A Republican Gray Area

California’s House Republican Delegation Is Divided on Davis Recall

Posted June 20, 2003 at 6:10pm

While Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) maneuvers to become the next governor of California, his 19 Republican House colleagues from the Golden State have been strangely silent on the political revolution that Issa is helping to foment back home.

“I think the people of California will have to make that decision,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.).

The movement to recall California Gov. Gray Davis (D), which Issa resuscitated several weeks ago with a huge infusion of cash, appears to be marching its way to the statewide ballot — either this November or in March 2004.

Organizers believe they will be able to collect the 900,000 signatures of registered voters necessary to get the measure on the ballot. If Californians are given the opportunity to decide whether Davis should stay or go, they will also be choosing from among a potentially unlimited number of candidates whom the next governor will be if Davis is recalled.

Issa is the only major-party candidate so far to have formally entered the race, though Peter Camejo, a financial investment adviser who took 5 percent of the vote as the Green Party nominee for governor in 2002, has said he will also run.

While Issa travels the state, simultaneously promoting the recall and himself and talking to influential Californians who can aid both causes, he has yet to turn to his Capitol Hill colleagues for help.

Dave Gilliard, a Golden State GOP consultant who has taken the helm of Rescue California, an Issa-funded group that is collecting signatures to get the recall on the ballot, said the organization has not reached out to the Congressional delegation yet. He said recall supporters believe Republican state legislators, who work more closely with Davis and must wrestle with the $38 billion state deficit that they blame on the governor, are better able to articulate the case for a recall.

That suits several Republican Members of the California Congressional delegation just fine. Asked by Roll Call for their opinion of the recall, four Republican Members of the delegation refused through spokesmen to respond at all.

A few Republicans, despite their antipathy toward Davis, said they believe the recall is ill-advised.

Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) called the recall effort “down and dirty politics,” lacking “positive vision.” While she conceded that she “might rethink” her position on the recall if the tone of the debate becomes less negative, Bono also expressed skepticism that a Republican governor could work with “a hostile [Democratic] legislature.”

Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) said he opposes putting the recall on the statewide ballot, and believes GOP activists would be far better served working to elect more Republican state legislators and Members of Congress.

“We must work with the governor today to get ourselves out of this [fiscal] hole,” he said. “It doesn’t make somebody willing to work with you if you’re trying to take out his hide.”

But Cunningham, whose district abuts Issa’s, said he would vote to recall Davis if the measure makes it to the statewide ballot.

Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.) said that for practical political reasons he’s “not a big supporter” of the recall. He reasoned that if Republicans wait until the regular 2006 gubernatorial election, a GOP candidate will have a better chance of winning. A recall, he said, would dramatically “complicate California politics.”

Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) said that while Davis is “not good for the state of California,” removing him from office and letting a new governor grapple with the fiscal crisis is tantamount to letting a criminal off the hook.

“I hate to bail him out. … He doesn’t have to deal with the problem he’s created if he’s recalled,” Miller said. “In one vein, you hate to let him off the hook. If a person commits murder, you want to hold him accountable.”

Asked whether they support the recall, two Members, Reps. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), both replied, “I guess.”

“It’s not something I would have done,” McKeon said. But, he said, “just about anybody could do a better job [than Davis].”

Rohrabacher was somewhat more enthusiastic, however. He did say that if the recall supporters collected enough signatures to force a vote, he would then “plan to become active in it” and mobilize his own political network to remove Davis.

Some Republican Members were considerably more gung-ho for the recall.

“I signed the petition — I’ll tell you that,” said Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), who called Davis “a big liberal Democrat just like Bill Clinton — but without the charm.”

While many Republicans wonder whether they can elect a Republican if there is a recall election — or at least turn the vote to their long-term political advantage — Doolittle said that even if a different Democrat is elected governor, the “state’s well-being will still be improved.”

Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) said he supports the recall because it offers an opportunity for voters to air their grievances and discuss ways of solving problems.

“We really need to rattle cages,” he said. “Certainly this is going to get people’s attention.”

Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) said he is a believer in “the democratic tools” the California constitution provides, including the recall.

Meanwhile, the 33 House Democrats from California — like just about every Democratic elected official in the state — are publicly opposed to the recall.

“Right now, I think Democrats should fight the recall, because it is about injecting instability into a state,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week. “If a Republican governor were there, I would give you the exact same answer. I think the Democrats must stick together.”

Pelosi said the campaign to remove Davis from office is being waged for “political purposes” and implored Californians not to serve the interests of the “right wing” of the California GOP.

But Democrats face the dilemma of what to do if the recall makes it on to the ballot. Last week, several Democrats in statewide offices said they would not enter the recall election, and as of Friday, only Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) among top-ranking Democrats had not said whether she would run. But the party may want to unify around one strong candidate in the event that Davis is recalled.

“We would cross that bridge when we come to it,” Pelosi said.

Republicans face much the same dilemma. If they are to have any hope of capturing the governor’s office in a recall election, they will want to limit the number of GOP candidates on the ballot — if not anoint a single candidate.

Issa is clearly hoping that enough anti-Davis voters will feel indebted to him for reviving the recall movement that they’ll also vote for him for governor. But there is no guarantee that they will — or that other ambitious Republicans will stay out of the race.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) said that while he hasn’t decided whom to support, Issa deserves consideration.

“He’d make a good governor,” Pombo said.

But some GOP Members did not rule out the possibility of supporting movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger if he decides to run for governor. Lewis talked nostalgically about another Hollywood star who became governor, Ronald Reagan.

“The last one we had was mighty successful,” he said.

Nicole Duran contributed to this report.