(A perspective from one involved in the recall election… – promoted by Brian Leubitz)
A decade ago today, one of the most intense political experiences I had ended in heartbreak.
California’s Recall Election was a political thrill ride unlikely to be matched in my lifetime. While things didn’t turn out well for my candidate on Election Night, I have no regrets.
We now have Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature and no Republican elected to statewide office. We have had two (three if you want to argue) balanced, on-time budgets and things are getting done in Sacramento without the partisan rancor that existed previously.
Listening to Governor Gray Davis’s concession speech that night 10 years ago from the balcony of the Biltmore Hotel — I was the anti-recall campaign’s press secretary, and I was working till the bitter end, corralling cameras so they got the best shots of my guy — I thought this was the Worst. Night. Ever.
(My long suffering wife had done the greatest thing one human being has ever done for another: she booked a Caribbean cruise that departed two days later.)
What turned out to only be a bad day for me professionally, has been a horrific decade for the state’s GOP who once viewed Arnold as their savior.
Schwarzenegger’s legacy is record-low Republican Party voter registration (while Democrats have remained steady), a decimated party organization, no bench, virtual and literal irrelevance in the statehouse and a mountain of debt (okay, Brulte finally managed to clear that).
This is a far cry from the brashness the Republican elite and consultant class expressed in the wake of the Recall. Arnold scared the Legislature to repeal the then-AB 60 and his team was mapping out ways to topple the Speakership of my new boss, Fabian Nunez.
Arnold’s team believed – and with good reason in those first moments where everyone was trying to gauge what voters were trying to say – that the stage was set for a GOP political takeover at several levels.
A side note: A similar, but muted, excitement on the GOP establishment’s part has surrounded Jim Brulte’s coronation as their party chairman. But the best he can hope to be is the right guy at the wrong time. Witness how this past weekend’s GOP State Convention was upstaged by a campaign button.
I’ll admit I am biased, but at the start of the Schwarzenegger Administration, he and his team relied on celebrity and gimmicks to talk to voters.
Their team used tough-sounding phrases like “Let’s them taste steel.” Arnold called Democrats in the Legislature “girlie men.”
Yes, they got the media’s attention, but their ultimate failure was an inability to turn this into votes that would create coattails for Arnold. The year after the Recall, in 2004, not a single one of Arnold’s selected candidates in competitive Legislative races won. And let’s not forget the flameout of ’05, Arnold’s Special Election.
At the same time Republican were busy being heady, groups opposing Arnold’s agenda, like Labor, were putting the skull sweat necessary into building bigger and better ways of communicating with voters in substantive ways.
These efforts helped beat back Prop 75 and later it’s ‘son’ Prop 32, help Jerry Brown retake the governorship, win on Prop 30 and win several elections at the Legislative level.
Much has been written recently on the effects Arnold’s election has on small “d” democracy, climate change and workers compensation reform. There are merits to those notions, but the greatest effect of the Recall has been how Arnold terminated the ability of the GOP to win in California.
After ten years of bitterness, and looking at where California is today, I have one thing left to say: Thank you, Arnold.