Politics

TOTAL RECALL

With California’s bizarre campaign in full swing, voters try to make sense of a long list of contenders. Can this show have a Hollywood ending?

JONATHON GATEHOUSE October 6 2003
Politics

TOTAL RECALL

With California’s bizarre campaign in full swing, voters try to make sense of a long list of contenders. Can this show have a Hollywood ending?

JONATHON GATEHOUSE October 6 2003

TOTAL RECALL

Politics

With California’s bizarre campaign in full swing, voters try to make sense of a long list of contenders. Can this show have a Hollywood ending?

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

YOU CAN FORGIVE the little old lady standing on the Pasadena street corner for being a bit confused. A bizarre special election that has been on, then off, and is now back on again. One hundred and thirty-five candidates, including a former child star, a bounty hunter, a sumo wrestler and a fading matinee idol to chose from. A vitriolic campaign that has one side decrying a governor’s gross incompetence, and the other screaming coup d’état. Eleanor Brierley squints from beneath the brim of her bright red sun hat, and gropes for the answer to the question confronting all Californians. “I think the one that’s there now should go,” she says, finally. “Because of that thing he said about men and women.” Just short of her 85th birthday, Brierley, a golden-curled beauty consultant with 50 years’ experience (specializing in vegetable organic non-toxic cold-wave scalp treatment and general hair work, says her card) is not big on specifics. “I like that young man. Not the fat one, the

other one.” Chalk up a vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger? Maybe. Name recognition isn’t what it used to be.

With one week to go before the Oct. 7 referendum on turfing Democratic Gov. Gray Davis from office and handing power to one of the many pretenders to his throne, it seems the state’s 35 million other residents are no less flummoxed by the choice at hand. Polls show a small but shrinking majority supports the recall, while the muscle-bound action-star-turned-Republican, and Cruz Bustamante, the rotund Democratic lieutenant-governor, are sizable neck to sizable neck should the job open up (there are two parts to the ballot: the actual recall vote, and who should replace Davis). Tom McClintock, a far-right Republican, is charging up

from behind. And like the producers of a Hollywood movie that is failing with test audiences, the various camps are scrambling to write an ending the public will buy into.

From the outside, it’s hard to believe that anyone would want to take up the challenge. Davis, 60, re-elected to a second term in 2002, has become the lightning rod for everything from soaring energy costs (the by-product of his predecessor’s decision to deregulate power) to smog and crumbling schools. In a place that was hit particularly hard by the dot-com collapse, he is wearing much of the blame for the continued struggles of California’s economy—the world’s sixth largest. The state is facing a deficit that estimates have pegged as high as US$38 billion. Tasks don’t come much more thankless.

When the campaign started on Aug. 7, and the ranks of gubernatorial hopefuls began to swell, the conventional wisdom was that in such a circus, the biggest and best-known clown was bound to triumph. But a funny

thing has happened on the way to the striped tent. In a country where politics has been dominated by two parties, more names on the ballot has translated into more ideas and real debate. Democracy in America might be more robust than the talk-radio foamers, well-heeled pundits and backroom strategists had dared to imagine.

ON THE BRIGHT SIDE, perhaps it was a quiet hour for Joe Lieberman to catch up on his reading or clean out his wallet. Trapped in a backroom in a suburban office plaza south of Los Angeles, the man who came within a few hanging chads of the second most powerful job in the world, and candidate for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, waits. The event, a press conference with a firefighters’ union endorsing the governor, is the only thing on Davis’s schedule for the day. “Maybe he slit his wrists on the way over here and they’re having a hard time getting the bandages on,” says

a wag from a local TV station. When Davis arrives, more than an hour late, he stands for a photo-op with a group of T-shirt-andjeans-clad firemen, dressed in the kind of impeccably tailored suit that can’t be purchased for less than the equivalent of a monthly mortgage payment—in Beverly Hills.

Lieberman’s brief remarks are a nice mixture of partisan passion and wit. “I want to thank you for your support in 2000. It was so crucial. Without it, Al Gore and I might have lost the election.” He makes a link between the prolonged court battle for the presidency and what’s happening in California. It’s time for Democrats and Republicans to back away from bare-knuckle tactics.

Davis’s speech is more stilted, and tinged with bitterness. “If we’re going to have a recall, let’s recall the 47 other governors who have gone from surplus to deficit this year,” he says. “Let’s recall President Bush, who has a US$445-billion deficit.” Davis makes a plea for stability—investors will avoid Cali-

fornia. It’s the kind of desperate argument traditionally raised by politicians who know they are about to get their clocks cleaned.

Outside, a small group of workers from a neighbouring business hold up a banner that reads, “Recall the very grey Davis.” Most of them are particularly vexed by a proposed tripling in vehicle registration fees aimed at helping balance the budget. They blame the governor, he blames the legislature. “Anyone is better than Davis is,” says Anne Amelung. Johanna Howell, her co-worker, says she’s rooting for Schwarzenegger. “He’s a businessman. He can get things done. He’s not influenced by special interests.” It’s one of the hot-button terms in this recall debate. Schwarzenegger, 56, uses it to decry political donations from unions and casino-rich Natives. The Austrian-born actor has raised more than US$13 million for his campaign so far, vastly outspending his rivals. Howell says she doesn’t consider Hollywood to be one of those

corrupting political influences.

Jack Grisham does. Over breakfast at a Long Beach diner, the 42-year-old musician and labourer talks about why he decided to run. Punkrock—he’s the lead singer of T.S.O.L., a staple of the California hardcore scene—and construction don’t pay that well. Grisham and his family can’t afford the premiums for full medical coverage, but they make too much to qualify for government help. He needs surgery for a bad back, his wife recently discovered a lump in her breast, and their insurance won’t pay for a mammogram.

“George Bush is asking for US$87 billion for Iraq so they can have better health care and education,” says Grisham. “I say why don’t you dump it here?”

Grisham’s campaign has no budget, but he’s drawn attention from the Los Angeles Times,

Rolling Stone magazine, MTV and others. His phone has been ringing off the hook, with voters and Democratic apparatchiks urging him to run again in the future. “People are angry, man,” he says. “They’re tired of figureheads who take their lines from the guys in the bushes.”

THERE ARE TWO things about Schwarzenegger in person that you immediately notice. Though well muscled, he’s a surprisingly average-sized man. And he’s getting a bit long in the tooth for an action star. The hair and eyebrows are dyed, gravity is taking its toll. It’s been a while since he’s had a hit. This bid for governor isn’t a sabbatical, it’s a well thought-out career change. California has a culture that respects celebrity. The leathery local TV meat puppets, who use the camera lens reflection to brush their hair, identify with him. Their questions are indistinguishable from those of the Entertainment Tonight “reporter” covering the campaign. Softballs that Schwarzenegger whacks over the fence with an aw-shucks grin.

And judging by his performance in last week’s debate in Sacramento—the only such appearance Schwarzenegger has agreed to— politics, at least the packaged, televised

brand, may not be such a stretch for him. He delivers sound-bite lines with conviction, he has a good sense of comedic timing, he’s more than comfortable in front of the camera. Rather than expose his weaknesses, the TV debate ended up playing to his strengths, as Bustamante and McClintock looked in turn disinterested and too tightly wound. California has seen this movie before. It’s not coincidental that Schwarzenegger cites Ronald Reagan as a personal hero.

Neither is there anything particularly new or astounding about the notion of a celebrity politician. Marty Kaplan, the former White House speech writer and Disney executive who now heads the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center, says the line between politics and entertainment completely disappeared almost a generation ago. “In the U.S., celebrity has triumphed over all

other values, even experience or gravitas.” George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Glenn, now Schwarzenegger and Wesley Clark, have all traded on their past in one way or another. In fact, Kaplan argues, the pendulum has almost swung the other way—Schwarzenegger’s stagnant poll numbers suggest fame will only get you to the front door; a candidate still has to convince voters to invite him in.

Whoever finds themselves with the keys to the governor’s mansion is in for a rude awakening. They will quickly discover the limitations of their power: voter initiatives—’’propositions,” in California lingo—over the past two decades have severely limited the government’s power to increase taxes or reduce program spending. Balancing the budget without either recourse will be next to impossible. None of the candidates who could win have addressed this reality. But that doesn’t mean voters haven’t heard about it, and other systemic problems—the plight of undocumented immigrants, health care, the environment, the influence of big money on politics—that mainstream candidates have traditionally chosen to gloss over. Trading on Ralph Nader’s success in the 2000 presidential campaign, Peter Camejo, California Green party leader, has won equal time on most debates. Arianna Huffington, the gadfly columnist turned candidate, is holding Arnold’s feet to the fire over such “sins” as his love of gas-guzzling Hummers.

In the end, the most remarkable thing about the campaign is the one subject that hardly ever comes up—Sept. 11. Two years later, Californians, at least, seem ready to move on. The issues that people want most to talk about are schools, health care, the lagging economy. If that’s a trend spreading elsewhere, it’s bad news for George W. Bush and a Republican party that is looking increasingly vulnerable in 2004. But maybe it’s not such a bad thing for everyone else, fffl

jonathon.gatehouse@macleans.rogers.com