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Calif. Recall an Exercise in Democracy

July 28, 2003

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) _ The election to recall Gov. Gray Davis gives California’s voters a chance to do what they like best: govern.

With the state’s ``do your own thing″ philosophy and an initiative-and-recall system open to anyone determined enough and reasonably well-funded, California’s electoral process is practically designed to help the disgruntled get even and let the voters lay down the law to the lawmakers.

``The reason we erupt is because we can,″ says Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank specializing in Hispanic issues.

With Davis facing a recall election Oct. 7, some are beginning to wonder whether California suffers from an excess of democracy.

Californians got the keys to the political liquor cabinet in 1911 when the Legislature, under the direction of reformist Gov. Hiram Johnson, amended the state constitution to allow initiatives and referendums as well as recalls.

The changes, which included granting women the right to vote in state and local elections, were part of a wave of Progressive Era legislation enacted nationwide in response to political and corporate corruption.

The citizen-government phenomenon really took off in 1978 with Proposition 13, which set limits on property taxes and touched off citizen tax revolts around the country. Later, California voters imposed limits on how long politicians could stay in office.

In the 1990s, a slew of voter mandates followed, including Proposition 209, which dismantled most state affirmative action programs, and Proposition 36, which reduced prison sentences for drug offenders.

In some cases, the voters did not get their way. Proposition 187, a GOP-backed 1994 measure that denied health care and other services to illegal immigrants, passed handily _ unintentionally mobilizing the Hispanic vote in California. But it was ruled unconstitutional.

Proposition 225, the 1996 measure legalizing medical marijuana, set up a series of ``who’s the boss″ confrontations with federal law enforcement.

Davis, a Democrat, finds himself blamed for the state’s $38 billion deficit and accused of dithering during the energy crisis. The contest in October will be the nation’s first gubernatorial recall election since the governor of North Dakota was removed in 1921.

``Schools are bad, the economy is bad, and taxes may go up. How much more can we take?″ says Oscar Ruiz, a construction worker from East Los Angeles. ``Davis is just part of the problem, but he is the one who has to answer to the public.″

Others cut Davis some slack. Kim Birnbaum, a Democrat and teacher in Clovis, thinks the recall is ``a big waste of taxpayers’ money.″

``I don’t think he’s the strongest governor we’ve ever had,″ she says. ``But it’s the legislators, not the governor,″ who should be blamed.

Susan Rasky, who teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and follows politics, sees a dovetailing of two trends in California: California voters’ independent streak, and the rise of a political class that has mastered the latest campaign techniques.

To get a recall on the ballot, California requires signatures from just 12 percent of the total number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election _ in this case, 897,158. Recall organizers do not have to specify a reason for wanting to remove an elected official.

From there, all it takes to get onto the recall ballot as a candidate for governor is 65 signatures and a $3,500 filing fee.

So far, would-be candidates include the owner of the Cigarettes Cheaper chain, who wants to overturn the state’s tobacco tax, and a motorcycle biker who wants to legalize pet ferrets.

If a majority votes ``yes″ on the recall, the next governor of California will be the one who gets the most votes from among what might be a huge number of little-known renegades and gadflies.

``I think people are just not informed about what’s involved in a recall election. They don’t realize how much it’s going to cost the state in a time when we’re already in a deficit,″ says Enrique Lopez, a Green Party member and artist in Fresno. ``And now, almost anyone can become our next governor with very few votes. That’s not a good thing.″

How the recall will turn out is impossible to predict.

Davis is counting on support from Democrats, who outnumber Republicans 45.5 percent to 36 percent and control every statewide elective office. But voters have shown a willingness to cross party lines.

``You ask a Californian, `What are you?′ they’ll say Aquarius,″ Rasky jokes. ``It isn’t the first thing that comes to peoples’ minds in this state _ to identify with a political party.″