The Words of the Carlson Family

Governing California

Paul Carlson
February 2004

Recently the state of California experienced a political uprising. Its Governor was recalled, and a new one chosen from a field of 135 contenders. Much of the world snickered, but behind closed doors, politicians trembled.

This article grew from a series of essays your author wrote to distant friends. Legal note: this column promotes no candidate or policy.

What prompted the recall? Mainly, the state budget deficit. California was short by an amount greater than the entire budget of any state except New York.

Official warnings, tied to the ‘dot com bust,’ were ignored. Spending far outpaced income, population, and inflation.

Right after Governor Davis’s 2002 reelection the budget was decimated. I personally know teachers who got laid off.

Davis was widely regarded as the ultimate insider, surrounded by ‘yes men,’ and only dealing with callers who brought along a satchel of money.

The car tax was tripled, and (unlike paycheck withholding) it’s one that people must pay directly.

Nasty details emerged about the power crisis and rolling blackouts. Utility rates remained sky-high.

A handful of states have populist recall laws. Only North Dakota had used theirs successfully, almost a century ago.

The recall began on talk radio. Melanie Morgan of KSFO in San Francisco was first to suggest it, in a conversation with Shawn Steel. Her passing remark was an idea whose time had come. Other radio hosts soon got on board.

Activist lawyer Ted Costa wrote the official recall petition. Before long, three separate groups were distributing them, mostly via the Internet. About a month into the effort, Congressman Darrell Issa provided major funds. No political party helped, or opposed, the recall effort until later.

Davis’s support came mainly from unions and the public sector. No surprise, as the state budget affects the amount of union dues available. His pro-rallies often closed up right on the hour.

The petition drive succeeded, and with prompting from the courts, the Secretary of State announced a recall election.

The California Supreme Court fielded a blizzard of lawsuits. In a single day they denied five challenges to the recall.

Unlike Florida in 2000, the Federal courts agreed. The Ninth Circuit televised an appeals hearing full of case references and dense legalese. Judge Kozinski kept it real, and even got folks laughing.


The bar for candidacy was set way too low (in money and signatures). Over 400 people declared, but as the deadline passed, "only" 135 qualified. The world media had a field day interviewing oddball candidates.

Californians realized that most weren’t serious, personally or as contenders. We have many ‘third parties,’ so every ballot is long. The sample ballot fit all 135 names onto a single page! Five front runners quickly emerged.

Arnold Schwarzenegger got hit for admitted woman-groping. He had star power, and appeared sincere and forthright. He’d run a successful ballot initiative in the previous election. (His Kennedy connection helped, too.)

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente got nixed for proposing ‘the same and more of it’ as a cure for the state’s ills, and for following Davis in taking special interest millions. He had a solid voter base, and every Hispanic endorsement. (But those Hispanic leaders didn’t have much clout.)

Arianna Huffington got clobbered for flying private jets to and from her mansion, even while bashing millions of locals for driving SUVs. Her other positions changed with time. She was unparalleled as a debater.

State Senator Tom McClintock wasn’t well-known. He got bashed as ‘too right wing’ in his social views. He understood the state budget, and made actual proposals on how to rein it in. He was favored by the activists who started the recall.

Peter Camejo was popular among students, and furthest to the left. He got criticized as having no clue about economics, and claiming that the state’s Big Corporations could be taxed more, with no downside. He was respected as sincere, and for caring about the environment.

Several pundits reached the same conclusion: what California really needed was a Lego candidate. Someone with Arnold’s mass appeal, Bustamente’s political heft, Arianna’s sharp wit, McClintock’s business sense, and Camejo’s sincere concern -- rolled into one.


The campaign was short. The opinion polls rode a daily roller coaster, baffling pollsters.

Oakland Mayor (and former Governor) Jerry Brown took Arnold seriously from the beginning. About 40 years ago his father, Gov. ‘Pat’ Brown, was unseated by Ronald Reagan. Pat Brown had rejoiced when a "mere actor" became his opponent, rather than former SF Mayor George Christopher.

At first there were two major Democratic candidates. Insurance Commissioner Garamendi vowed to fight to the end, then quit within 48 hours. Republican Peter Ueberroth bowed out, but McClintock resisted all such pressure.

A vigorous debate was held between the top five challengers. Huge policy differences emerged, and contradictory claims were made. Californians knew they had a serious choice, yet the highlight was an exchange between Arnold and Arianna, referencing his treatment of a female movie robot.

Many of the other 130 candidates gathered outside the debate forum. All of their support put together hardly equaled that of any one debater.

In the midst of the campaign Davis made a keynote speech. His hand-picked audience cheered and booed with triple the passion of a rock concert. It was surreal.

Everyone had a web site. Georgy Russell’s was most widely reported. I disagreed with her policies, but admired her energy and good cheer. I dubbed her a ‘Silicon Valley update on the Girl Next Door.’ While making a delivery on the Stanford campus, I met and talked with Georgy. Her campaign button is now on display in my office.

Defending champ Gov. Davis appeared doomed throughout the race. His approval rating was lower than Nixon’s after Watergate! Every candidate committed some faux pas, but his gaffes hurt the worst. Davis ran ‘Vote No on the Recall’ TV spots. Their point seemed to be, "Things could be worse." None featured his own face or voice . . .

Many conservatives, finding even one ‘hot button’ issue to disagree on, said they’d vote for McClintock, not the moderate Arnold. Hoping Arnold won anyhow, since McClintock could never take this liberal state.

The state’s "progressives" (ultra-leftists), from and others, got pragmatic for a change. They supported Davis and the Democrats, instead of Camejo and his Green Party.

During the final five days there was vociferous media coverage of Arnold’s misdeeds. It backfired, as many voters were suspicious of the last minute timing. (The same media outlets had ignored similar accusations against Davis.)

Arnold won in a landslide. Jesse Jackson went home, lawsuits unfiled. Between Arnold and McClintock, 60% voted Republican.

It took about three days for revisionist accounts to appear. For instance, did Issa’s money buy the race?

No. After enough signatures were gathered, and the election declared, that effort stopped in its tracks. If all the petitions had been certified, the total would’ve been over 2 million. Enough to qualify without Issa’s paid signature gatherers. (Issa himself dropped out.)

Arnold repealed the car tax. Did that cause budget shortfalls?

Not really. The tax was only collected for a few weeks, so our state and local governments never saw that money in the first place. In government speak, a reduction in a planned increase equals a cut.

There are serious national concerns.

Our new electronic voting machines are spiffy, but are they better? The maker, Diebold, swore they’re hacker-proof, but experts didn’t believe it. Their ‘smart cards’ get erased and reused many times, and no paper receipts are issued, so there’s no way to do a recount.

In the recall election that wasn’t necessary, but safeguards are now going into place.

California’s legislature is ideologically polarized, and more divided than they’ve been in a century. Arnold is taking extraordinary measures to enact his programs, and the media is doing a lousy job reporting it. (See,

This was a race in which literally anyone could run. (Your author dismayed his supporters by pledging not to.) An immigrant who has lived the American dream won it, in a serious repudiation of politics-as-usual.

Americans can quit snickering and take heart. Grassroots activism, and new public forums, succeeded big time. Ordinary citizens really did make a difference. You can, too.

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