Fri, Oct 10, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Great divide opens in California

Voters can't decide whether the recall represents democracy at its best or worst



It has taken 32 tries since 1936, with other high-profile targets like Ronald Reagan and Edmund Brown dodging the bullet, for Californians to get a recall of a governor on the ballot.

Now that they have done it, ousting Governor Gray Davis in a humiliating rejection less than a year after his re-election, Californians are deeply conflicted over whether the recall represents democracy at its best or worst.

In an act of rebellion, voters in the state where one of every seven Americans live thrust into the governorship an actor and former bodybuilder with no political experience even at a time when most residents say they are deeply worried about the state's direction.

They made recall an accepted political mechanism, potentially opening the door to repeated efforts to unseat governors. Indeed, Democrats are vowing to use the recall in turn against Republicans. And it all came in a state with a political system already hobbled by initiatives and term limits.

For Arnold Schwarzenegger to succeed in such a politically polarized climate, he will have to appeal to the political center, hoping to transcend the endemic Democratic-Republican acrimony.

Troubling for California and its next governor, though, is a series of Field Polls over the past three months that shows a deepening partisan schism, with most Democrats viewing the recall as a bad thing and most Republicans regarding it as a good one.

"I think there's been a growth of partisanship in the last 20 years," California's Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said on Tuesday night on CNN, "unlike anything I've ever seen, and an inability of people to come together across the aisle, and that needs to change."

Asked if he agreed, former governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, said, "Sadly, I do. And it prohibits the kind of honest debate that really produces the solutions that can work."

Not all Californians were so grim. Some viewed themselves as 21st century populists, deploying yet another weapon in the growing arsenal of voter anger against politics as usual. But others look back at it all and see their state as the laughingstock of the country, and would prefer that the entire episode had been avoided.

Indeed, the low-road finish to the recall election campaign, with charges of dirty tricks flying between the camps of Davis and Schwarzenegger, threatened only to make matters worse.

The survey of voters at polling places showed supporters and opponents of the recall largely divided along ideological lines. Three-fifths of those who said they voted to recall Davis were Republicans and almost half described themselves as conservative. Two-thirds of the recall opponents were Democrats and more than half defined themselves as liberal.

The increasingly bitter standoff reflects a broader problem with the political environment in California that an election to remove a governor does not address, and some suggest might only sour things further.

Much as the impeachment of former president Bill Clinton demonstrated in Washington, the recall has heightened the viciousness of the Democratic-Republican dialogue in California. When combined with the quirkiness of the state's long tradition of direct democracy in the form of initiatives, that makes California a confounding place to govern.

Even a look at the California map shows how thoroughly split the state is along a so-called red-blue spine. Most coastal counties vote Democratic, while most inland counties vote Republican. The well-known north-south cultural divide has been superseded by an east-west division.

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