Orange County Anguish

Searching for Someone, Anyone, Who Loves Governor Gray Davis

 Orange County, California—According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California is one of 39 state governments facing budget deficits in fiscal year 2004. Of the 39, 11 have constitutions that let voters recall their governors. Of these, three have budget deficits about as bad as California's. Two more, Alaska's and Arizona's, are far worse.

California is the only one on the verge of recalling its governor.

Before I got here I thought I knew why: I belittled the recall in the Voice as a right-wing coup. Then I arrived at Santa Ana's John Wayne Airport and picked up a copy of the hometown paper, The Orange County Register. "The predictable, stale attempts by the East Coast media to belittle the October 7 recall as California craziness or a 'right-wing coup' continue," I read. "But a funny thing is happening—the more that reporters and pundits come to California the more they grasp the mass discontent with Gray Davis that's fueling the recall drive."

illustration: Tony Millionaire

Well, here I am to evaluate their claim—that the discontent against Davis is as deep as they say, and as spontaneous as they imply. I begin on a Sunday morning, at Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral, which seats 2,890 worshipers, just off the I-5 freeway in Garden Grove. After the service, I ask Pastor Jim Kok what he thinks about Governor Gray Davis.

"Well, he's a servant of God, doing his best," he responds, then trails off searchingly, as if beseeching the Lord's forgiveness for impure thoughts. He finishes in broken voice: "Um, who wants to, um, serve his people, and um, serve his nation as best he can."

It's the nicest thing I hear about Gray Davis all day. So far the Register is doing pretty well.

Orange county once was a republican bastion. By the early 1960s, the population here was a million, almost exclusively white; now it is double that and increasingly poorer and browner, and, statistically, might belong to the Democrats. The Crystal Cathedral, certainly, is not a Republican bastion; Robert Schuller has ministered to Bill Clinton, and one of its four services every Sunday is held in Spanish. But the only demographic that counts on Election Day comprises the people motivated enough to show up at the polls. And from what I am hearing at her favorite megachurch, when it comes to political motivation, O.C. still leans right. Only two people tell me they are against recall, neither with particular eloquence. Everyone else launches into fusillades.

The policy arguments are familiar to any newspaper reader: Businesses have been chased out by exorbitant workers' comp insurance rates; taxes have skyrocketed; Davis's Democratic legislature has spent recklessly. These are arguable points (less sturdy are claims Davis should have "done something" about the state's energy crisis in 2000, not least because the pundits who say this the loudest took a wait-and-see attitude at the time). And when people describe why they despise Gray Davis the man, their arguments, often, are reasonable, too; you read similar things on the better op-ed pages.

Nothing in the newspapers, however, prepared me for the unreasonable stuff.

Like the young woman who tells me, "We didn't need to have people on the Coronado Bridge for months and months and months pulling resources when that terrorist situation was going on." I am intrigued. Had I missed a scandal? Had an opportunistic Gray Davis left his people unprotected after the FBI famously informed him that terrorists might blow up California's major bridges? No. It turns out that the woman, a San Diego resident, was mad because Gray Davis had inconvenienced her commute.

Though to draw any conclusions about California narcissism, or California craziness, would surely be premature. It is only my first morning.

Then comes my first afternoon. At the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, another Orange County institution, I chat with a man who's so mad about Davis ruining the state's economy he wants to move his furniture manufacturing company to Idaho.

"They're taxing arbitrary things in order to raise revenue," he says, "which makes the cost more and more and more and makes it harder and harder for small businessmen to survive." I mention that Ronald Reagan imposed the highest tax increase in the history of any state during his first year in office in order to bail California out of its fiscal mess in 1967, and that maybe such emergency measures were appropriate now as well.

He responds sincerely: "I think that, unfortunately, I didn't understand at the time what all that spending and taxation is about, but I had a blind faith that, whatever the case, this is the leader who I feel good with, I'm going to go with, and I'm just going to have some blind faith."

I move on to my next Republican. He has a company that sells roofing materials. When I ask him why he thinks Davis should be recalled, he echoes a criticism of Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Weintraub: that Davis counted on continued high stock-market returns while planning state employees' pension fund contributions. I observe this was a common enough mistake to make at the time. He returns a thoughtful retort—a conservative one, you might say: "You don't base your future on the high-rolling returns in the stock market. We all know that the stock market has ups and downs."

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