July 16, 2003
State Democrats discussing 'caretaker' in case of recall
Candidate would serve only rest of Davis' term
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
and John Marelius
WASHINGTON – Confronted with the likelihood that Gov. Gray Davis will face a recall election, California's congressional Democrats are talking about uniting behind an alternative candidate on the recall ballot.
They are contemplating trying to enlist a prominent Democrat who could keep fellow Democrats with gubernatorial ambitions from running by promising to serve only the rest of Davis' term and not run for a full term in 2006.
Though big-name Democrats say they won't be candidates to replace Davis, lawmakers at a meeting last week with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said she expressed concern about the recall and urged colleagues to consider which Democrat could prevent a Republican from becoming governor.
"(Pelosi) talked about the reality and the seriousness of this (recall), and I think there's support in the delegation for figuring out who is the Democrat who can win and getting behind that person," said one House member who attended the meeting, a weekly luncheon held by California's congressional Democrats.
But Rep. Mike Thompson, a Napa Democrat at the meeting, said Pelosi indicated that the best way to keep a Democrat in office is to keep Davis there – by beating the recall.
"I think Nancy's unequivocal issue was that the day after that recall election takes place, if there is one, we need to have a Democrat in the chief executive's office in California," Thompson said.
A spokeswoman for Pelosi said the congresswoman would not comment on private meetings with her colleagues. Pelosi has publicly predicted that Davis will beat the recall.
But one Democratic strategist acknowledged that party leaders are talking about a "caretaker" candidate – someone such as Leon Panetta, a former congressman and White House chief of staff under President Clinton.
"You hear a lot of whispering, talking in the hierarchy of the Democratic Party establishment (about): 'Is there a caretaker approach to this?' " said Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick. "And Leon is the person that is talked about. And given his resume with a lot of experience doing budgets, there's this logic that he would be a good person to be in there as a three-year caretaker."
A one-time Republican, Panetta was director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration and chaired the House Budget Committee.
Panetta, who now directs a public-policy institute at California State University Monterey Bay, could not be reached for comment.
Some Democratic staffers said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante also have been mentioned as caretaker candidates, though both have said they won't run.
A spokesman for Taxpayers Against the Governor's Recall dismissed the idea of Democrats drafting one of their own for the recall ballot, noting that polls show voters are less inclined to recall the governor if they have no Democratic alternative.
"There's no reason for any other Democrat to enter the race," spokesman Carroll Wills said. "The united front that's been put forth by all Democrats is the right way to go." He called that solidarity "a statement about how the recall process is being misused."
Recall backers say they have enough signatures to force a recall election this fall. Voters would be asked if Davis should be removed from office and, if so, who should replace him.
The only announced Republican seeking to replace Davis is Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, who has spent $1.71 million of his own money on the recall drive. But other Republicans appear interested – including 2002 gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks – raising the prospect that two or more candidates would split the GOP votes on a recall ballot.
Issa spokesman Jonathan Wilcox said last week's discussion among congressional Democrats indicates "that desperation is in the air."
"The recall is under way, the citizen movement can't be stopped, and the inevitable result is that there will be a new governor," Wilcox said.
No Democrat has stepped forward as a recall candidate, including statewide elected officials such as Bustamante, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and state Treasurer Phil Angelides, who are expected to run in 2006.
But many Democratic strategists believe Democrats need a name on the ballot to prevent a Republican from taking the governor's seat.
Lawmakers at last week's meeting said Pelosi expressed the same concern. "She stood up, and she said he (Davis) is history," said one congressman, who added that several people in the room were startled by Pelosi's candor.
One California Democratic strategist agreed that Pelosi "was pretty adamant about it – that Gray was toast."
Several sources said Democrats at the meeting discussed drafting a caretaker candidate who would serve the remainder of Davis' term but would not seek office in 2006.
One California Democratic strategist questioned whether anybody would be willing to tackle the state's budget crisis and then forgo the opportunity to run for a full term and govern in better economic times.
"Why would Leon want to do that, or anybody like Leon?" the strategist said