‘If this thing qualifies, I’m toast’: An oral history of the Gray Davis recall in California

In the midst of a massive budget deficit and an energy crisis that caused rolling blackouts around the state, California recalled Gov. Gray Davis (D), the first time in California history voters had given the boot to a governor before his term had expired.

Eighteen years later, California voters will decide the fate of another governor, Gavin Newsom (D), in what will become the most significant electoral story of 2021.

The two recall elections are taking place in dramatically different circumstances. Davis’s poll numbers were never strong; Newsom enjoys favorable ratings from most California voters. Davis was forced to cut spending dramatically; Newsom will spend the next several months handing out billions of dollars from a record surplus. And Davis faced a far more centrist electorate than does Newsom, who now presides over a state that has become a vanguard of progressive policy.

But Newsom’s team has spent time studying the race that sealed Davis’s fate, searching for instructive lessons that might help their candidate avoid the pitfalls that doomed his predecessor.

This oral history of the 2003 California recall is based on interviews with a dozen people who were involved in the race. Some plotted to oust Davis; others to save him; and some ran in the recall election itself.

Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity. Those interviewed are identified by the titles they held at the time.

Davis had won a second term in 2002, but by the narrowest of margins. He defeated businessman Bill Simon (R) with just 47 percent of the vote.

Garry South, Davis’s senior adviser: “It was kind of a bitter victory, because it was 47-42 against basically an empty suit. We raised and spent $78 million during that cycle. That was more money than had ever been spent by far by any candidate in American history.”

“The night before the reelection, he was at only 39 percent in our own polling. And by the way 57 percent unfavorable. So our numbers were in the tank, even in 2002, and then they just proceeded to get worse.”

Only about 7 million voters cast ballots, more than a million fewer than had voted four years previously. California law requires recall supporters to collect a percentage of signatures based on the number of votes cast in the prior election — so the lower turnout reduced the number required for recall supporters to force Davis back onto the ballot the following year.

South: “That low turnout aided the qualification of the recall.”

Ten days later, Davis held a thank-you party with Asian American supporters in the Los Angeles area. His budget analysts called him just before the party started: California was staring down a $35 billion budget deficit.

South: “Davis came in, and he was ashen white.”

Davis made the projections public in December.

Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party: “He announced a $35 billion budget deficit the month after he got reelected.”

At the same time, an electricity crisis fueled by Enron meant rolling blackouts across the state. Davis took the political hit.

John Pitney, political scientist, Claremont McKenna College: “Californians were generally unhappy, and he was a convenient target.”

Mark DiCamillo, director, The Field Poll: “You had these big problems that the governor was facing, preceding the whole recall cycle.”

By February 2003, a conservative activist began collecting signatures for a recall campaign.

Dave Gilliard, Republican strategist and founder of Rescue California: “It was started by a fellow named Ted Costa who ran a group called the People’s Advocate.”

South: “The budget deficit kept getting worse. Before you knew it, it was up to a $38 billion deficit. And this was at the very time they were out there collecting signatures for the recall. It was just an impossible situation. During both the January budget and the May revise, there was no good news.”

Steven Maviglio, Davis’s press secretary: “We were slashing programs left and right that were high priorities of Democrats in the legislature.”

Christine Pelosi, chair, California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus: “Gray Davis had no way to make our lives better. He was in a financial recession turning into an energy depression.”

Recall campaigns are not uncommon in California. Few make it past the initial stage of gathering signatures.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D): “Because there had been many attempts to recall the governor, many people didn’t give it much credence.”

Bustamante traveled to Washington, where he huddled with labor leaders and encouraged them to fight the recall. Spend $5 million to $10 million today, he told them, and you will save $50 million or $100 million later.

Bustamante: “They contacted the governor’s office and his political people and they basically said they’re not worried about it.”

Davis got a phone call from an unlikely ally: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), who had faced a recall attempt when she was mayor of San Francisco. She had also faced Davis in 1992, when she won the Democratic primary for her Senate seat; she remembered the negative ads Davis had run against her.

“Gray, I’ve been through a recall. You haven’t,” Feinstein told Davis, according to South. “We have to keep any other major Democrat from running in the recall.”

Maviglio: “That was really the wake-up call for him.”

Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s top political adviser: “Sen. Feinstein told him privately and publicly that it would get on the ballot so get ready for a campaign. She went as far as saying all this at a birthday party for her with several hundred people there, including most of the California political leadership.”

Supporters of the recall were gathering few signatures, until Rep. Darrell Issa (R) stepped in. A businessman before running for public office, Issa contributed millions to the signature-gathering effort beginning in May.

Gilliard: “A couple months into the process, it appeared that it wasn’t going to go anywhere. One of my clients at the time was Congressman Darrell Issa, who decided he wanted to make it to the ballot. He asked me to form Rescue California. He funded probably 90 percent of the effort to gather the signatures.”

Torres: “Without that kind of boost, I don’t think the recall would have qualified.”

Serious Republicans started considering a run — led by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who had finished second behind Simon in the 2002 Republican primary.

Bustamante: “We had a real recall that was gaining momentum and the person who appeared to be the front-runner was the mayor of Los Angeles, Dick Riordan, a multimillionaire who had been elected in a Democratic city. When Riordan was gong to be the front-runner, I and most everybody said look, we think Gray has a shot to beat this guy.”

But buzz was building around another contender, movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger had promoted a ballot initiative the year before, widely seen as a prelude to a political career he wanted to launch.

Maviglio: “Arnold was co-chair of a very successful ballot measure the year before in California on education, so he had some political credibility.”

Feinstein called each of the statewide elected officials to line up their support. She told them it was essential that they not add their name to the ballot, to delegitimize the effort as a tool Republicans were using to overturn the will of the voters. But some of those elected officials used their time with Feinstein to send a different message.

Bustamante: “It was during that conversation that I begged the senator to run in the recall. I said that there’s only one candidate that I felt could actually beat Arnold if it came down to a situation in which the gov lost in a recall, and it was her.”

Pelosi: “We were begging Dianne Feinstein to run for governor. We really tried. She absolutely refused.”

As the budget deficit grew, Davis was desperate to raise revenue. He turned to one area where the governor has unilateral power: Raising fees on vehicle registrations.

South: “The raising of the car tax resulted in people paying, I don’t know, 80 or 100 extra dollars. Davis desperately did not want to do it, but he did it because he had to find revenue.”

Davis began to worry that the confluence of political catastrophes were conspiring against him.

Maviglio: “He said, if this thing qualifies, I’m toast. He knew early on.”

As Issa traveled the state to promote the recall, he made clear that he wanted to be a candidate, too.

Gilliard: “He put not only his money, but a lot of effort. He’d trailed around the state and became something of a folk hero among activists. … He wanted to be a candidate. He believed that California at the time was in trouble and moving in the wrong direction and he could do a better job than Gray Davis.”

Issa wasn’t alone: After the recall qualified on July 24, dozens of candidates joined the field. They included the actor Gary Coleman, the media magnate Arianna Huffington, porn magnate Larry Flynt and porn star Mary Carey.

Mary Carey, adult film star: “I was doing a feature dance appearance. When you’re an adult-film star you travel the country and clubs pay you. I was driving home from Columbus, Ohio, and the owner of the porn company I was working for, Kick Ass Pictures, called me up and said do you want to run for governor of California?”

Carey: “We went to a courthouse and I stood outside in a bikini and news crews started showing up. When he saw how much press we got, he was like, you’re doing this for real now.”

One candidate, Scott Winfield Davis, attracted attention from Atlanta prosecutors who were still investigating his involvement in the 1996 murder of his estranged wife’s lover. (He was convicted in 2006.)

South: “We were going to try to make that an issue. Wait a minute, you want to replace the governor you just reelected with one of these 135 clowns?”

Painting the recall as a Republican-driven circus would require Democrats to boycott the race. Davis’s team worried that Bustamante would be the wildcard.

South: “We knew from early on the machinations were in place for him to try to figure out how he could run.”

Maviglio: “Davis and Bustamante had a frosty relationship to the point that Davis took away his parking spaces in the Capitol.”

Bustamante: “All the reporters seemed to focus on that, which would basically have a very unprofessional approach at how we do our careers and our business. If someone took your parking space away, is that going to have you make a change in the way you do your business? That had so little to do with anything or any decisions that I made. It wasn’t even his parking spaces to take. The governor does not administer or manage the parking spaces within the Capitol garage.”

Torres, a former state legislator who had helped Bustamante become speaker of the Assembly, called his old friend.

Torres: “It’s not just about this election, it’s about how you’re going to be perceived down the road. … I said concentrate on voter registration, concentrate on the future.”

Republican strategists did not see Issa as their best candidate, though they were happy to take his money.

“In two weeks, Republicans are going to pat Issa on the head, thank him for his service, then walk over his dead body,” one Republican strategist told The New York Times.

Riordan looked like the GOP’s best bet; Schwarzenegger spent the summer sending signals that he would not run. His chief political adviser had asked a handful of Republican operatives not to commit themselves to other candidates, though he had not made any hires.

Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger’s deputy communications director: “I had been recruited to be on standby by George Gorton, who was the original consultant. But it was widely believed that Arnold wasn’t going to run.”

On Aug. 6, Schwarzenegger was scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Gorton stood backstage with a prepared statement he planned to hand out to the media.

Karen Tumulty, Time Magazine (now at The Washington Post): “His top political adviser was standing there with a piece of paper in his hand, a statement that said, I will not run for governor. And Jay Leno asked him, he said, how are you going to break the news to — that you’re not going to run? This is what everybody expected, and Schwarzenegger said, I’m bowing out.”

Maviglio: “We were all glued to our TVs. Everybody was freaked out.”

When Schwarzenegger was asked about his intentions, he took aim at Davis.

“He’s failing them terribly. This is why he needs to be recalled, and this is why I am going to run for governor of the state of California,” Schwarzenegger said.

“It’s the most difficult [decision] I’ve made in my entire life, except the one I made in 1978 when I decided to get a bikini wax,” he joked.

Stutzman: “There were several of us who had gone. Someone had the hookup on tickets. And I was supposed to go have dinner with [former Major League Baseball commissioner] Peter Ueberroth that night because I was going to run his campaign. … Jewel was the music act I couldn’t wait for her to be done.”

Schwarzenegger, Gorton, Stutzman, communications director Sean Walsh and a handful of strategists retreated to his Hollywood mansion to begin plotting a campaign for the next two months.

Stutzman: “I went to Arnold’s house that night and didn’t really go home for 10 weeks. Dinner got made. Maria [Shriver, Schwarzenegger’s wife] came down and said hello to everyone. She didn’t look pleased.”

No one had planned for Schwarzenegger’s announcement.

Stutzman: “Sean Walsh and I bribed a guy at the door at the Macy’s so we could get in and buy clean underwear for the next day because no one had packed a bag. … There was space above Arnold’s office in Santa Monica, so we just started to roll there. We put the press operation together in a suite that we found out was Johnny Carson’s old office.”

The political world seemed to explode. Suddenly, a year before a presidential election, all eyes were on California. Pitney, the Claremont McKenna professor, answered two dozen media requests the next day.

Pitney: “Literally, I was holding my landline in one hand and my cellphone in the other.”

Schwarzenegger’s entry scrambled the race — and scrambled Davis’s plan to run against the absurdity of a hundred-candidate field. Suddenly the recall had a prominent name — one of the most prominent names on the planet.

South: “To the average voter, he became the public face of the recall, not the other 134 clowns. They became fixated on Arnold as the alternative to Davis, not the other 134 clowns.”

Bustamante: “I didn’t believe that Davis could beat Arnold.”

Schwarzenegger’s entry into the race forced others out. His friend Riordan, who had believed he had Schwarzenegger’s support, issued a curt statement backing the movie star. Issa, too, bowed out.

“It’s my decision to see that the recall continues, that Gray Davis is recalled, and that California has a brighter day,” Issa said at a press conference, fighting back tears.

Gilliard: “There was disappointment there. … We felt that spending a lot of money and having too many Republican candidates fighting amongst each other would be a mistake. Schwarzenegger, because of his name ID going into a short election, would have the advantage.”

Even the candidates who stayed in the race knew they were doomed.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger will win. He will have the largest popular vote,” Coleman told The Baltimore Sun. “People from Austria will fly here just to vote for him. That would be highly illegal, of course.”

Schwarzenegger’s team recognized they faced a credibility problem: Would voters take seriously an actor whose only real foray into politics had been a ballot initiative about after-school programs?

Stutzman: “There was an event that took place within the first week and a half where Warren Buffett flew in and [former Secretary of State George] Shultz came down from Palo Alto. We basically convened a meeting of business leaders and these two titans of business and diplomacy, and we had a news conference afterwards. It conferred a lot of credibility on Arnold, you know he’s standing there with these people who you usually see standing with presidents.”

A few days later, the dam broke: Bustamante said he would run, giving Democratic voters an alternative in case the recall succeeded.

Bustamante: “I decided to run, which was not in my best political interest, in order to be a possible alternative to help save not only the state from Arnold’s politics but to try to nurture and continue the kind of progress that we had been making. I thought I was taking one for the team. I was an experienced political person within the state of California, I knew that by getting into the campaign, I was likely to lose. I couldn’t raise enough money to compete and I didn’t have the name ID that he had. But in order to be able to make an effort to try to save the state, I decided to go ahead and run against Arnold.”

Torres: “I didn’t want another candidate in the race, but Cruz was able to get the party’s support, so we had to go along with it.”

A Field Poll conducted in the days after Schwarzenegger joined the race showed Bustamante had a point: Just 22 percent of California voters approved of the job Davis was doing in office.

DiCamillo: “That was a record low.”

South: “That’s Nixon territory.”

But so did Davis’s team. Even Republican polls showed that a legitimate Democrat in the race gave Democratic voters an excuse to support ousting Davis.

Gilliard: “Our polling did show that did make a difference to some voters if they had a Democratic alternative on the ballot, they were more likely to support recalling a Democratic governor.”

Bustamante debuted a two-step message: “No on recall, yes on Bustamante.” It angered Davis backers who thought it made no sense.

South: “You can’t go to an electorate with a confusing, double-edged message like that.”

Bustamante spent most of his time raising money and scheming to force Schwarzenegger onto the debate stage.

Bustamante: “He couldn’t tell you about any of the programs of the state of California, so he and his handlers said why do we want to go into that arena?”

Stutzman: “[Veteran GOP strategist Mike] Murphy came into the camp within the first week and Mike immediately got focused on debate prep as well as conferring credibility onto Schwarzenegger. There was something that we called Schwarzenegger University. Because it’s Schwarzenegger you’re able to access experts on any subject, basically from around the country. … There were several prep sessions. Because the candidate field was fairly large, there was a lot of people involved, I played Peter Camejo who was the Green Party candidate. One thing that did help Arnold was that his professional training is rehearsal, so he took very well to that environment.”

Schwarzenegger agreed to only one debate, on Sept. 24, alongside Huffington, Bustamante, Camejo and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R). The candidates got questions in advance. Initially, the top 10 candidates were to be invited, a selection that was eventually cut in half.

Carey: “When they saw Larry Flynt, Gary Coleman and myself in there, they made it the top five.”

Schwarzenegger stole the show by clashing with Huffington at every opportunity.

“I thank God every day that we have Hiram Johnson that created this [recall process] more than 90 years ago. His intention was to create this recall because of special interests controlling politicians and this is exactly what is the case today,” Schwarzenegger said.

In a prelude of the chaos that would come over the following days, Huffington accused Schwarzenegger of mistreating women.

“I have a perfect part for you in ‘Terminator 4,’ ” Schwarzenegger shot back.

“Let me remind you this is not Comedy Central,” moderator Stan Statham broke in later.

The Game Show Network hosted their own contest, between six little-known candidates seeking to break through. The winner received $21,200, the largest political contribution allowed by state law.

Carey: “I knew if I made it to the final 3 without Gary Coleman, I would win.”

Days after the debate, polls showed Schwarzenegger with a clear lead over the rest of the field. But the Los Angeles Times landed a bombshell story as voters prepared to go to the polls, alleging Schwarzenegger had mistreated women on the sets of some of his movies.

Stutzman: “We built ourselves into the lead, but then came the LA Times reporting within that last week with allegations of misconduct on movie sets. This was squarely in the lap of myself and Sean Walsh in trying to swat back this incoming, in trying to figure out what was substantive. … There was a massive fight with the LA Times, some of it was on how late it came in, some of it was uncorroborated.

Schwarzenegger himself acknowledged his behavior. “I always say that wherever there is smoke there is fire. So what I want to say to you is, yes, that I have behaved badly sometimes,” he said.

Bustamante: “The last two weeks of the campaign, this information was coming out in dribs and drabs. It was coming out every day, there was another one, two, three, four women. We were hopeful that not only would it help us in our position, it would help the recall position.”

The weekend before Election Day, Schwarzenegger’s team got some bad news.

Stutzman: “We had a bad polling night on Friday. We had started the final weekend bus tour in San Diego on Friday. There became real concern heading into that last weekend that the outcome was in doubt.”

On Election Day, Schwarzenegger headed to the Century Plaza Hotel, and voters headed to the polls.

Carey: “I knew nothing about politics. It was the first time I ever voted, and I got to vote for myself. … I also did vote no on the recall, because I was not for the recall.”

Stutzman: “We had more cameras on that thing than I think you get on a presidential night because of all the international attention.”

In Los Angeles, Pitney settled in for a long night of ballot-counting.

Pitney: “I got called to CNN to do commentary on Election Night. I was all excited to be in the green room, and they were expecting a late-night call. But almost the minute the polls closed it was going to be an early. … I got to sit in the green room with Larry Flynt, whom I didn’t want to have to shake hands with.”

The race was called almost immediately. Fifty-five percent of Californians voted to recall Davis. Schwarzenegger took 49 percent of the vote, well ahead of Bustamante’s 32 percent. McClintock, running to Schwarzenegger’s right, took a distant third at 13 percent. More voters turned out to oust Davis than had turned out in either of his two regularly scheduled general elections, in 1998 and 2002.

Schwarzenegger won reelection in 2006.

Bustamante: “I blame myself. I blame myself because after 20 something years, almost 30 years in the business, I should have been able to figure out how to speak to the voters in such a way that they would have seen me as the viable candidate. … I wish I could have done more. I wish the governor would have won the recall. But they spent years saying it was my fault.”

Tags Arnold Schwarzenegger California Darrell Issa Dianne Feinstein Gavin Newsom Gray Davis Recall Tom McClintock

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