California Dreaming

LOS ANGELES -- The Republicans here are performing a ghost dance, hoping that through the magic of the pending recall election, the buffalo will again roam the plains and the GOP will regain its status as a player in California politics.

They're dreaming. While it is possible that Gray Davis could be recalled and a Republican installed in the statehouse until 2006, there are profound and irreversible reasons why the California of Richard Nixon, Howard Jarvis and Ronald Reagan has vanished, and why California has become just about the most solidly Democratic state in the nation.

Still, Republicans who attended the recall rally outside the state capitol last Saturday could be forgiven if they thought they were reliving the glory days of 1978, when a right-wing popular upsurge led to the enactment of Jarvis' anti-tax, anti-spending Proposition 13. Radio talk show hosts were hyping the recall as their forbearers had hyped Jarvis' initiative. Three far-right party leaders who plan to run in October -- Rep. Darrell Issa, state Sen. Tom McClintock and defeated GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon -- proclaimed their vision for the state and sounded for all the world like Barry Goldwater's Orange County zealots circa 1964.

But the state they were both addressing and evoking no longer exists. In the wake of aerospace's post-Cold War collapse in the '90s, some 2 million Californians -- disproportionately white and defense workers -- left the state, even as California experienced massive migration from Latin America and Asia. Los Angeles County, home to 30 percent of Californians, went from being marginally Democratic (Michael Dukakis won 52 percent of the LA vote in 1988) to overwhelmingly so (Al Gore pulled down 64 percent in 2000).

The only way Republicans can even come close in California is if the new Latino voters stay away from the polls -- which, the GOP hopes, is exactly what they'll do in the recall. In 2000 Latinos constituted 15 percent of voting Californians, but last November, confronted with Gray Davis's abysmal reelection campaign, their share of the electorate declined to a scant 10 percent. Even so, Davis eked out a five-point victory over Bill Simon, and Simon won the votes of an anemic 24 percent of those Latinos who did turn out.

On Saturday, as Republicans encircled the capitol, the new California convened in Echo Park in downtown Los Angeles. The almost entirely immigrant janitors' local of the Service Employees International Union had scheduled a rally in its campaign to organize security guards -- which meant that the shock troops of labor's get-out-the-vote campaigns in Latino LA, probably the best Democratic such operation anywhere in the land, had assembled.

Shiny and stiff in a button-down plaid work shirt, Gray Davis came before them and asked for their votes. In his very first line, Davis pledged to sign a bill now working its way through the legislature that would enable illegal immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses. Davis had vetoed such a bill last year -- one reason why Latino turnout was so light -- but for now at least, he believes that surviving the recall means boosting Latino and black turnout. Over the past year the immigrant driver's license bill has been every bit the cause celebre on Spanish-language radio talk shows that the recall has been on their English-language counterparts.

But turning out the Democratic base will be no easy chore, and even the unions are encountering stalwarts who say they've walked their last precinct for Davis. "We don't have the greatest governor since Pat Brown here," one prominent union leader says. "This has to be about the rotten process here, not about Gray. If it's about Gray, we lose."

Some of the major unions that provide mega-funding for Democratic campaigns are not foreclosing their options just yet, particularly if a moderate Republican such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Richard Riordan enters the race. Their private polling shows that the chances of a Davis victory are slim, but pulling the plug on Gray -- announcing, say, that they'll back a candidacy of a Dianne Feinstein or a Leon Panetta -- has risks of its own. It not only makes Davis' survival even less likely but means that if and when the budget reaches his desk, Davis will be wielding his line-item-veto pen just as unions and other leading Democratic players have to decide whether to stick with Gray or abandon ship. And Davis' most recognizably human quality, alas, is his wrath.

"When do you think he's going to get around to the [line item vetoes]?" one Democratic consultant asks. "Tomorrow? No way. It's the only leverage he has over his own troops." So with precious little time left (the filing deadline is Aug. 9), Democrats perform the Hesitation Waltz.

Everything here is in motion right now. California is rocking, and it may just fall into the sea.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

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