May 12, 2003
Issa's bid to recall governor questioned
Vista Republican's intentions unclear
By John Marelius
and DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
What is Darrell Issa up to?
That is the question preoccupying California political circles as the wealthy Republican congressman from Vista appears to be hijacking the struggling grass-roots effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis.
Republicans are confident Issa and his political team have the wherewithal to force a recall election against the governor, but are perplexed by conflicting statements as to what Issa's intentions are.
On Thursday, Issa donated $100,000 to his new committee, "Rescue California, Recall Gray Davis," to kick-start a paid signature-gathering campaign out of concern that other recall efforts were moving too slowly.
Republican legislators say they have been told Issa would collect $1.5 million to $2 million in donations from himself and others, which political professionals say would be enough to get the job done. The signatures of 897,158 registered California voters must be collected by Sept. 2 to force a special recall election.
Recall proponents contend Davis should be ousted because he concealed the magnitude of the state's fiscal crisis to win re-election last year. But the two original recall committees – one directed by anti-tax crusader Ted Costa and the other by Sal Russo, who managed Republican Bill Simon's losing campaign for governor – have collected 100,000 signatures with one-fifth of the allotted time elapsed.
There is little question Issa could bankroll the entire paid signature-gathering effort. He spent nearly $10 million of his own money to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1998. He sold the car alarm company that made him wealthy before he ran for the House in 2000.
Yet, in an interview from his Washington office Thursday, Issa was equivocal about how much money there would be and where it would come from.
"I expect not to be the largest contributor," he said, adding that he expected to give "less than a majority of the money."
Issa has also contradicted himself in recent weeks about his intention to run as a candidate to replace Davis if there is a recall election.
In the interview, he said, "The only thing that would take me off the ballot at this point is if I found a candidate I preferred."
As to whom he might prefer to himself, Issa did not say.
Issa insists he is driven by altruistic motives.
"I became convinced that whatever I did in Washington . . . was being undone in Sacramento," Issa said. "We couldn't send enough money back to meet the incredible overspending that was going on with Gray Davis."
The political consideration that Issa professes not to be thinking about is this: He has nothing to lose but money. He would not have to relinquish his House seat to run for governor in a special election.
"He's been after statewide office," said congressional expert Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at UCSD. "This is an opportunity for him to get some statewide attention that he otherwise doesn't get."
The more conventional career path would be to take another run against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer next year. But Issa has quickly made a mark in the House and may not want to leave it behind.
Although just beginning his second term, he landed a coveted seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"People fight to get on this committee, and they fight mightily," said Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin, the Republican committee chairman. "The people who make it are pretty much the cream of the crop."
Issa, who is of Lebanese descent, has also emerged as an unofficial foreign policy emissary for the Bush administration. He met last month with Syrian President Bashar Assad and said he received assurances that Syria would not offer asylum to Iraqi war criminals.
As for the recall, there is no consensus among Republicans as to whether it is in their interests, despite their disdain for Davis.
A recall election would be a two-part vote. Voters would cast a yes or no vote on whether to remove Davis. Then they would choose from among a list of candidates from all political parties for a replacement. There is no runoff; whoever gets the most votes becomes governor.
"The recall is the easy part. Then what?" said one Republican legislator who worries about a weakened, unpopular Davis being replaced by a stronger Democrat who would be well-positioned to win a full term in 2006.
That, Issa said, is not his problem.
"That's a distinctly separate fight from the question of has the governor crossed the line, and should he be considered for recall," he said.
Issa's emergence has already made him a target.
Bob Mulholland, campaign strategist for the California Democratic Party, has been bombarding newspapers and radio stations with e-mails reminding them of controversies about Issa's past that surfaced in 1998: a car theft indictment as a youth, a suspicious fire at his manufacturing plant and charges that he once brandished a gun at employees.
"If he applied for a teacher's job in any of our schools, he'd have to put all this stuff down," Mulholland said. "He's applying for governor – so, of course, this is going to be an issue."
Responded Issa: "I must be a candidate if I'm being beaten up like that."
Issa's interest in the gubernatorial recall seems to come as more of a surprise in California than it does in Washington, where he has been discussing it with colleagues for a number of weeks.
"Lately, we've had a pretty good sense that this was going to happen," said Rick Kykema, chief of staff to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Newport Beach Republican. Tauzin said Issa told him he might be a candidate for governor.
Other House colleagues seemed reluctant to discuss Issa's role until it becomes clear there will be a recall election.
"It's not at the point where people are expressing opinions one way or the other," said one House Republican staffer who asked not to be named. "They're not saying, 'Yeah, Darrell, go for it.' And they're not saying, 'No, Darrell, that's a dumb idea.' "
During the April trip to Damascus, Issa confided that he had to return to the United States for an important political errand "and that it related to the recall movement," said Rep. Nick Rahall, the West Virginia Democrat who traveled with Issa.
"He didn't specifically tell me that he wanted to run for governor," Rahall said. "But I could surmise as much."
One chief of staff to a California congressman said Issa has made it clear for a while that he was interested in some day running for governor.
"He's used to having been in a chief executive position in his company," the chief of staff said, "and the governor's office has interested him from that standpoint for quite a long time now."