Washington California, the largest and most trend-setting of our 50 states, often epitomizes America. So it is not surprising that the multimillion-dollar fiasco of an Oct. 7 recall election on Gov. Gray Davis is the byproduct of almost everything that has gone wrong in our political system.
Partisan excess, rampant personal ambition, dereliction of leadership, media inattention, phony populism and, as usual, the influence of money all are part of this nearly unprecedented perversion of representative government. Whether Davis goes down or survives, American democracy will get a black eye.
Only once before -- in North Dakota -- has a governor been bounced from office in midterm by vote of the people. The recall process was part of the Progressive era "reforms" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, along with initiative and referendum. They were the handiwork of well-meaning idealists who hoped to break the hold that interest groups such as railroads and banks had on the state governments of their day. Little did they imagine that these tools would be used to cripple the very governments they were trying to purify.
The precipitating event for the recall effort against Davis was the budget crisis in California -- a $38 billion gap between revenues and expenses. Virtually all states faced deficits, but in California, the problem of a slow economy and slumping tax revenues was exacerbated by two factors. A series of popular initiatives, stretching back 25 years to the famous Proposition 13, have put limits on the taxing power of the state and local communities, while other initiatives have mandated spending on schools, prisons and other projects. The net result: The governor and Legislature have little room to maneuver in tough times.
Second, raw partisanship has rendered the Legislature dysfunctional. Redistricting by long-dominant Democrats locked Republicans into minority status and virtually eliminated swing districts. With a two-thirds majority required to approve a state budget, recalcitrant Republicans kept the impasse going while petition signatures were being collected -- until they compromised last weekend. Legislators facing strict term limits imposed by yet another initiative have few incentives to consider the long-term consequences for the state.
All this has taken place largely out of public view. Just last week, a study by the Council for Excellence in Government documented a 20-year decline in the volume of coverage of the national government. California is worse. As the late John Jacobs of The Sacramento Bee regularly pointed out, Sacramento goes mostly unreported by television stations around the state, which shun the expense of keeping correspondents and crews in the state capitol. So it is easy for Californians to assume the worst about the people they put in office. Davis' approval ratings are in the low 20s; the Legislature's, even worse.
This governor has plenty of shortcomings. His personality is chilly and his political calculations are so obvious that whatever core convictions he may possess tend to be obscured. He is unloved by Democrats and despised by Republicans. But he would not be facing removal were it not for the final corrupting factors -- rampant personal ambition and money on all sides.
Davis himself has a well-earned reputation as an assiduous political fund-raiser, collecting $70 million for his re-election campaign last year and using much of it on TV ads trashing his opponents. But the dirty little secret of the populist perversion of democracy is that its tools -- initiative, referendum and recall -- have been commandeered by people or groups with access to big money.
It was explained to me five years ago by Thomas Hiltachk, a Sacramento lawyer who has made a specialty of drafting initiatives. When I asked what would transpire if an average citizen walked in seeking help in getting an initiative on the ballot, Hiltachk said, "I always ask the million-dollar question, which is, 'Where's your million dollars?'"
That is the minimum usually needed to collect the hundreds of thousands of valid signatures to place an initiative on the ballot -- or force a recall election. The effort to recall Davis was going nowhere until a wealthy businessman turned politician, Rep. Darrell Issa, came to Hiltachk, the recall movement's counsel, with the right answer -- $1.7 million in personal funds to finance the recall petition effort.
Now Issa is running for governor, but there are other wealthy or celebrated Republicans who may also put their names on Part 2 of the Oct. 7 ballot, vying for the chance to become governor, if a majority votes to recall Davis on the first part of the ballot.
California is the butt of jokes for subjecting itself to this expensive effort to punish the man it re-elected less than a year ago. But the forces behind this perversion are prevalent throughout our politics. It is a warning signal not to be ignored.