Skip to content
Schwarzenegger kicked it.  Now he has a message for Newsom.

Former California Democratic Governor Gray Davis gestures during a press conference on Capitol Hill. | AP Photo / Riche Pedroncelli

OAKLAND – Former California Governor Gray Davis may be the only person on the planet who understands what Governor Gavin Newsom is going through these days, trying to save his political future while dealing with a major crisis.

“It’s no fun,” said Davis, who was recalled in the 2003 election that brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to power, the only time a California governor has been ousted. “You have to take care of it and you have to decide how to divide your time.”

Davis, in an interview with POLITICO days before Tuesday’s vote, was wary of the eccentric recall process that has now led two California governors to face a race for their political life in less than two decades. Activists are circulating recall petitions against every sitting governor, but they only caught fire – and money – against Davis and Newsom.

If a majority of voters support a recall, a replacement candidate need only muster a plurality of votes to win the office. Conservative talk show host Larry Elder galvanized GOP support this summer and could take office with several million fewer votes than Newsom.

“It’s a Russian roulette game,” Davis said. “And at some point, for sure, a governor who got more votes than his successor will have to step down – because he hasn’t hit the 50 percent threshold.”

Newsom can console himself with one thing as he faces Tuesday’s historic contest: 2021 is not 2003, by far, Davis said. One major difference is the political makeup of California, where Democrats today hold a 2-1 advantage over the Republican Party. As the faces of Newsom recall, “there are about 5 million more Democrats than Republicans,” Davis said. “All of this has happened over the past 18 years. “

Davis also had a Hollywood-sized problem with Schwarzenegger, at the time the world’s greatest action hero, who shocked the political world with a last-minute jump in the race.

By comparison, Davis was the opposite, his first name “Gray” often said to reflect his personality. At a time when public service was seen as a plus, he was a member of the assembly, state comptroller and lieutenant governor before rising to the highest office, spanning a political career spanning several decades. His background was a highlight, but he also made headlines when the state’s energy crisis and blackouts hit.

“Schwarzenegger was a megastar in 2003,” Davis recalls. “He had campaigned around the world the previous six months for ‘Terminator III’… I’ll fix that,” Davis said with a laugh. “You just couldn’t find a bigger, famous action hero known around the world – and married to the Kennedy family.”

Davis had just been re-elected in 2002, but it was far from a term. Political insiders saw it as a somewhat cynical victory as Davis attacked his most dangerous Republican opponent, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, in the GOP primary. It helped conservative Republican Bill Simon qualify for the general election, an easier candidate to beat.

In 2003, California was facing budget problems and trying to solve its energy problems. Davis increased the state’s vehicle tax to help increase revenue. A generous deal on civil servants’ pensions had started to backfire. And companies were frustrated with soaring workers’ compensation costs – enough for the California Chamber of Commerce to approve the recall and Schwarzenegger, a rare rebuke to a sitting governor.

Davis’ approval ratings were much lower than Newsom’s today. In August 2003, Davis’s rating was at an all-time low with 72 percent disapproval of his job performance, according to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. And 58% of the likely voters wanted to oust him.

By comparison, 53% of voters approve of Newsom and only 39% of likely voters want to withdraw it, according to a PPIC poll released this month. And the influential California Chamber of Commerce took no position on the recall election.

Davis’s ouster came in the wake of an energy crisis that resulted in progressive blackouts across the state – as energy giants attempted to gamble with the system for bigger profits. “We just couldn’t keep the lights on, and I had real problems explaining to average voters why I was mad at Enron and the other energy companies,” Davis said. “Voters never received a bill from Enron; they got an invoice from PG&E or Edison. “

It was only after the recall that he was informed by reporters of a video “of an Enron official asking a Las Vegas factory to go down, creating a blackout in San Francisco, “in an attempt to drive up prices, he said. “If this video had come out sooner,” it too could have tipped the small margin in its favor, Davis says.

And the 2003 recall had another big difference: an experienced Democratic candidate in the replacement arena. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante entered the contest, believing voters were likely to impeach the governor and Democrats would want an alternative in that case. He was right, but the plurality did not choose him.

Newsom and State Democrats, perhaps aware of this result, have been successful in discouraging any prominent Democrats with experience in government from running. They then urged Democratic voters to vote “no” on the recall and ignore the replacement ballot altogether.

In the end, Bustamante got 31%, “and exit polls showed about a third of its voters voted yes on the recall,” Davis noted. “If Bustamente hadn’t shown up, maybe I would have won.”

Newsom has benefited from the main party surrogates – the senses. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden. Former President Barack Obama appeared in ads last week for Newsom.

California voters remain particularly concerned about issues of homelessness, housing and public safety, a Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies revealed earlier this year. But Davis said Newsom has shown itself to be a strong and capable force, especially when it comes to its handling of the Delta variant, with mask and vaccine mandates that enjoy strong support.

Davis warns that even with polls looking good, he’s far from relaxed about what will happen on Tuesday. He’s been there.

“A recall election is a weird duck,” he said. “It’s different… and this one takes place at a time when Californians have been asked a lot – to get vaccinated, to wear masks, to distance themselves socially, to be safe to send your child back to school. school. There’s a lot going on. “

“So I don’t blow champagne corks,” he said. “I just think you have to keep the metal pedal on election night, and see how it goes.”