2003 recall gave angry voters chance to steer ship of state

If one event shaped California politics more than any other in this decade, it was the recall of Gov. Davis in 2003.

When the voters fired Davis, it was only the second time in U.S. history that a governor had been recalled from office in the middle of his term, and the first time that it had happened in California.

Although the recall campaign was conceived and driven forward by Republicans, it morphed into something much bigger than a partisan attack. More than anything, it became an expression of frustration by an electorate fed up with dysfunction in Sacramento -- a fact that should hold a lesson for those who run state government today.

At the time, Davis was seen as having mismanaged a crisis in the electricity industry and then fiddling while the state's budget went from surplus to deficit. A technocratic creature of the political establishment, Davis had only a tenuous connection to the voters, who saw him as a familiar face but had little use for him as a leader in tough times. His appeal for political mercy failed to resonate with an electorate that hardly knew him.

It might be tempting to dismiss the aftermath of the recall as business- as-usual.

Schwarzenegger, after all, failed to stem the flow of red ink that angered voters and set the stage for his election six years ago. But that analysis ignores the way Schwarzenegger dominated the state's public stage, setting the agenda in the Capitol and working alternately with members of both parties and outside groups to push major policy initiatives.

With Davis as governor and Democrats in control of the Legislature, the state was moving toward government-mandated health insurance, expanded rights for workers and unions, and cutting-edge environmental policy. Schwarzenegger helped repeal the health insurance law and blocked further advances by organized labor. And while he built a reputation as an environment-friendly Republican, his policies have been more favorable toward business than those of his predecessor.

And unlike Davis, who was mostly reactive, Schwarzenegger has tried to tackle big problems.

He helped design and pass the largest package of public works bonds in U.S. history in 2006, financing expansions and repair of the state's highways, transit, schools and levees. And after years of pushing, Schwarzenegger this fall built a bipartisan coalition for a sweeping overhaul of state water policy.

No matter what you think of Schwarzenegger's performance, the recall election remains an extraordinary event in California's political history, as voters banished Davis 11 months after reelecting him to a second four-year term in 2002.

The votes in that race had hardly been counted when Republican activists and talk radio hosts began plotting to launch a recall. At first the idea seemed absurd. Even after Ted Costa, a Sacramento gadfly and frequent proponent of ballot measures, presented Davis with a recall petition and began gathering signatures to place it on the ballot, few observers believed that the election would ever occur.

But all that changed when Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican congressman from San Diego County with ambitions to be governor, pledged to finance the signature-gathering campaign. Issa, who made a fortune in the car alarm business, eventually contributed nearly $2 million to the cause.

If Issa planned to run for governor, however, all he did was set the stage for Schwarzenegger.

The recall was the perfect scenario for the Austrian-born actor, who had been dabbling in Republican politics for years and had sponsored a ballot measure to expand after-school programs in 2002, giving him a measure of credibility with the voters.

As a social moderate, Schwarzenegger might have had trouble winning a Republican primary dominated by conservative voters. But he did not have to do that in the recall because the contest to replace Davis had no partisan primaries. It was a winner-take-all election. Schwarzenegger could be elected with the help of Democrats and independent voters.

Schwarzenegger was one among 135 candidates on the ballot, including social commentator Arianna Huffington, former child actor Gary Coleman, porn movie mogul Larry Flynt and Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

The circuslike campaign attracted national and international attention and captured the imagination of California voters who had all but ignored the election the year before. The one debate in which Schwarzenegger participated was viewed on television by more people than any debate in California political history. And by Election Day, 9.4 million people voted, a turnout nearly 11 percent higher than the election the year before.

The recall passed with 55 percent of the vote, and Schwarzenegger won the election to replace Davis by 17 percentage points over his closest rival, Bustamante. In a state normally reliable for Democrats, Republicans won a combined 54 percent of the vote.

Schwarzenegger did better with women, Latinos and younger voters than had other recent standard-bearers for his party.

The public's enthusiasm for politics, and for Schwarzenegger, faded quickly once the excitement of the campaign shifted to the messy reality of governing a troubled state. The recall as a political tool, which some critics feared would become a regular weapon, has hardly been heard from since on the statewide stage.

But the disgust with which many Californians view their government still lurks not far beneath the surface, and direct democracy remains an option for stoking it. Schwarzenegger's successful campaign to take the drawing of political boundaries away from the Legislature and give that job to an independent commission is one small example.

That was something reformers had been trying to do for decades before the voters finally agreed last year.

Now two independent groups are preparing proposals for the ballot in 2010 that could lead to major change in the structure of state government, perhaps even a constitutional convention in which average citizens would rewrite California's fundamental laws.

It may be that the recall election of 2003, while it seemed at the time to be a major political earthquake, was only a foreshock instead, letting off pressure that was building toward a massive temblor. That pressure is building again, and the years ahead might finally see the full realization of the wrath the voters expressed when they sent one governor packing and plucked a new one from Hollywood in the fall of 2003.

Weintraub has reported on California politics and policy for more than

25 years. Reach him at