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Fizzled Denham recall goes to district voters

Though the recall was called off, state Sen. Jeff Denham has kept stumping across his sprawling district to keep his job since it will appear on Tuesday's ballot.

Voters will be asked if Denham, R-Merced, should be removed from office. Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas is the only candidate who stepped up to take his place.

With low turnout predicted -- around 30 percent of the registered voters are expected to make it to the polls -- Denham and his supporters have kept walking precincts and putting up yard signs to fight against the effort.

The main goal is increasing the number of people voting and defeating the recall, Denham said.

"There's no top of the ticket. There's a lot of voter fatigue," he said. "We're seeing a low voter turnout across the state."

Denham wasn't sure whether a low turnout would help or hurt him.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, launched the $2 million recall last summer because Denham voted against the ballot, leading a 52-day stalemate. Paid signature gatherers helped get it on a ballot and the state Democratic Party was the primary source of cash.

Perata killed the effort in early May because he wanted Sacramento leaders to focus on resolving the state's fiscal crisis. By that point, though, it had already qualified for the ballot and Denham has kept a campaign to make sure he's not ousted.

He has spent about $2.3 million to battle the recall and still has $678,000 in expenses to pay, according to campaign disclosure forms.

Denham spokesman Kevin Spillane said radio and advertisements have been canceled back since the charge was called off and has continued to be a ground effort with signs and precinct walks.

About $300,000 was loaned from Denham's campaign account from his 2006 Senate run. One of Perata's possible motives for the recall could have been forcing Denham to exhaust his donors, thereby hindering his political career, which aims for a run for lieutenant governor in 2010.

Spillane said Denham is going to keep raising money against the recall to pay off his loans and bills.

"We want this to fail on all levels," he said. "We don't want this act of political bullying to work."

There's been little support for the recall effort, seen by most as a power grab driven by dirty Sacramento politics, even though Denham's district has more Democrats than Republicans.

Democrats make up 46 percent of the voters and Republicans account for 34 percent.

Denham easily won re-election in 2006 and prides himself on being an education-friendly conservative, which has made him popular in the Valley.

District 12 has 333,472 registered voters in Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, San Benito and Monterey counties.

Turnout predictions have been dismal, with most expecting less than half of voters bothering to head to the polls. Spillane said he thinks it could be lower than a 30 percent turnout.

Stephen Jones, who oversees Merced County's election office, said he believes it will be between 35 and 40 percent. "I prefer being optimistic," he said, "but I think this will be ho-hum."

In comparison, Jones said November's presidential election could hit 70 percent turnout locally.

Absentee ballots have been trickling in and few people have taken the time to register to vote in the past months, Jones said.

He faults the lack of issues that voters feel are important, and guessed the economy may also keep residents from the polls. Typically, he said, low election turnouts give an edge to the activist voters who support propositions.

In Denham's case, it may mean his supporters will be showing up in droves to send a message that they don't support the recall.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Denham asked legislators to approve a bill that would let the state sell the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to generate money to help bridge the $17.2 billion budget gap.

It stalled two weeks ago in the Senate, though Denham was granted permission to bring the bill back.

He asked against that his colleagues keep the legislation, one of his top causes, on the table as budget talks begin.

"I would plead to you for one new reason this week for a courtesy vote. This may be my last day on the floor," he said, glancing toward where Perata sits.

The audience erupted in laughter mixed with a few groans.

Perata chuckled, somewhat awkwardly, longer than anyone else. After a senator opposing to the bill spoke, he called for a vote. The secretary went to down the list, eventually calling on him.

"I believe you're coming back, so no," Perata said.

The bill died 15-21.

Reporter Scott Jason

can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

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