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Recall created because rockefellers bought politicians

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But this, he says, is a warping of the political process. Voter-sponsored initiatives and recalls were instituted in the early years of the century because the “robber barons” – the Rockefellers, Carnegie and the Mellons – had bought politicians.

Running Man

With a porn tycoon and the scriptwriter of The Bra That Ate LA both in the running, suddenly Schwarzenegger doesn’t look like quite such a ridiculous choice as California’s governor. Ros Davidson in Los Angeles reports

In California, almost everything is extreme. Some would say that’s been the case for years, ever since thousands first flocked here for gold a century and a half ago. At the edge of the Western world, it has loomed large in the American dream for decades.
As almost everyone now knows, unless they live in a media cave, California is back in the limelight for a reason that is making the state’s more thoughtful residents squirm with embarrassment: “Ah-nuld” Schwarzenegger is running for governor.

When the movie star and former Mr Universe launched his bid on Jay Leno’s late-night TV show on Wednesday, at least it was with some self-deprecation: it was, he told Leno, his biggest decision since getting a bikini wax in 1978. Can he convince Californians that his head is not as thick as his biceps? Among those hoping to unseat incumbent Gray Davis, blamed for the state’s economic disaster, are porn magnate Larry Flynt and a woman named Angelyne, who in Tinseltown is known for being known.

Her sole movie job? A script entitled The Bra That Ate LA. Also circling the ring, hat in hand, are Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, a former Green Party would-be president; a secondary-school student who has lost six student elections; porn star Mary Carey, and political commentator Arianna Huffington, the former Ms Stassinopoulos and London socialite.

Peter Ueberroth, who paved the way for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, is running. The former baseball commissioner has close ties to the White House, as does Schwarzenegger. It may be a race that looks silly, but the state has more electoral votes in the presidential race than any other and the White House might soon get openly involved: Bush visits California this coming week.

But behind the circus are grave problems. After months of stalemate, the California legislature has finally passed a budget that will leave the state £20 billion in debt. Next fiscal year, despite harsh budget cuts – in schools, prisons, and libraries – and higher taxes, the deficit will be £8bn.

Wall Street rating agencies relegated the Golden State’s bonds to near-junk status. The Silicon Valley area has shed more than a third of a million jobs since the recession started in 2001.

In a new trend, computer companies are starting to move high-end engineering jobs overseas. And, for the first time, the exodus from California to such other states as Texas, Arizona and Nevada is exceeding new arrivals, according to new census data. The middle class are fleeing, say experts. About 18 months ago, California became the first state in which whites are a minority. Others are moving in the same direction.

Between now and October 7, when voters decide whether to oust the Democrat governor, the California dream will be scrutinised more closely than in years. Is it over and is this the fallout before the excesses of advanced capitalism are reined in and ordinary Californians, so often on the cutting-edge, left with the bill?

Or is the Golden State again in the midst of another cycle of utopia and dystopia, to use LA-based author Mike Davis’s phrase? The recall might cost as much as £44 million, not counting the flood of lawsuits already under way. The price-tag is in part because the ballot must be printed in many languages.

During the electricity crisis in 2001, for which Gray Davis is the fall guy, companies including Enron fleeced Californians of millions of dollars. Cities are said to be so strapped financially, some polling places will not be able to organise themselves and open for the vote.

California’s highest court, dominated by Republican judges, has declined to consider several petitions to halt or delay it. Several suits are, however, still before the federal courts. And appeals will undoubtedly be filed afterwards.

Only one thing is sure: California, the epitome of possibility, has created a political circus that will make Florida’s 2000 presidential vote look as orderly as Switzerland. California, after all, gave us presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, congressman Sonny “I Got You, babe” Bono and mayor Clint Eastwood.

On Friday, Schwarzenegger was endorsed by Shirley Temple, the former child star who became an ambassador. On holiday at his ranch in Texas, President George Bush said Schwarzenegger would make a good governor.

But, Dubya added, he would not dare to arm-wrestle with the muscled action star, an ardent Republican who was fitness ‘tsar’ for the first President Bush.

Schwarzenegger had already trivialised the political debate by making his announcement that he would run for governor on an entertainment show, said critics and pundits, despite these times of world crisis.

Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver, a member of the Kennedy political dynasty, is taking a leave of absence from her role as a reporter for NBC. That is yet another sign of the dysfunction, say critics, angry that Schwarzenegger would announce his decision to run on a popular TV show – on the NBC network.

Shriver’s latest story was on abuses of Botox, a drug made by a California company. It paralyses lines in a person’s face for months, erasing the effects of ageing.

The vote is in two parts. Californians must first state whether they think Davis should be recalled. They then choose who should be governor from what may be a very long list of candidates. Any Californian can stand provided they can collect 65 signatures, pay a fee of almost £2200, fill out pages of paperwork and want the attention.

If Davis’s recall is approved by a majority, the next governor will be chosen by a simple plurality. That means the leader of the state, which has a population of 34 million, could be chosen by as little as 10% of voters.

Previously, 31 attempts to recall California’s governor have failed. Conservative congressman Darrell Issa, who made his fortune from car alarms, funded the recall with his own money. In an unexpected move, Issa then announced he would not be running. Crying and holding his paperwork, already filled out, he told supporters in San Diego that he must decline because there were already enough strong Republican candidates.

As if more proof were needed that Californians can live in fantasy, the Arab-American billionaire said he would return to working towards peace in the Middle East, despite the fact he is not known for being active on the issue.

“California does look pretty nutty at the moment,” says Darrell West, a political scientist at the prestigious Brown University and author of Celebrity Politics. “But in an era of worry about terrorism, someone who is ‘The Terminator’ might seem like the answer.”

But this, he says, is a warping of the political process. Voter-sponsored initiatives and recalls were instituted in the early years of the century because the “robber barons” – the Rockefellers, Carnegie and the Mellons – had bought politicians.

This uniquely American institution, initially a populist reform, also exists because US culture is so suspicious of government. But over the decades, the process has been taken over by special-interest groups, such as the insurance industry and anti-immigration groups. The first time was in California, perhaps not surprisingly, 25 years ago when property taxes were rolled back.

“California or broke” was the cry during the Great Depression, and during the Cold War because of the defence industry. It’s a big, colourful and mad mix which includes surfers, hippies, the Charles Manson murders and cults; Beverly Hills opulence; anti-war activism and gay rights; Raymond Chandler and the Beats; the world’s largest trees, along with earthquakes and deadly wildfires in the Los Angeles hills.

In the 1990s, the world watched the murder trial of sports celebrity OJ Simpson and the riots afterwards that gutted LA’s inner city, within sight of the Hollywood sign.

The Golden State has always loomed unusually large in the popular imagination, says Kevin Starr, author and historian. And some do believe that California is now teetering on the edge as never before. This is not natural disaster, or celebrity murder. It’s democracy.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez entered and withdrew from the race, as a cynical statement. “You can stick a petition under someone’s nose outside a supermarket and someone here will sign it,” he told public radio on Friday. Why is Davis facing recall now, when he was last re-elected nine months ago – months after the energy crisis and the economy had tanked? The recall is, Lopez says, an appalling example of California’s sun-baked politics.

10 August 2003

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