Losing One for the Gipper

Oakland Republican celebrity and NAACP official Shannon Reeves watches as his Grand Old Party destroys what Reagan built.

Because we’re living in the midst of one of the most profound political transformations of any state in recent history, we may not have sufficient distance to truly appreciate how far to the left California has lurched in so short a time. But outsiders who remember the days of Ronald Reagan and George Deukmejian must surely gape at how toxic the soil has grown for their heirs. Once upon a time, an army of transplanted Midwestern defense workers built themselves a clean, white paradise in God’s Country, capping property taxes, casting Rose Bird into purgatory, and letting a thousand gated subdivisions bloom far from the inner cities of the East Coast. Now, a new army of urban hipsters, dot-com centrist Democrats, and Latino immigrants spurred on by Pete Wilson’s race-baiting has routed the Reagan foot soldiers, enacted social legislation that would make Saul Alinsky drool, and sent thousands of aging, conservative retirees fleeing into the hinterlands of Idaho. All in, what, ten years? Can it really be less than a decade since Willie Brown was fighting to keep his job as speaker of the Assembly?

Now we’re witnessing the last symptom of the California Republican Party’s terminal illness. When a party is thoroughly out of power, it falls prey to more than just despair; it actually grows stupid. A bizarre brain drain has afflicted the state Republican leadership. Its talent pool has dried up, and those few conservatives left display none of the deft political instincts of a Lee Atwater. While national Republicans continue to think up clever new ways to get and keep power (how cleverly they use it is, of course, another story), California’s right wing is busy devouring itself in internecine squabbles. The only innovation it has been able to think up is how to sabotage the basic workings of government and cast us into unprecedented chaos. Unfortunately, the laws of California make it only too easy to do that.

Standing in the center of the Republicans’ suicide spree is none other than Oakland’s own Shannon Reeves. Armed with the copious political capital that is the birthright of black conservatives, this Castlemont High graduate returned from college determined to remake Oakland in the image of Dallas. He seized the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from its old, moribund leadership, preached a gospel of no-nonsense bootstrapping to young black men and women, and forged a partnership with Chevron to build two strip malls in East Oakland, suggesting a new, corporate strategy to revitalize the inner city. Reeves has so charmed the conservative establishment that last year the Washington Times spent 2,687 words kissing his ass.

But despite the glowing profile, life hasn’t been as easy for Reeves as it once seemed it might be when he blew back into town in the ’90s. His bid for mayor of Oakland went nowhere, his 98th Avenue strip mall is still an empty ghost town, and last month, an unexpected torrent of frustration flowed from Reeves on the heels of the Trent Lott controversy. As retirement approached for Shawn Steel, the idiotic state party chair who recently vowed to organize a recall campaign against any Republican legislator who voted for a tax hike, vice chair Bill Back made a push to replace him. Back’s opponents promptly discovered that several years ago, Back distributed a pamphlet speculating about what might have happened if the South had won the Civil War. (In case anyone’s wondering, life apparently would have been much better.) A furious Reeves distributed an open letter to Republican luminaries, in which he finally disclosed his private fury about the party’s continuing flirtation with racists.

“I am sick and tired of being embarrassed by elected Republican officials who have no sensitivity for issues that alienate whole segments of our population,” Reeves wrote. “Not only do I have to sit in rooms and behave professionally towards Republicans who share this heinous ideology, I have to go home to a hostile environment where I’m called an ‘Uncle Tom’ and maligned as a sellout to my community because I’m a member of the Republican Party. … When I travel to speak at Republican conferences and events around the country, wandering through hotels, convention centers, and clubs, as I approach the rooms where I’m scheduled to speak, I am often told by Republicans that I must be in the wrong place. … As a Bush delegate at the 2000 convention in Philadelphia, I proudly wore my delegate’s badge and RNC pin on my lapel as I worked the convention. Regardless of the fact that I was obviously a delegate prominently displaying my credentials, no less than six times did white delegates dismissively tell me to fetch them a taxi or carry their luggage.”

Reeves’ letter prompted a no less angry retort from Back supporter Randy Ridgel, who called him a “bombastic gasbag.” Ridgel declared, “You owe Bill Back an apology, but from what I’ve heard, you’re not man enough to give it. Just for the record, one of my true heroes is Ward Connerly; read his book if you want to learn how to conduct yourself as a real man, black or white. Your sniveling letter makes me sick, young man; you are a superstar because you are a black Republican, and you love it. Now I wonder if you can make it as just a Republican … like the rest of us. And don’t try any of that Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters racist garbage on me.”

It was an ugly, public spat, but it merely underscored the GOP’s terrible straits in California. The Democrats have 1.4 million more registered party members, comfortable majorities in both the Senate and the Assembly, and every single statewide office as of the November elections. There is simply no there there for the Republican Party; its organizing apparatus is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Consider the following luminaries of the modern Republican Party: radio host Bruce Herschensohn, who ran against Barbara Boxer in 1992; oil magnate Michael Huffington, who challenged Dianne Feinstein in 1996; and, of course, businessman Bill Simon, who couldn’t even beat Gray Davis in last year’s gubernatorial campaign. All of these people either self-financed their campaigns or relied on name recognition as their primary selling point, following a long trend that began with Ronald Reagan and may eventually give us Arnold Schwarzenegger. Except for Simon, who worked briefly as a deputy US attorney, none of them rose through party ranks or cut their teeth in government — none of them ever actually governed anything.

This is the modern legacy of the California Republican Party. Being so dramatically locked out of power, many Republican legislators seem to have forgotten that governing — tackling budget deficits, improving the schools, or devising strategies to lure businesses to California — involves compromise, negotiation, and sometimes forcing the public to swallow difficult pills like taxes or cuts in services. As a result, they have replaced responsible management and party-building with cheap populist stunts. Stunts such as the recall campaign.

In fact, no fewer than three different individuals are working on their own recall campaigns against Governor Gray Davis, who is just one month into his second term. Howard Kaloogian, the former Republican state assemblyman, has hooked up with right-wing KSFO talk show host Melanie Morgan to mount his own recall drive, which seems merely designed to give talk radio junkies something to gab about at the water cooler. Loose-cannon Democrat Pat Caddell, former pollster for Jerry Brown, has been floating the recall notion around since the election. But Ted Costa, the antitax activist and onetime protégé of Proposition 13 godfather Paul Gann, is mounting the most serious drive to hound Davis out of office.

According to Tony Andrade, a consultant for Costa’s organization People’s Advocate, Davis should be recalled because he’s, like, bad. “The primary reason is that Davis has mismanaged state funds,” Andrade says. “He has not been able to handle the pressures and challenges that have come to him.” Specifically, the recall petition states, “The grounds of the recall are as follows: Gross mismanagement of California finances by overspending taxpayer money; threatening public safety by cutting funds to local government; failing to account for the exorbitant costs of the energy fiasco; and failing in general to deal with the state’s major problems until they get to the crisis stage.”

In short, Davis spends too much money and couldn’t figure out how to handle the energy crisis. But a recall is the political equivalent of capital punishment, for which there should presumably be a capital offense: taking $100,000 bribes from Howard Hughes, or breaking into your opponents’ psychiatrist’s office, that sort of thing. Recalling a governor because you don’t like his fiscal philosophy — especially while he is trying to deal with a terrible budget crisis — is just plain goofy, as Republican minority leader Dave Cox tacitly acknowledged last week when he announced his opposition to the campaign.

And that’s the difference between Costa and Cox: The latter actually has to help govern California. He knows that managing the sixth-largest economy in the world is, you know, complicated. Costa, on the other hand, specializes in sowing mischief at the ballot box through a series of initiatives with populist appeal but disastrous consequences. Over the years, he has helped push Proposition 13 (which gutted the public schools), term limits (which, far from producing a generation of Jeffersonian citizen legislators, turned the Senate and Assembly into a gaggle of idiotic rookies constantly looking toward their next job), and an initiative to make English the official language of California (which had no practical consequences but whose campaign stoked racial animus, apparently out of pure spite). Costa’s experience in government is limited to a stint on his local water board, but his talent for maliciously building structural crutches into the mechanics of government, while masquerading as a populist champion, is considerable.

Despite the obvious folly of the recall campaign, it could actually work. Costa has roughly 160 days to collect 900,000 signatures, but all he needs is one right-wing zealot with a lot of money to pay petitioners, and his work is done. “The stupidest idea can get on the ballot,” observes UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. “You can put a measure on the ballot to make the state flag pink. You cannot discount the possibility that some right-winger will have enough money to get it on the ballot.”

Does anyone doubt that somewhere in California, there’s a Darryl Issa or Richard Mellon Scaife who will jump at the chance to spend enough money to bring the state to a grinding halt, just because his boy didn’t win in November? Some eccentric for whom the fabric of civil society is less important than the imperative to win at all costs, who has the resources to jeopardize the basic functions of state government in pursuit of some hyperpartisan fantasy? As for what the ballot would look like, brace yourselves for the most surreal aspect to this lunacy yet. If Davis is recalled, the voters will have to simultaneously pick his replacement — circumventing the party primary system and allowing any party member to throw his hat in the ring. That means that forty candidates could appear on the ballot, and whoever gets the most votes wins, even if they win only 7 percent of the vote. Pat Buchanan, Gary Coleman, that Joe Millionaire guy — any schmuck with a smidgeon of name recognition could be our next governor, if the field of candidates is wide enough.

California has a history of inventing far too many of the moronic ideas that afflict modern government and then exporting these plagues to the rest of the country. From tax revolts and term limits to three-strikes laws, our state’s systematic abuse of the initiative process has done this country no favors over the last thirty years. (At least Pete Wilson’s innovation with immigrant-bashing had the happy side effect of dashing his party on the rocks of demographic change).

And now comes the recall effort. If this idea catches on, every state in the union could soon paralyze itself with small-minded recalls, all thanks to California. And if the Republicans pull this off, what’s to stop the Democrats from doing the same thing? As clichéd as this sounds, stunts like this coarsen state politics and contribute to public cynicism, which depresses voter turnout. And the number of signatures you need to put a recall item on the ballot is a proportion of turnout in the last election. That means that the more irresponsible recall drives succeed, the easier it is to pull off the next irresponsible recall drive.

But that’s what happens when one side of the political spectrum finds itself stripped of innovation, creativity, and popular support. A century ago, Governor Hiram Johnson’s initiative and recall reforms were designed to wrest power from the state’s railroad barons. Today, in the hands of a strongly motivated but politically isolated few, they are simply a way to play at politics without having to do the heavy lifting of building a party machine.

Shannon Reeves, who has dedicated himself to building such an institution in the most unlikely place, must surely be cringing again.

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