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Effort to recall Denham a fight among Capitol insiders

The money spent to oust state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, keeps growing, though the Republican camp says the recall effort makes little sense.

A Sacramento-based committee that aims to increase voter registration has spent $41,490 on the effort spearheaded by the Democratic Party in August, according to recent state filings.

The Voter Education and Registration Fund (VERF), which held a three-month campaign in South Merced a year ago, has close ties to the leader of the state Senate, adding an even more partisan twist to the effort.

The majority of the committee's money -- $32,500 -- is being used to gather the 31,084 signatures needed to put Denham's name on a recall ballot. Backers kicked off their campaign last week and have until Feb. 13 to turn in the petitions.

What began as an attempt to strong-arm the 40-year-old Denham into being the swing vote needed to end the budget deadlock is now an effort that has his strategists gearing up for a serious and expensive midterm battle.

VERF joined the effort because they allege that Denham has broken his promises and needlessly opposed the budget. "He stands out as somebody who campaigned as one thing and is running around now entirely different," said Paul Hefner, the fund's spokesman.

Denham, who's termed out, plans to run for lieutenant governor in 2010.

Hefner pointed to Denham casting the sole vote in the Senate against the recent flood control bond. Denham touted his opposition because the bond didn't include enough funding for the Central Valley.

Hefner is also a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, who kicked Denham off the Senate Government Organization Committee in August. Perata's adviser, Sandi Polka, is also the executive director of the voter committee, which has close to $500,000 in the bank.

As the recall effort moved forward, Denham fired back by buying $150,000 worth of television and radio ads early on in the effort. He's recently collected $50,000 from the Los Alamitos Race Course near Long Beach and $5,000 from E & J Gallo Winery.

The state senator, who was elected to his last term by a landslide, was unavailable for comment.

Wayne Johnson, who's advising Denham on the anti-recall campaign, wouldn't say what the next move would be, but pledged they'd fight hard.

He admitted that the effort needs be taken seriously.

"If you pay enough money to people on the street and people are disingenuous enough in what they're saying, you can collect enough signatures to qualify a recall," Johnson said.

The political strategist said the voter registration committee is Perata's slush fund, adding that he predicts some donors will be upset to see their money used for such a partisan effort. "(The recall) almost smacks of vendetta," he noted. "But (Denham) is not a divisive personality."

The Senate head's ties to the recall campaign have sent a chill through the special session called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to work on health care and water, Johnson said.

After a 52-day deadlock, the budget passed without Denham's support because he wanted to see $700 million in deficit spending slashed from the state's $145 billion financial plan.

During the special session, Johnson said, Denham has been taking the opposition in stride and trying to keep it from diverting his attention from water storage and health care -- issues that, to him, make sense.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at 209-385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

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