Democrat Gray Davis will have to fight to keep his job this fall in the nation's first gubernatorial recall election in 82 years, state officials announced after tallying the results of a Republican-led petition drive that seemed farfetched just months ago.
Secretary of State Kevin Shelley said Wednesday that counties had reported 1.3 million valid petition signatures, well over the 897,158 required for the recall to make it on the ballot. An election could be held as early as Sept. 23.
"This is the first statewide special election in California's history. The challenges are profound," Shelley said at a news conference. "This could very well be one of the most important ballots our citizens ever cast."
Davis is a career politician who is less than one year removed from winning a second consecutive term, but his popularity has plunged in recent months amid California's US$38 billion budget deficit, its energy crisis and its slumping economy.
He branded the Republican-led drive to oust him "a hostile takeover by the right" and said he will fight and win. "In a strange way, this has got my juices flowing," he said on Wednesday. "I'm a fighter."
The widely expected announcement touched off a flurry of activity among potential Republican candidates on Wednesday. Businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in the November election, said he would announce his plans on Saturday and state Senator Tom McClintock formed an exploratory committee.
Arnold Schwarzenegger's spokesman said the actor has not decided if he will run.
The only declared major-party candidate so far is US Representative Darrell Issa, who bankrolled the recall drive. He planned to return from Washington yesterday or today, earlier than expected, to formally enter the race, his spokesman said.
* Backing of 12 percent of the votes cast in the last election needed for recall, in this case 897,158 valid signatures.
* Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante must set a Tuesday date for the election to take place within 60 or 80 days.
* The ballot will ask voters first if they favor the recall. It is still not clear if voters will be offered a second part, in which they can choose one from a list of candidates if the recall succeeds.
Issa said he expected the governor to be recalled "by a substantial margin."
"The only thing that's in doubt is who will replace him," said Issa.
The state's Democratic officeholders have closed ranks behind Davis and say they will not run.
The ballot would have two parts: The first section would ask people to vote yes or no on whether to recall Davis and the second would provide a list of candidates to choose from in the event he is recalled.
If a majority of voters support the recall, Davis would be replaced by the candidate with the most votes, meaning a candidate in a large field could be elected governor with a relatively small percentage of the overall vote.
But Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, who is in charge of scheduling the vote, suggested Wednesday that he may not have the power to set an election to choose a replacement candidate.
"The authority I have is to set the date, but not the other," he said. "I don't think I have any other authority."
Bustamante says the decision on a replacement candidate should be up to the state Supreme Court or an obscure five-member body known as the Commission on the Governorship. He has sought legal clarification and said he would hold a news conference yesterday.
Shelley said the law is clear that both questions should be on the same ballot.
"We believe that it must include the second question, which is the option for other candidates. I've shared with Mr. Bustamante our point," Shelley said.