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Governor Groper wins in California
Was the recall a shift to the right?

October 17, 2003 | Page 1

DOES THE victory of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the California recall election represent a shift to the right in U.S. politics? That's the belief of many in the political establishment--and some writers and activists on the left. But as ALAN MAASS explains, the recall results are really an expression of discontent with the political status quo in California and around the country--and the politicians of both the Republican and Democratic Parties are the targets.

HE WAS exposed as a serial sexual harasser and admirer of Adolph Hitler as the election approached. But Arnold Schwarzenegger still won a resounding victory in California's recall.

The Republican actor and corporate front man won almost half the votes in the election to replace Gov. Gray Davis--more votes, in fact, than were cast against the recall, which Davis lost by a solid margin. And that's despite the fact that right-wing state Sen. Tom McClintock--whose appeal was to Republicans who thought Schwarzenegger was too liberal--won 13 percent of the vote.

In a state where only about one-third of voters are registered Republicans, Schwarzenegger and McClintock together got nearly two-thirds of the vote. It's understandable why liberals and radicals would be disappointed by this Republican victory--and demoralized by the prospect of Governor Groper in Sacramento.

But no one should conclude that either California or the country at large has lurched to the right. Schwarzenegger's victory does not represent a shift away from the anger and social discontent that has, over the past year, fueled the rise of a huge movement against Bush's Iraq war drive, dented the wartime popularity of the Bush administration, and helped turn out more than 100,000 people for a massive immigrant rights rally in New York City only two days before the California vote.

In fact, the results--and the dramatically higher turnout than the regular election a year ago, by voters energized by the opportunity to have a real impact on state politics--should be seen as another expression of that anger. More than anything, the recall exposed the political bankruptcy of the two-party system. Especially the party that has been running it in California--Gray Davis and the Democrats.

Despite the flurry of last-minute revelations about Schwarzenegger's sexist behavior and other scandalous allegations, exit polls found that voters made their decisions based on how they viewed Davis and his record. Thus, the recall election was about Davis, not Schwarzenegger.

Davis is rightly despised for presiding over the state's fiscal meltdown--caused above all by the California energy crisis, when Davis chose to cave to the power bosses, rather than put up a fight. His solution to the huge budget deficit that resulted has been to make workers pay--with drastic cutbacks in education, health care and virtually every government program except the state prison system.

When he decided to raise taxes, Davis didn't take back the 1990s giveaways to corporations and the rich. Instead, he hiked regressive taxes that disproportionately hurt working people--like the tripling of California's vehicle tax, something mentioned by almost every voter interviewed in exit polls.

As a result, lower-income voters were more likely support the recall--and Davis couldn't even count on organized labor, which was critical to his victories in the last two elections. Despite the all-out effort of union leaders to line up their members--including more than $10 million donated to Davis and the Democrats--half of voters from union households said yes to the recall.

Even more telling was the pathetic showing for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who won just 31 percent of the vote in the election to replace Davis. Bustamante tried to present himself as an improvement on Davis, but no one ever bought his attempt to distance himself from the administration where he has been second-in-command for five years. If the anti-recall campaign for Davis won the grudging votes of many working people, large numbers of those who voted "no" on the first half of the ballot couldn't bring themselves to support more of the status quo with Bustamante--and chose Schwarzenegger instead.

Incredibly, Schwarzenegger--a multimillionaire who nevertheless raked in $10 million in corporate contributions during the brief two-month campaign--was able to pose as a political outsider and populist opponent of big money in government. He got away with it is because Davis is rightly seen as a money-raising machine himself--a cynical politician who would say anything to win votes, and then stab his supporters in the back, while serving the interests of his corporate contributors. "I honestly believe if he had spent half the time governing that he spent fundraising," one voter told the San Francisco Chronicle before the election, "he wouldn't be in this pickle."

In the end, Davis and his supporters had nothing to run on but Schwarzenegger's appalling sexism. Schwarzenegger is a pig--but Davis and the Democrats lost because they had nothing remotely positive to point to in their long record of betraying their base of working class and minority voters.

"The fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger may still lead in the polls," Steve Bustin, a resident of Novato, Calif., told the Chronicle before the election, "is not a function of people's admiration for Schwarzenegger. It's a function of the depth of disgust people have for the political system."

That was the real message of the California recall--to "toss the bum out." As Leon Panetta, a former U.S. House member and White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton, put it, "If I were an incumbent in any office, I would be a lot more nervous today." But because the realistic choices for replacing Davis were limited to candidates representing the two mainstream parties, California got a different bum instead.

Schwarzenegger's victory is likely to embolden the right wing in California. For example, he pandered to anti-immigrant racism by attacking a new law signed by Davis that gives undocumented workers the right to get a driver's license. The bigots will consider their election win a green light to push an anti-immigrant agenda--and propose even deeper cuts in education, health care and other state programs.

As usual, the spineless Democratic leadership in Sacramento--after talking tough before the vote--immediately pledged to work with Schwarzenegger "for the good of the state." But the right's arrogance can set the stage for a backlash--as former Gov. Pete Wilson, Schwarzenegger's top adviser, knows well. In 1994, Wilson whipped up racist filth to promote the anti-immigrant Proposition 187. The initiative won--but Wilson faced growing opposition, especially from Latinos, throughout the rest of his time in office, and was finally pushed out of state politics.

This is why Schwarzenegger's victory in California isn't all good news for George W. Bush, as some conservative commentators were crowing last week. Many of the voters who rejected Davis' miserable record as governor during the state's economic crisis will vote against Bush in 2004 for exactly the same reasons.

Howard Dean, one of the frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination, caught on to that in the wake of the election. "Tonight, the voters in California directed their frustration with the country's direction on their incumbent governor," he said. "Come next November, that anger might be directed at a different incumbent...in the White House."

But Dean and the Democrats shouldn't think that they'll be able to ride the "anti-incumbent" mood to victory in 2004. Davis' recall represents a rejection of the so-called "centrist Democrats"--leaders of the party who stressed their fiscal conservatism and distanced themselves the party's base in the unions and mainstream liberal groups. Despite his anti-Bush rhetoric, Howard Dean is one of these centrists--with his calls for balancing the budget, even at the expense of cutbacks in the programs that working people value the most, like Social Security and Medicare.

"Part of the reason most people leave the Democratic Party and leave the Republican Party is because they feel disenfranchised by both of those parties," says Steve Bustin. "The bottom line is that people feel, whether it's a Democrat or a Republican, that [elected officials] are more interested in gaining power and far less interested in what people are worried about. My guess is most people who will vote for the recall are not 100 percent in favor of the recall. However, they see no other alternative. This is the only way to get the attention of politicians--essentially, to fire them."

An alternative to the status quo

IN A recall election that mostly presented a choice between two big business parties dedicated to upholding the status quo, there was one candidate who represented a serious alternative. That was Peter Camejo of the Green Party.

Camejo spoke out for universal health care and affordable housing, opposed George Bush's occupation of Iraq, and called for solving California's budget deficit by taxing the rich. Camejo won 3 percent of the vote in the recall--the largest showing for any candidate independent of the Democrats and Republicans.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Camejo came under pressure to fold his campaign and support a Democratic "lesser evil," but he stood up to it. "I want to use this last week to convince the base of the Democratic Party of how they have suffered because of the dysfunctional nature of the Democratic Party and its subservience to the same interests that fund the Republican Party," he told reporters.

At least as important as the final vote total was Camejo's participation in the televised debates among the main recall candidates. Even the mainstream media that dismissed him as irrelevant had to praise Camejo's debate performance. "[I]n this mosh pit of a campaign to replace Gray Davis," wrote the San Jose Mercury News in an editorial, "the Green Party candidate is refreshingly thoughtful and specific about how he'd solve the state's problems."

Camejo's campaign was a step forward for all the efforts to stand up to the political status quo of attacks on workers and the poor. "From a progressive point of view, we had a panic that set in--people just desperately trying to stop the Republicans," Camejo said in an interview on the left-wing radio program Democracy Now!

"They lowered the vote of the Green Party, but nevertheless, we made enormous headway in this campaign. We got enormous respect and sympathy from the people. We participate in six televised debates--the first time a third party was allowed in televised debates for Governor in the history of California. So we feel very positive about it."

Racist Proposition 54 beaten

THE RACIST ballot measure Proposition 54 was soundly defeated in the same election that recalled Gray Davis. Deceptively titled the Racial Privacy Initiative, the referendum was sponsored by Ward Connerly, the University of California regent who was behind the victory seven years ago of Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action programs in state hiring, contracts and education.

Connerly's latest initiative aimed to make it illegal for California government agencies, schools or employers to collect information on a person's race, ethnicity or country of origin.

That would have harmed efforts to address discrimination in health care, education, hate crimes and more. But voters saw through this racist fraud. The defeat of Prop 54 is another example of why California's special election shouldn't be seen as a shift to the right.

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