Gray's Last Stand

Recall turned a cautious plodder into a reckless governor


One of the 113 or so humorous ironies of today's recall is that the fact of the election itself finally turned one of its proponents' most fervent beliefs—that Gray Davis is a lefty Democrat who never met a regulation or spending proposal he didn't like—into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The career centrist pol was never loved by progressives (the old-left L.A. Weekly, in its no-on-recall endorsement, wrote: "Certainly we are no great fans of Gray Davis—last November we began our lesser-of-two-evils endorsement of him this way: 'We abhor so much about Gray Davis'"), but once the recall qualified for the ballot, they knew he had no one left to turn to.

"Some administrations are famous for their first hundred days," the Weekly's Harold Meyerson wrote, in what turned out to be a prescient Aug. 8 column on Organized Labor's laundry-list of bills it wanted the lame-duck governor to sign in exchange for support. "Davis—who shies from the business of legislating unless absolutely necessary—may be remembered for his final 60."

And what a two months it has been. Davis has signed into law the most sweeping gay couples' rights bill this side of Vermont, the toughtest anti-spam legislation in the country, a far-reaching financial privacy act, a controversial driver's-licenses-for-illegal-immigrants law he had previously vetoed, expensive health care regulations compelling all companies larger than 50 employees to provide coverage for workers and their families, and scores of other bills.

"As a result, California government has become a liberal bastion, a development with profound implications for the future of governance," California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe wrote in the Oct. 5 Los Angeles Times. "[S]hould the recall pass, the new governor will not have a hand in policies that significantly changed the direction of California government."

The assembly line of last-minute legislation was just a part of it. According to the Oct. 4 New York Times, "Davis has made more than 260 appointments to judgeships and state commissions since the California recall election was announced 10 weeks ago, part of a concerted effort to secure a lasting Democratic imprint on Sacramento should the Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger win on Tuesday."

Around half of a California governor's 3,000 possible appointees can't be overturned by a new governor, the Times reported. The State Senate, said the Times, was considering an emergency session this week to approve as many last-minute appointees as possible; and the entire end-of-term binge has been carefully mapped out.

"Known by some as Plan B, Davis administration officials and other Democrats are following a 'just-in-case' road map of sorts, one that assumes the worst and that involves moving quickly on appointments, important pieces of legislation and other state business," the Times reported. "A team of Mr. Davis's lawyers has gone so far as to research state law to determine that should he lose the recall, Mr. Davis can still sign bills until a new governor is sworn in, which could take several weeks if the vote tally is disputed."

Almost magically, Davis managed to portray the signing ceremonies for all these bills as examples of him deftly performing the people's business, even though the most pressing item on the people's table should be his latest budget's gaping $14 billion hole, covered by borrowing that some courts have already ruled illegal. The "structural deficit," created on Davis' watch and barely addressed in his $99 billion budget, stands at an estimated $8 billion until someone figures out how to reduce spending and/or raise taxes. Few of the lame duck's last laws even seemed to acknowledge the budget crisis.

So was this all a poison pill to the incoming Schwarzenegger Administration? Perhaps—Arnold has vowed to take some of the new legislation, most notably the drivers license law, directly to the voters via referendum if the Democrat-controlled state legislature doesn't undo the damage.

Or maybe it was the left's Viking Funeral. "Union leaders," Meyerson wrote in his prescient column, "are far from certain that the passage of this or the other bills will suffice to spare Davis from the recall gods. But, they conclude, the bills certainly can't hurt his campaign, and at least he'll go out in a blaze of unaccustomed glory."

But there's also a more charitable way of looking at things: In certain ways, this last-minute frenzy resembles the actions of a government official who suddenly feels accountable to a demanding public. As Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub put it: "The budget was passed this year on July 29, a month late but also a month earlier than it was passed last year, when there was no recall on the ballot. The Legislature passed a major measure to overhaul the much criticized workers' compensation system after years of complaints about its cost from business. And the state just completed delicate and long-running negotiations affecting California's access to Colorado River water. If anything, the recall seems to have concentrated the minds of the state's leaders on some of the major problems of the day."