Orange County Anguish

Searching for Someone, Anyone, Who Loves Governor Gray Davis

That night I visit with a woman who shows off her paper shredder. She lives in a handsome gated community. Inside the gates, a security guard sits in his truck keeping watch all night long. She shreds her mail, she explains, to prevent illegal aliens from stealing her identity. All her friends shred too. She also tells me she doesn't get a single government service she can think of from the taxes she pays. People in Orange County tend to say things like that. These are California's motivated voters.

I've got time to kill, so I interview some kids on the beach. I try very hard to stare at the face, not the breasts, of an 18-year-old in a bikini; her glitter makeup reminds me of the glitter woven into the fabric of the Crystal Cathedral's pastel seats. When she opens her mouth to speak, she reveals a tongue stud of a color I've never seen before. She's talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger: "When I heard he was running for governor, I was like, 'Wow.' " (This is exactly what she says. It's on my tape recorder.)

I ask her older brother Tommy what he thinks of Davis. He answers, "I think he sucks for raising my car tax. That pissed me off."

illustration: Tony Millionaire

It pissed a lot of people off. Gray Davis announced that he would restore California's Vehicle Licensing Fee back to 2 percent of the sticker price of every car not long after the legislature had lowered it by two-thirds. Whatever its fiscal wisdom, in a state where the Saturday newspaper in a typical small city features more than 30 full pages of display ads taken out by car dealers, this is political idiocy. "Things just went bonkers," grins Ted Costa, the recall's official advocate. "Things went to the point where we were getting 100,000 signatures a day."

At the beach, Tommy says he might even vote this year, but not for Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I want someone who's American! He's not even born here. You know what I mean? Some immigrant—I mean, he has an accent! People with accents running for office? Come on."

It suddenly seems appropriate that California's most popular gubernatorial candidate is also the man who introduced American streets to the Hummer, a conveyance that resembles nothing so much as a SWAT team's riot tank.

Tommy's congressman, as it happens, is a Schwarzenegger supporter. I interviewed Dana Rohrabacher in his backyard—"my office" he says. He pours chardonnay, while telling me why he's supporting Arnold even though he's not as conservative as he would like. I mention the crazy conspiracy theory I heard on talk radio today. "They think it's so illegals can worm in there and vote." I'm nervous he'll think I'm trying to bait him into endorsing it.

"Of course it is!" he shoots back, unabashed. "Our state is being overrun, and our country is being overrun."

"By the way, illegal immigration is not just Mexico now," he volunteers, warming to the subject. "Just take a look at all the Chinatowns around the country. They're exploding in population. . . . They come in when they're sick so they can get free health care."

Is gray davis the scapegoat for the soul-sickness of an anxious California mid-dle class? The conclusion is hard to avoid. But then, Gray Davis has done many, many foolish things. And he is a very, very unpleasant man. Reasonable people have convinced me of this.

But then again, soul-sickness, foolishness, and unpleasant politicians do not a successful initiative campaign make. Nor does a backbreaking budget deficit. For that you need politics. That's why I go to Sacramento, where I interview the three top movers in the recall campaign—who all represent different organizations, and who spend much of their energy denigrating the contributions of the others.

Phil Paule is the director of "Rescue California . . . Recall Gray Davis," a group whose 12th-floor headquarters in Sacramento's beautiful old Elks Building is so spare it resembles an office still transacting business the day after the movers have carted everything away. Such is the face of mass discontent—of "grassroots" politics—in California.

When I notice Paule spinning a coin between his fingers like it's a chip, I ask him if he's a poker player. He confirms that he is, and then he says that all elections are poker games. He tells the story of the jackpot his fellow Republicans are about to rake in—with an elegance that cannot be improved upon, just 17 words.

"We found an opponent with a really weak hand; we just kept raising and raising the stakes."

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