Friday, October 17, 2003
Recalling the Recall
What struck me first about California was the absence of lawn signs. No "Yes on Recall" or "Vote for Arnold" signs sprouted on lawns; no red, white and blue "Gary Coleman" bumper stickers were visible when I arrived in San Francisco five days before the infamous recall election of Governor Gray Davis on October 7.
I was there on a brief visit with my family in the Bay Area. Visual signs notwithstanding, just days before the election the buzz all over the media, in living rooms and offices, and at the kindergarten drop-off was the recall. "I really don't know how to vote," said one conflicted kindergarten mom, and several others nodded their heads in agreement. On election eve, my own son and daughter-in-law were in limbo · they would vote against the recall, but what then? Vote for Schwarzenegger, the celebrity body-builder/actor and political neophyte? How about Cruz Bustamante, the incumbent lieutenant governor, who was as uninspiring as Gray Davis and promised "business as usual?" Or waste their vote on one of the other 123 Californians? "I've never voted for a Republican in my life," asserted my daughter-in-law about the possibility of casting a vote for Schwarzenegger, "but I might have to do it."
I watched a good deal of TV and saw countless ads for the few in the pack of 125 candidates who could afford to buy air time. Gray Davis is truly colorless, passionless and clueless. Widely quoted was Budd Shulberg's observation that "Davis is the guy who could light up a room simply by leaving it." Once I got past the accent, I heard Arnold promise voters that he'll cut spending and not raise taxes (shades of Mitt Romney), but he didn't say how. Dianne Feinstein showed up in a campaign spot late on election eve, urging viewers to vote No on the recall and Yes on Bustamante. I saw Tom McClintock, the anti-abortion, pro-gun Republican legislator who vowed to stay in the fight until the bitter end, but his message was unremarkable. Someone I met described him as "to the right of Attila the Hun." Later I read that he actually proposed cutting spending by hiring private companies to provide state servicesthereby laying off thousands of state workers. Could this be real? Could California be cloud cuckooland?
On Monday we gave politics a rest for three hours to savor the Red Sox victory over the Oakland A's and on Tuesday, election day dawned clear and cool as early voters streamed toward the polls. Mid-morning I joined my daughter-in-law when she voted. Their polling place had been changed since the last election and was now located at their neighborhood school. But unlike Carlisle and most Massachusetts cities, there were no red-white-and-blue signs to indicate that this was the polling place for their precinct and not one person was seen in the area holding a sign for a candidate. "Are you sure this is the right place?" I asked as we wandered around the school's small campus. She was sure, but we had to stop in the office for directions. "The library," we were told, and went around the corner to a set of blue doors. Only a small black-and-white sign taped to the door read, "Vote Here."
Inside the library, three poll workers sat at a long table with the voter rolls. After my daughter-in-law gave her name and address, she was handed a seven-page ballot and entered a booth to manually mark her ballot (not a punch-card ballot with those infamous hanging chads, but a "connect-the-dots" procedure which I couldn't see). While she labored over the ballot and tried to find her candidate among the unalphabetized list of 125 names, I chatted with the poll workers who had not experienced the long lines that were being reported elsewhere, but did mention a heavier turnout than in the previous gubernatorial election. One woman asked where I was from. "Carlisle, Mass.," I said, "next to Concord." That drew a polite stare, but another woman chimed in: "Oh, I used to live in Revere, but that was twenty years ago." I smiled politely, and at that point my daughter-in-law emerged from her little booth with her ballot. She inserted it into an automatic ballot-counting machine, which was a far cry from our quaint crank-operated box. She was given a red, white and blue sticker proclaiming, "I Voted!" and we left. We called my son to tell him just where the polling place was, since it seemed to be kept a secret.
He voted at the end of the day and claims he voted against the recall and for Gary Coleman. I hope he was kidding. Three of his colleagues voted No on the recall and for Schwarzenegger, one voted Yes on the recall and for Schwarzenegger, and two voted No on the recall and for Bustamante. A newlywed couple who came for dinner the next night had a family split - he was pro-recall and pro-Arnold, she was anti-recall, pro-Bustamante.
My informal poll of my kids' friends and colleagues was a microcosm of voter sentiment and action reported in the media. Californians were concerned about their image around the country and, indeed, internationally. "We've become a laughingstock," lamented a voter. "[The recall] is a huge waste of taxpayer money." Others were proud that the recall initiative, flawed and expensive though it was, finally translated California's disgust with Gray Davis into action and offered voters a choice.
Davis as governor
It is hard to overstate Davis's unpopularity, a factor I hadn't fully appreciated from my East Coast vantage point. His mishandling of the state's energy crisis and economic woes, his tripling of the car license fees to raise revenue, and his efforts in the last three days of the campaign to suggest that Arnold's "groping" of women might be a crime all contributed to the voter rage that ousted him from the governor's office. "The size and breadth of the victory for Arnold demonstrates that the pundits - and maybe the Eastern media - were wrong about the intensity of the people's desire for change," said a lawyer long active in Republican politics in the state.
We watched the election night coverage for a while, until one of the networks projected victory for the recall and a sizeable vote for Arnold. The next day we learned that state-wide the recall won by 54% to 45%, Arnold gained 48.5% of the vote to Bustamente's 31.8%. All nine counties in San Francisco and the Bay area, which represent the liberal voters in the state, voted no on the recall; in San Francisco itself, opposition to the recall was 80%. Los Angeles County, usually strongly Democratic, voted only 51% against the recall.
Bay Area voters were shaking their heads, concerned about the future. Davis's defeat and the Republican victory had been shaped by all four significant voters groups in California Latinos, women (unphased by allegations against Arnold), union members and new voters. Might this voter revolt ripple eastward across the country and make California appear more visionary than whacky? Time will tell.
Just before I left for home, I chatted with a friend of my son who summed things up nicely as we watched the first Red Sox/Yankees game. (He was a transplanted New Yorker, rooting for the Yankees.) "Once you accepted the fact of a recall," he mused, "you could buy into it and think about choices. It's like getting out of a bad marriage when the chance is there."
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito