Day 589: Electopalooza 2003!

originally published August 11, 2013

Even though it costs the taxpayers a crap-ton of money, I still like the idea behind the recall election. When a person gets elected to office, the people who put him or her there really have no idea how well or how poorly they’ll do in the position. Sometimes our collective best guess turns out to be garbage; it’s like picking a new staff member from a pool of applicants – sure, your pick may seem the most qualified, but what if they turn out to be a vapid dimwit whose primary news source is TMZ? When it comes to choosing between the lesser of two evils, you’ll still end up with some degree of evil winning the race and governing the region.

So you recall them. You get enough fist-waving, pitchfork toting angry mobbers to raise their voice and a new election is held. I’ve wished we could do that with our provincial premier many times in my adult life, except that I live in Alberta and I think there’s a law somewhere that states that the Conservative party has to win every damn election. Besides, in Canada we don’t have fixed election dates, and leaders can choose to time an election when their poll numbers aren’t in the toilet.

Not so in the US. And ten years ago, California made history when a recall election actually booted a governor from office – only the second time that had ever happened.

Lynn J. Frazier, the governor of North Dakota, was yanked from office in a 1921 recall election because his government insisted on owning chunks of what many felt should be private industry, including the state’s largest bank and the massive flour mill. California had introduced the idea of recall elections into state law back in 1911 – 19 states around the country wound up writing the clause into the books as a safeguard against poor leadership Any elected official was subject to a recall election if the people were sufficiently pissed off at their performance.

Every Californian governor since Ronald Reagan in 1968 has had to deal with a recall effort. It’s one of the only ways a person can fight back against an elected leader they despise, and it’s completely legal. But coming up with enough enraged citizens to sign your petition, that’s the tricky part. No group of aggravated citizens had been able to pull it off in the state’s history, at least not until 2003.

Signers of the petition to recall Governor Gray Davis had a laundry list of gripes. First off, the dot-com bubble popped and Davis kept spending, racking up a nasty deficit. Then there was the California energy crisis of 2000-2001, which many felt Davis had bungled, leading to rolling blackouts and soaring energy bills – for some folks an outright tripling of the dollar amount in the ‘owing’ column. Economists have since felt that Davis did all he could do in a shitty situation, but at the time he wasn’t getting a lot of love.

High taxes, a controversial immigration policy, poor fiscal management and a whopping 24% approval rating. Ouch. Petitioners needed 1.2 million signatures to ensure they had the 897,156 required (12% of the number of votes cast in the 2002 election) to launch a recall. They ended up with 1.6 million. The race was on.

Cruz “Bust A Move” Bustamante, the presiding lieutenant governor, was the big name on the Democratic ticket. Given that the populace was ravenous for change (Davis was also a Democrat), this was akin to competing in the America’s Cup with a cement-lined yacht. There were two front-running Republicans: actor and partial cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger (spoiler! He won) and state senator Tom McClintock. Bustamante and Schwarzenegger spent much of the race jockeying for the lead, but Gray Davis was still all over the media, trying to sway voters into letting him keep the job he’d been reelected to less than a year earlier.

There were two questions on the ballot. The first was whether or not Gray Davis should be yanked from office (55.4% said yes), and the second was who would replace him. Arnie’s presence as the Republican favorite brought international attention to the race, but it was that second question, that menu of possible governors that really piqued the world’s interest.

Those first three columns of the ballot – those were the options presented to Californians. Really, it’s no wonder the Hollywood A-lister won.

You had former communist Peter Camejo, who came in fourth as the Green Party candidate. There was TV talking-head and future online news-service pioneer Arianna Huffington. Mr. Hustler himself, Larry Flynt grabbed over 17,000 votes. Right behind him was former child star Gary Coleman, whose experience as a shopping mall security guard no doubt inspired a tremendous amount of confidence in his supporters.

Businessman George B. Schwartzman was the most successful of all ‘regular schmo’ candidates, having no political experience but still amassing over 12,000 votes. Then there was porn star Mary Carey, who somehow found a way to convince 11,179 people to cast a vote for her.

Other losing candidates included:

  • Bruce Margolin, criminal defense attorney and advocate for marijuana reform.
  • Van Vo, a Vietnamese-American TV talk show host who was dubbed the “Rush Limbaugh of Little Saigon”.
  • Gallagher, the least-favorite prop comic in the watermelon community.
  • Garrett Gruener, co-founder of
  • Angelyne, whose qualifications appear to have been limited to her experience looking down on Los Angeles from numerous billboards.
  • Punk rocker and activist Jack Grisham.
  • Leonard Padilla, a Sacramento-based bounty hunter and former federal inmate for having skipped out paying taxes for three years.
  • Bill Prady, who wrote for the Muppets and wound up co-creating CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.

It was a motley mix of 135 candidates, as much of an electoral circus as you would ever find in American (and probably world) history. At one point the Game Show Network hosted a program called Who Wants To Be Governor Of California? – The Debating Game, in which the longshot runners like Gary Coleman and Mary Carey could be seen on television pretending they had a chance at winning.

It was the most impressive surge of support to dethrone a presiding leader that I can ever remember seeing. If only we had that recall law up here – I would definitely welcome a story with this much outright wackiness splattering our front pages for a few weeks.

And who knows? I might even end up on the ballot.

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