Issa Gives Davis Recall a Shot in the Arm

Posted May 6, 2003 at 6:39pm

Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) decision to partially bankroll the efforts to recall California Gov. Gray Davis (D) is considered a good political move for Issa and great news for the grassroots activists hoping to topple the governor.

But it does not yet appear to have captured the imagination of Republican powerbrokers in California or D.C. — and it is hardly seen as the type of move that would transform California’s static Congressional politics.

Issa, the multimillionaire owner of a car alarm business, announced Monday that he would create a new organization, Rescue California, to augment the work of grassroots activists seeking to recall Davis and would provide a six-figure contribution. Issa has hired Sacramento political consultant Dave Gilliard to head the organization, which will put hundreds of paid operatives on the street beginning this weekend to collect petition signatures to force a recall.

Issa, a two-term Congressman from the San Diego area, has made no secret that he would consider running for governor if a recall is on the statewide ballot in March 2004. But as recently as last month, the Congressman said he would not fund the recall, because he did not want the issue of Wilson’s stewardship of the state — and his abysmal poll numbers — to be clouded by “Issa cutting a check.”

Now, however, Issa has decided to offer the anti-Davis forces a financial lifeline at a time when the recall seemed to be losing some momentum.

“This is precisely what the recall needed at precisely the right moment,” said Dan Schnur, a veteran GOP strategist based in Sacramento.

Schnur said that beyond the money, Issa is providing the all-volunteer recall effort professional political operatives who give the movement instant credibility, which could prompt other politicians and wealthy GOP donors to follow.

On Tuesday, the highest-ranking Republican elected official in the state, Board of Equalization Member Bill Leonard, signed on to be chairman of Rescue California. Leonard is a former GOP ranking member in both the state House and Senate.

“I think Republicans will sit up and take notice,” said Scott Taylor, a political consultant who works for Issa.

GOP leaders on both coasts have been ambivalent about the Davis recall, however. While the California Republican Party officially endorsed it, the new party chairman, Walter “Duf” Sundheim, and an array of other GOP financiers have repeatedly emphasized that their priorities for 2004 are re-electing President Bush and defeating Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Spokesmen from the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the California GOP all declined to comment on Issa and the recall Tuesday.

But an operative close to House Republican leaders said that even if Issa’s efforts lend credibility to the recall campaign and prompt more big-name officials to get involved, they would have little effect on other elections in California, particularly at the Congressional level.

“The way those [House district] lines have been drawn, it basically locks up incumbents for the next decade,” the operative said.

With the tacit blessing of both political parties in Washington and Sacramento, only a handful of California’s 53 House districts are even remotely competitive. Issa’s own district is solidly Republican, meaning any GOP candidate would be heavily favored to succeed him.

Gilliard has worked for several California Republican House Members, but Taylor said he did not know whether Issa has asked them yet to support the recall. Rep. Ken Calvert, a member of the Golden State’s House GOP delegation, did not return a phone call to his Hill office Tuesday.

One California Republican leader who did not want to be named said that even if the recall forces succeed beyond their wildest dreams by getting the measure on the March primary ballot, a recall election held the same day as a potentially decisive Democratic presidential primary could be dominated by Democrats.

And the leader said that while his participation in the recall gives Issa “a leg up” on other potential GOP candidates for governor, there is no guarantee that they would defer to him. Former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, businessman Bill Simon (the party’s 2002 nominee for governor), and state Sen. Tom McClintock are among the other Republicans who have expressed interest in running for governor in a recall election. Mega-movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger has been exploring a run for governor in 2006, and he could also enter the mix.

Schnur predicted: “If the recall qualifies, Issa starts from a position of strength.”

Under California law, the recall advocates have until September to turn pro-recall petitions containing 897,000 valid signatures of registered voters to the secretary of state’s office. If the secretary of state certifies the petitions, the recall election would almost certainly be held next March.

California voters would then answer two questions: First, should Davis be recalled, and if so, who should replace him? Voters would then be offered an unlimited list of candidates, regardless of party affiliations. The political parties would not have official nominees on the ballot.

Just as Issa has no guarantee that he would be the favorite of Republicans and anti-Davis voters just because he partially bankrolled the recall effort, there are no guarantees of Democratic unity, either.

Democrats have generally disparaged the recall as the work of Republicans and anti-tax gadflies — some more vocally than others. But four statewide officials — Treasurer Phil Angelides (D), Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D), Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D) and Secretary of State Kevin Shelley (D) — have gubernatorial aspirations of their own.

Angelides and Lockyer have been especially aggressive about raising money for the 2006 election, when Davis’ term comes to an end, if he isn’t recalled. They may all be involved in a game of chicken, waiting to see who jumps into the recall election.

Of course, the recall is just a pipe dream at the moment. Thirty-one previous efforts to recall California governors have failed.

Organizers on Monday announced that they had collected 100,000 petition signatures, triggering a review by the secretary of state’s office. They are optimistic that in the Internet age, with Davis so unpopular — and now with Issa’s seed money — they can collect what they need in four months.

“Gray Davis is as popular as SARS right now in California,” Taylor said. “There’s not going to be any trouble getting the signatures we need.”

Democrats seem to be lying in wait for Issa. Late last month, the California Democratic Party e-mailed unsolicited talking points about Issa’s youthful arrest record, military service and business practices to political reporters.

Davis, a prodigious fundraiser, has a high-dollar golf tournament scheduled for later this month, and the proceeds could be used to defeat the recall effort.