California’s Recall Circus Leaves Town

Special to El Vaquero

The bombshells have all been dropped. There has been a temporary ceasefire of political mudslinging. Cries of dirty politics, yellow journalism, and gross fiscal mismanagement have all but subsided. But unlike a real war, it is not fallen soldiers, burned out tanks or machine gun rounds that lay strewn about the landscape. Instead, what remains is the questionable viability of a state, which ranks as the sixth largest economy in the world, and its new governor, a bodybuilder, turned actor, turned politician.

But a better metaphor for the recent state recall election might be a circus, and who could argue that it was not in the end just that, a circus?

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s recall vote, the political race seemed more like the WB’s reality TV show “Surreal Life” than a race for California’s next governor, and the script made about as much sense.
There was Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flint, “Different Strokes” star Gary Coleman, “Politically Incorrect” pundit Arianna Huffington, and Hollywood’s beloved action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. Throw in the mix a few actual politicians, a former baseball commissioner, a golf pro, a sumo wrestler, a bounty hunter, and a porn star and the ratings of this television show would have been higher than those of the first “Joe Millionaire.”

The creator of this outlandish made-for-TV drama was Progressive era Gov. Hiram Johnson, who could have never imagined that his power-to-the-people, direct democracy concept would be played out so bizarrely nearly a century later.

Like a “Survivor” episode gone terribly wrong, this reality TV show offered a prize much greater than a million dollars or a new car. The winner claimed the governorship.

In the end, much like in the last episodes of “American Idol,” California residents acting as Simon and Paula had their say as to who could stay and who would have to go. Contestants in this mother of all reality TV shows began to be eliminated one by one. First it was Bill Simon, then Peter Ueberroth, then Arianna Huffington, all graciously yet forcefully pulling out of the race like young adults with dashed hopes of someday making it big. So who would be the last standing on stage?

Tuesday, 49 percent of the California electorate said it should be Arnold Schwarzenegger, thus ushering the state into a new unfamiliar, yet all too familiar, era of politics.

In 1967, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, having no previous political experience. In 1998, Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota, again with no political experience to speak of. One went on to become president of the United States; the other failed to get re-elected.

Several things about this election are different, however. In 1967 Reagan did not inherit a $8 billion deficit, he was not the victor in an unprecedented circus act of an election, and we all know Minnesota is not the sixth largest economy in the world. So one cannot help but wonder if we as citizensa brought justice to the process? Did we choose the right man for the job?

There is no question that Gray Davis was not the most fiscally responsible governor the state had ever seen. He did take a large budget surplus and turn it upside down, driving the state deep into the red. He did triple the car tax, make it more expensive to attend community college, cut social programs, and drastically reduce spending on education.

No longer are elementary school classes limited to 20 students, no longer can California say its public colleges and universities are among the least expensive to attend in the nation, and no longer can Californians pay their electricity bills without first removing a few items from their shopping carts at Costco.

But how much of this was truly Davis’ fault, and was removing Davis from office the people’s way of “countering the corrupting influence of money on elected officials,” as Hiram Johnson had intended the recall process to be?

Proponents of the recall campaign would retort that something had to be done about the legislation being passed in Sacramento and the recall did that. But what have we as Californians truly done? We have simply taken the classic lesser-of-two-evils approach to a problem that does not lend itself to an immediate solution.

Californians know as much about Arnold Schwarzenegger politically as historians know about what happened to Jimmy Hoffa – nothing. Voters knew that Arnold was the Terminator and had a twin brother named Danny DeVito. They knew Arnold has a politically influential wife, who ironically is a Democrat. They knew his stance on social issues was very middle of the road and they knew he was a Hollywood celebrity. What they do not know is what the next three years will hold for Schwarzenegger in office. Can he turn this state around? Is he in fact going to “clean house” as he so witlessly says? Only time will tell.

What one does know is there will be another gubernatorial election in 2006 and odds are it will be much less interesting than what California has experienced in the past few months.

The candidates are sure to be much less sardonic and outlandish. Magazines, newspapers and television are sure to be much less interested in who becomes the next new governor. Voter turnout in the next election is sure to be lower than the unprecedented numbers seen Tuesday. Campaign ads, leaflets and mailers are sure to once again pontificate on numerous issues, bonds, referendums, propositions and candidates.

And, barring another recall election, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 38th governor of California, will be running for another term. I can hear the gears in the campaign managers heads turning now, re-elect “me Arnold” for governor. “I’ll Be Back.”