Jewish World Review August 5, 2003/ 7 Menachem-Av, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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Wannabe a governor? California's calling | SACRAMENTO, Calif. Too bad that Harold Stassen is still dead. California's gubernatorial recall election was just what America's most famous perennial was waiting for.

The ballot, set for Oct. 7 (unless the courts change the date), comes in two parts: Voters must first decide whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis, and then choose a new governor. If the recall fails, the second half of the ballot is rendered moot, but already 270, or 284, governor wannabes (nobody is quite sure exactly how many) have filed declarations of intent with their county registrars.

To qualify, candidates must file petitions signed by 65 qualified voters and pay a $3,500 filing fee. This should winnow the field a little, but a lot of people have 65 friends and with that many friends you ought to be able to raise the $3,500.

So far the biggest names in contention are Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, and Bill Simon, who upset Mr. Riordan in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year and came closer to defeating Mr. Davis than anyone thought he would. If the White House, which endorsed Mr. Riordan and was miffed that he lost the primary, had not subtly sabotaged the Simon campaign he might well have won.

The list of probable candidates does not include the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made a lot of noise a fortnight ago but who has since hinted that his wife, Maria Shriver, put enough muscle on him to keep him out. The Terminator will announce tomorrow night — on the Jay Leno show, as befits a serious California politician — whether he's in or out. Everyone expects him to say that he's out, and "everyone" includes several of his wise men who have defected to the Riordan camp.

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The list of probables does include a rich array of the familiar California eccentrics, weirdos, wackos, and ego-trippers, such as Larry Flynt, the pornographer, and "Angelyne," a sometime model with dyed-blonde hair and a dyed-pink poodle who has made herself famous by putting herself on Southern California billboards, and Michael Jackson, Steve Martin, Bill Murray and Bob Dole (none of whom are who you think they are) and a gang of people named Davis. Two famous political names flirting with running and who are who you think they are are Michael Huffington, the former California congressman who was almost elected to the U.S. Senate a decade ago, and his ex-wife Arianna, a columnist and gadfly who was once a Newt Gingrich confidante but who had an epiphany on a day with the locusts and now resides comfortably on the out-to-lunch left. A movable feast, indeed.

The recall, says Art Torres, the state Democratic chairman, "has turned California into the laughingstock of the nation. It reminds me of that little car that goes into the circus arena. All of a sudden you can't believe that 25 clowns are coming out of that car."

Mr. Torres and the Democrats, including many who don't particularly like the hapless Gray Davis, are counting on "common sense." They can't imagine (they wouldn't dare say it quite this way) that even California will behave like a South American banana republic and throw a sitting governor out of office simply for incompetence. It's not like he has a Paula or a Monica on the side.

That's why, so far, no Democrat of stature has applied for the right to sign up 65 friends and pay the $3,500 to get on the ballot. The strategy, hatched by the governor and endorsed by the party, is to treat the recall as a bad joke, beneath the dignity of serious and sober public officials.

However, once the recall petitions were certified a lot of Democrats began to have second, third and even fourth thoughts. Two million recall signatures are a lot, even in the largest of the 50 states. Most elections attract fringe candidates, men and women out on a lark, and weeding them out is one of the functions of party primaries. But this time, Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, tells the Los Angeles Times, "They're going to end up in the main event."

The second part of the recall ballot might reward someone with a famous name, since many voters go into the voting booth with no clear idea of who their choices really are.

"California is the most progressive state in the union," says Larry Flynt of Los Angeles, the pornographer publisher of Hustler magazine. "I don't think anyone here will have a problem with a smut peddler as governor."

Some Californians no doubt won't, but California is also a state of secular squares and churchgoing conservatives, with traditional Catholics and evangelical Protestants making up a considerable part of the electorate, and the presence of Larry Flynt, Angelyne and their ilk might frighten many of them into deciding to stay with the devil they know. That's the great white Democratic hope.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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