California Set to Decide Fate of Gov. Davis

By Alan Richard — October 01, 2003 6 min read
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Barring any last-minute intervention by the courts, Californians will decide next week whether to keep Gov. Gray Davis in office, and if not, who will be their new governor.

Re-elected last fall, Gov. Davis faces a recall vote Oct. 7. Critics blame him for state’s fiscal mess.

Voters had their best chance to hear from the leading recall candidates on education and a host of other issues in a gubernatorial debate last week that aired nationally on cable TV. The Sept. 24 debate included Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock, Independent Arianna Huffington, and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo.

The recall candidates are among 135 who will be listed on the Oct. 7 ballot. Others on the only-in-California list of candidates: former child actor Gary Coleman, adult-magazine publisher Larry Flynt, several educators, a Sumo wrestler, and an adult-film actress.

Anyone trying to pin down candidates’ views on education may find it difficult given the frenzied media coverage and the long list of candidates and platforms.

Three of the candidates in last week’s debate—Lt. Gov. Bustamante; Ms. Huffington, a nationally known political commentator; and Mr. Camejo—are calling for tax increases to settle a California budget deficit that has reached into the billions of dollars, affecting schools and other services. Mr. McClintock favors cutting entire state agencies to help balance the books, while Mr. Schwarzenegger promises no further education cuts and no tax increases.

California to Choose

The day before the debate, 11 judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned a ruling by a three-judge panel of the court that had sought to delay the recall election because of concerns about the use of punch-card ballots.

Voters interested in education policy have several good choices, said Kevin Gordon, the executive director of the California Association of School Business Officers, a group that does not endorse candidates.

Under Gov. Davis, public schools saw the largest funding increase in state history three years ago, earning the Democrat the endorsement of teachers’ unions when he successfully ran for re-election to a second term last year. Mr. Bustamante wrote a major bill to help schools buy textbooks, and his new tax plan would boost aid for schools, Mr. Gordon said.

Actor and top GOP candidate says he will not cut school spending or raise taxes.

Even Mr. Schwarzenegger may be appealing to many educators, Mr. Gordon said. Famous for his roles in the action film “The Terminator” and its sequels, the bodybuilder-turned-actor helped win voter approval last year for a ballot measure on after-school programs and shows impressive political skills, Mr. Gordon said.

“They all have their pluses, which makes all of us in education fairly optimistic,” he added.

The California Teachers Association, a 335,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association, opposes the recall of Gov. Davis, but has endorsed Mr. Bustamante just in case.

"[Gov. Davis] may not be the most popular person in California, but ... this is not a popularity contest,” said Barbara Kerr, the teachers’ union president and an elementary school teacher from Riverside. “This is about governing the state.”

The decision by Ms. Kerr’s powerful group to support Mr. Bustamante as a fallback candidate reflects the fact that the union has worked with him for years during his service as a state legislator.

“He has stood with us against vouchers, for class-size reduction, for facility bonds to build schools in this state,” Ms. Kerr said.

The other major teachers’ union, the California Federation of Teachers, likewise opposes the recall but supports Lt. Gov. Bustamante should Gov. Davis be ousted. The group is an American Federation of Teachers affiliate.

In addition to the recall election, voters will decide Oct. 7 the fate of Proposition 54, which would curb state collection of data on its citizens by race and ethnicity. All the major candidates, except for Mr. McClintock, have said they oppose the plan. (“Outlook Uncertain for California’s Prop. 54,” Sept. 24, 2003.)

‘It’s Outrageous’

During the Sept. 24 debate, Mr. Bustamante kept a businesslike manner that sometimes contrasted with the other candidates’ combative exchanges. He pushed his “tough love” set of tax increases on the wealthy and on sales of alcohol and cigarettes. With new taxes, the state could raise billions of dollars and provide “full funding” for public schools, he said.

Top Democratic candidate would raise some taxes to balance budget and spend more on education.

Recent polls have generally shown Mr. Bustamante with a narrow lead over Mr. Schwarzenegger.

Mr. Schwarzenegger has said publicly that he would not cut education funding, but that the state’s economy cannot recover if higher taxes are levied on residents and businesses. Known for his national campaigns on physical fitness and after-school programs, the Republican said during the debate that he could provide the leadership needed to solve the budget problems.

“On October 7, you guys are out. It’s that simple, OK?” he told Lt. Gov. Bustamante in the debate.

On education, Mr. Schwarzenegger wants to free school districts from the dozens of categorical programs required by the state. He says local officials can make better spending decisions.

Mr. Schwarzenegger accused Gov. Davis and Mr. Bustamante of allowing drastic education cuts. The Republican noted lawsuits that cite conditions in urban schools “because they have no toilets there that are flushing, paint is peeling off. If you call this equality in education, I think it is outrageous.”

Among those in the debate, Mr. McClintock, the Republican state lawmaker, touted himself as the most fiscally and socially conservative. He supports a scaled-back government, with lower taxes and fewer regulations on businesses.

Despite risk of splitting GOP votes, he vows to stay in race. Wants to eliminate “car tax” and cut spending.

Ms. Huffington, a Republican-turned-Independent, criticized her competitors’ priorities. She accused Mr. Bustamante and the governor of allowing college-tuition increases. She also panned the state’s after-school initiative championed by Mr. Schwarzenegger as useless, because it depends on extra state revenue, which is not available, to operate.

She would lift enrollment caps at state universities, favors more local control for public schools and more charter schools, and would force the state to own up to providing better educational conditions for needy students. (“Calif. Schools Lack Basics, Suit Alleges,” May 24, 2000.)

Ms. Huffington has not explained, however, how she would pay for her education measures.

Mr. Camejo of the Green Party, who ran for president as a Socialist Party nominee in the 1970s, pushed for higher income taxes for the wealthy to help the state raise money for schools: “I want to put more money into education.”

Observing the campaigns, Superintendent Dave Gordon of the 55,000-student Elk Grove, Calif., schools said that he wasn’t supporting any of the candidates publicly but wants Gov. Davis or his replacement to provide leadership during another rocky budget year.

“This whole budget situation has just left us twisting in the wind,” Superintendent Gordon said.


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