstein would be an easily preferred alternative.  And as journalist Joe Mathews wrote in his book, The People's Machine, the announcement by DiFi on Aug. 6, 2003 that she was "flattered" but not going to jump in was likely what convinced Schwarzenegger to take the plunge.

#7 - The Gadfly of Arden Way: Whether the history books remember the name of Edward J. Costa when it comes to the ouster of Gray Davis is unclear... but they should.  "Ted" Costa, the CEO of a libertarian activist group known as People's Advocate, is the man who -- sensing Gray Davis was more vulnerable than he may have looked just weeks after his second inauguration -- penned the recall petition in his tiny office off Arden Way in Sacramento, at the time just behind a popular Krispy Kreme outlet.  Costa threw the book at Davis in the preamble of the recall petition, pointing out the electricity crisis of a few years earlier, the state's deficit plagued finances, and jabbing Davis for "failing in general to deal with the state's major problems until they get to the crisis stage."  Others took Costa's petition and blazed a trail to electoral history... but he was the guy who lit the match.

#6 - Burbank Blockbuster:  The jokes were canned, the laughter predictable, but the answer to a single question on the set of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno changed California on the afternoon of Aug. 6, 2003 - the same day Dianne Feinstein had announced she would remain in the U.S. Senate.  Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian born bodybuilder-turned-supernova, had toyed with a politics for several years.  Married into the nation's most famous political family and the proponent of a successful 2002 state ballot measure for spending money on afterschool programs, Schwarzenegger was featured on the July 2003 cover of Esquire with the headline 'The Next Governor of California. Really.'  Few believed it at that point; a number of those that Schwarzenegger had gathered near believed he would go on the Leno show and take a pass at the election.  But the charismatic and unpredictable Schwarzenegger surprised them all. "I will run for governor," he said to screams and applause.

#5 - Darrell's Dollars: California's system of direct democracy may have begun with dreams of average citizens rising up and placing measures on the ballot, but in modern times it's a matter of money.  Those efforts with the cash to gather signatures pretty much are guaranteed an audience with the voters, those with no cash often wither and die.  And while the recall was intriguing through the spring of 2003, it would have probably failed to happen had Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, not stepped forward on May 6 and announce what would be a $1.7 million contribution to the signature effort.  Issa had intended to run himself, only later to back out.  For all of the noise, Issa's money made the loudest boom of all.  

#4 - "But If You Vote Yes..." Democrats were anguished as it became clear the recall would qualify for the ballot.  Many wanted some kind of alternative candidate to appear on the second part of the ballot question (if it passes, who do you want to be governor?); but still others insisted that there needed to be Democratic unity, that voters should see the party thought the recall to be an abuse of the process and would essentially say, 'It's all or nothing with Gray Davis.' But Davis' poll numbers were low, and temptations are hard to resist for politicians who otherwise might not get a shot at the top job.  And so the recall campaign became decidedly more interesting -- and tense -- less than 24 hours after Schwarzenegger's wild announcement on national TV.  Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, whose relationship with Davis was so distant that the two had hardly spoken in the months leading up to that day, announced he would run as a replacement candidate for governor... as, in effect, an insurance policy.  "Vote no on the recall, but yes on Bustamante," he told reporters in Sacramento on Aug. 7, 2003.  It was a mixed political message, and it only further increased speculation that Davis was toast.  The Dinuba Democrat was the leading choice in some early polls after his announcement, but was swallowed by the Schwarzenegger avalanche during a September debate with the Hollywood star and other leading candidates.

#3 - "You Can Listen To Me": It's possible Arnold Schwarzenegger, even with all the excitement and buzz, would have lost the Oct. 7 recall election -- and any real chance at a political career -- if his wife didn't stand up on Oct. 3, 2003 in a Newport Beach campaign event and stop cold the frenzy over allegations that he'd groped and harassed several women in the past.  "You can listen to people who have never met Arnold, or who met him for five seconds 30 years ago," said Maria Shriver. "Or you can listen to me."  Shriver's defense of her husband's character helped blunt the story the day before in the Los Angeles Times.  Schwarzenegger downplayed the accusations, though also famously said, "Where there's smoke there's fire"... a line that foreshadowed the infidelity revelations of 2011 that ended his marriage to Shriver.  But her defense of him that October day, less than 96 hours before voters went to the polls, was huge.

#2 - The Car Tax: Nothing... absolutely nothing... in the spring and summer of the 2003 recall caused an explosion the size of the so-called 'car tax,' the decision by Gov. Davis and his administration to rescind a 1999 reduction in the Vehicle License Fee (VLF) that had cut the annual payment for auto owners down to a third of what it had been.  The VLF reduction was crafted under the administration of former Gov. Pete Wilson, but it was Davis and the Legislature that carried it out - at a cost of some $4 billion (the fee was earmarked for local government, and the state started paying locals the difference out of general fund taxes).  But when deficit projections for the state budget began topping $38 billion, Davis tried to invoke a provision that would restore the VLF to its original level.  The decision exploded in his face, drawing the ire of talk radio hosts first... and then Arnold Schwarzenegger, who staged events with a wrecking ball that symbolized crushing the car tax.  Davis knew then, and says still today, he knew the car tax decision was the equivalent of political poison.

#1 - Hasta La Vista, Baby: For all of the events leading up to it, the day of the recall election remains the biggest single event of them all.  Polls had shown Davis struggling for weeks, though a late surge of campaign crowds and optimism boosted his spirits.  But as he later recounted, it was at an early dinner the night of Oct. 7 with his family where he received the exit poll projections: he was about to be fired by the voters.  Only once before had voters in the U.S. recalled a sitting governor; and that election, the 1921 ouster of North Dakota's governor, hardly merited an historical asterisk.  This, after all, was California... America's largest state, with a Democratic governor who'd gone from being seen as a clever moderate to the target of late night talk show jokes.  And the man voters chose to replace him -- well, how many governors were known internationally by a single name?  As the headline of The Sacramento Bee said the next morning, "It's Arnold."

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.


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