California Democrats are attempting to mobilize Jewish communal leaders against the recall of Governor Gray Davis as part of an apparent bid to deflect attention from Davis’s record to the question of whether recalling a sitting governor serves the state’s stability.
Plans are in the works for a July 8 news conference at which a host of community leaders, including rabbis, business leaders and organizational heads, will declare their opposition to a recall. No participants had been confirmed at press time, however.
In addition, the Democrats are seeking to shore up Jewish voter support by highlighting Davis’s record on issues of Jewish concern and attempting to paint the recall’s main sponsor, Rep. Darrell Issa of San Diego, as an “extremist” with supposed ties to Yasser Arafat and Hezbollah.
Issa, a conservative Republican of Lebanese descent, has participated in informal Middle East diplomacy, including a meeting with Arafat last April. However, he told the Forward in an interview that he was a “friend of Israel” and had met with Arafat mainly to secure his cooperation in President Bush’s peace initiative.
“Israel couldn’t have a better friend than a Lebanese-American kid who grew up in Cleveland Heights and worked for a rabbi,” Issa said. He added that he has two sisters married to Jewish men.
The recall effort is based on a 1911 California law under which a sitting governor may be recalled through a special statewide election if a minimum number of petitions is submitted to the state. The measure has never been invoked successfully against a statewide official.
Analysts say the current recall effort, a signature drive spearheaded by several anti-Davis groups, appears almost certain to win a place on the ballot, having collected 376,000 signatures, about half the 897,158 total it needs by September 2. Davis won a second term last November against Bill Simon Jr., a conservative Republican, but his handling of the state’s $38 billion budget deficit and energy woes have caused his popularity to plummet.
Democrats, after initially dismissing the recall effort as unrealistic, have begun mobilizing in the last three weeks as the petition drive has gathered steam. Strategists fear that while most voters oppose the recall in principle, according to surveys, a majority might vote against Davis if the referendum is held simply because he is unpopular.
“It would be a terrible precedent to start recalling the governor whenever his popularity dips,” said Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, the dean of the informal Jewish caucus in Congress. “It could lead to a lot of instability.” That, he said “is what the constitutional officers want to avoid,” referring to state officials who have announced their opposition to appearing on the ballot.
The recall effort, Waxman said, amounts to “a coup d’etat.”
Jewish communal leaders considered likely to appear at the July 8 press conference include current and past officers of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, national board members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and several of the state’s most prominent rabbis.
Democrats appear to be hoping that if their appeal is cast as an issue of good government rather than partisan support for the Democratic governor, the way will be clear for endorsements from religious and philanthropic leaders who are barred from endorsing candidates.
In one indication of the strategy’s long odds, however, a Democratic strategist who holds a key position with a California Jewish institution and discussed the issue with the Forward asked that his Jewish affiliation be kept off the record.
California Jewish Republicans, for their part, appear reluctant to speak out against the Democratic push to mobilize Jewish community leaders. The reluctance appeared to reflect the views of the White House, which has signaled that it thinks the recall could harm Republican prospects in the Golden State.
Bruce Bialosky, an activist in the Republican Jewish Coalition and a major fundraiser for President Bush, told the Forward flatly that he did not think the recall effort is worthwhile.
“I feel our efforts are better focused on re-electing the president and electing a new senator,” he said, adding, “My understanding is that the White House is staying away from this. That might be a statement in itself.”
But according to Bialosky, Davis richly deserves to lose his office, because he “did blatantly distort the financial position of this state.”
Issa is undeterred by the lack of national Republican support for his effort. “Some people would like to sit back and allow the governor to twist in the wind so that Republicans can sweep in and win elections,” he said. “That’s not wrong in terms of politics, but I have to view it in terms of the damage done to California.”
Pro-Davis activists offer a long list of positions they say should endear the governor to Jewish voters. “The Jewish community has always been of great importance to this governor,” a spokesman for Taxpayers Against the Governor’s Recall, Eric Bauman, told the Forward. “He has worked hard on issues dealing with the Jewish community, from compensation for Holocaust victims, to funding important community programs like the Museum of Tolerance, to setting up a trade office in Israel. The issues of importance to the Jewish community remain at the top of the governor’s concerns especially at a time the person leading the campaign against him believes Hezbollah is not a terror organization, but a social organization.”
Bauman went on to call Issa “an extremist in every sense of the word — in relation to his position on Israel and Yasser Arafat and Hezbollah and the like, in his position on the right to choice, assault weapons and offshore oil drilling. This guy is so far out of the mainstream, the only way he could become governor of California is to do what he’s trying to do, which is get an election with a sliver of the electorate.”
Issa, a self-made man who earned millions selling car alarms, has contributed some $1 million of his own funds to the recall, using the effort as a platform to launch his own campaign for governor. In a telephone interview with the Forward, Issa called much of the Democrats’ attack on him a “lie” and a “smear” and said he had a “100% pro-Israel voting record.”
Waxman confirmed that while Issa has “a consistent far-right conservative voting record,” his votes on Middle East issues have been supportive of Israel. Other Democrats interviewed for this article agreed.
Davis has enjoyed broad support from Jews from the earliest days of his career, when he was an assemblyman representing West Los Angeles and Westwood, areas with large Jewish populations. A Los Angeles Times poll after the 2002 election found that Jews, who comprise about 5% of the voters in the Golden State, had given 69% of their vote to Davis. Bauman called that the “second-largest voting bloc” Davis earned in that contest.
“Many in the Jewish community are outraged by this recall attempt,” said Coby King, a political consultant with close ties to the Jewish organizational community. “It’s not only bad public policy and a waste of taxpayer money, but it strikes at a governor who has been great for the Jewish community and steadfast in his support for Israel.”
Bauman said Taxpayers Against the Governor’s Recall is “reaching out” to a long list of prominent figures for its Jewish community press conference, but had not confirmed their participation. The names he cited include Rabbi Allen Freehling of the University Synagogue, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and Harvey Fields, emeritus rabbi of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, all in Los Angeles; Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center-Museum of Tolerance; Jona Goldrich, the chairman of the Holocaust Era Insurance Claims Oversight Commission; Jake Farber, the chairman of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; former federation presidents Irwin Field and Annette Shapiro; Aipac board members Richard Ziman and Howard Welinsky, and media moguls Haim Saban, Norm Pattiz and Daphna Edwards, Ziman’s wife.
Ziman told the Forward that the Jewish community is incensed at the recall drive because it is hurting the state by “not allowing the governor to govern.”
“It’s a shande, as my father would say,” he said. “The man has committed no crimes. The man has not misled in any serious way. It’s an opportunistic Republican move to take advantage of the fiscal situation and energy situation.”