Orange County Anguish


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.”

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.”

I can’t stop myself before I bait again—”So you’re against things like putting social security money in the stock market?” I predict what his answer will be. Bingo: “No, I’m not against that at all. In fact I’m for that.”

There are still plenty of intelligent arguments to recall Gray Davis, plenty of intelligent people who argue for them. Many, advocates are quick to point out, are Democrats. I talk to one of them, a liberal political appointee enraged with Davis for cutting her agency, which lures and keeps business in the state, by 65 percent. Turns out she wasn’t the only person I interviewed who was offended by that particular decision. “I would have cut it 100 percent,” a libertarian activist tells me at breakfast two mornings later when I tell him about the Trade and Commerce Agency’s fate. And yet on one thing they agree: They both hate Gray Davis the man.

She says: “He doesn’t create relationships. He isolates himself.”

He says: “I just think of the people who you meet who when you shake their hand, it’s cold and wet and limp. . . . He’s just not an attractive man in any way.”

It was a message I heard a dozenfold. The running gag in the California media has become chasing around trying to find someone who will profess to loving him. Yet Gray Davis’s extreme unpleasantness clearly wasn’t an overriding political fact when he first won his seat in a landslide in 1998, or when he won it back 10 months ago. People don’t think much about whether they “love” the political candidates they’re satisfied with enough to vote for; that is a question for when satisfaction fades. Two million individual Californians didn’t sign petitions to fire Gray Davis because their favorite bureaucracy got cut or their small business is on the rocks. There is that narcissism abroad, of course. There is also the generalized dread, that old familiar California apocalypticism: California is once again about to fall into the sea. All of this contributes.

But there are also the two dominant grievances, the ones that surface again and again. Californians fear the immigrants. And they loathe the car tax.

Orange county constituents who want to see Representative Dana Rohrabacher, the famous surfing congressman of Huntington Beach, have to first be led by a security guard through the massive beachwear shop over which his office sits to a rear parking lot, thither to snake through an alley past a dumpster and a pile of bakery trays and a utility main to an outdoor elevator (the stairs are blocked by a heavy gate), thence to curl to the end of a spiraling corridor past a men’s room that reads Employees Only. It seems symbolic. Rohrabacher is one of Congress’s most government-baiting members, and he thinks you should hate the government, too. Why should he make his constituents feel welcome?

When I finally reach his office for my appointment Tuesday afternoon, I find he’s been double-booked, which is fine: His staff arranges for me to meet him on the porch of his nearby home a few hours later. So I drive around. I flip on KFI, Southern California’s “More Stimulating Talk Radio.” Later this week in Sacramento, a recall campaign organizer will tell me that, since political parties are so organizationally weak these days, talk radio hosts are the modern-day equivalent of ward bosses. He courts them as one of the most important parts of any political campaign he runs. Here is how these particular ward bosses—KFI’s notorious “John and Ken,” John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou—are mobilizing his flock. I turn on my tape recorder as soon as I hear the word “treason.”

. . . that’s what it’s all about. When you heard it today, it all clicked; it’s about allowing illegals to vote . . .

They’re talking about Davis’s decision to sign a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses. The policy rationale is that since illegal immigrants are an economic necessity and a fact of life in California, and since you cannot survive in California without driving, Mexicans are driving so cautiously for fear of getting caught without a license that they constitute a safety hazard. The political rationale is winning the anti-recall votes of legal immigrants. John and Ken spy other motives.

All these overeducated wienies at the Los Angeles Times, when are you going to ask about illegal aliens voting in U.S. elections, in California elections, with these drivers’ licenses they’re going to have . . .

I pass a blonde woman in a black BMW convertible with the license plate LOVINLF.

. . . Davis knows this. . . . That’s the real plan, that’s what they talk about when they are in their dark rooms at night. . . .

Which explains, they have already noted, the goal of the Democrat running on the ballot to replace Davis:

Bustamante is going to be running as the first governor of the northernmost province of Mexico. That’s really what he’s doing here. . . .

Then KFI runs one of their recurring ads, I forget which, perhaps the one for Rolex watches, perhaps the one for their latest contest. “Tired of all the political monkey business? KFI peels back the car tax. Listen all through the month of August and find out how KFI can pay for your vehicle registration fee. If Gumby Davis won’t, we will.” The first time I hear them give the prize away the winner acts like he’s won Powerball. People here treat taxes like a medieval torture.

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.”

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.”