Needed: One (precisely one) white knight

Gray Davis, backed by California’s public-employee unions, seems to have persuaded much of the party leadership that the whole crew ought to go down with his sinking ship. Warren Christopher, fresh from his foreign-policy triumphs under Clinton and his victory on behalf of Al Gore in the Florida recount, warns of “chaos” if the recall passes. (*) Well, he should know. And my own State Senator, Sheila Kuehl (played by Zelda Gilroy), seems to have confused the Gray Ghost with Dobie Gillis.

Polls show Davis losing, which makes sense to me. After all, he barely beat the village idiot in November, and nothing since has increased his popularity.

Under California’s bizarre recall system, the voters will decide two questions on the same day: first, whether to throw the rascal out, and second, whom to replace him with if he is thrown out. Voters can vote in the beauty contest regardless of how they vote on the recall question, and there’s no runoff: the one with the most votes is governor, which in a big field (no primary, $3500 to file) could mean someone getting 20%.

So the Democrats had better line up a candidate — and it better be exactly one candidate — for Phase II. It’s by no means a hopeless situation, because the Republicans are likely to be split: Darrell Issa, who just spent more than a million bucks of his own money to gather the signatures, clearly thinks he has the right to make the race, but even without his criminal record (which the Davis forces have already tried to slime him with, despite the absence of any convictions) his wing-nut tendencies are likely to be too much for what’s left of the California Republican moderates to ride with. Dick Riordan might jump in again. And then there’s Aaaaaahhhnold.

So someone could win this thing for the Democrats. But we can’t run “player to be named later.” We need a body.

The ideal candidate would:

1. Have enormous name recognition.

2. Have enthusiastic supporters who will come out in what is likely to be a light-turnout special election. (Doesn’t matter much how many people hate him as long as a lot of people love him.)

3. Be able to raise money.

4. Not be associated in the voters’ minds with the current mess.

5. Not have anything to fear from Davis in case Davis manages to squeak through.

Does that suggest a name to you?

Right. But he’s not a California resident, there’s a five-year residency requirement, and Hillary would probably strangle him if he tried it.

So who else is there? So far, Davis has scared all the Democrats away. But there’s a huge first-mover advantage in this sort of game: the argument against splitting the vote is a strong one, and it’s available to the first serious candidate into the ring.

So who’s available?

I still like Leon Panetta. Like many thoughtful people, he opposed the recall on general principles. But now that it’s a fact, he might be persuaded to try his luck. (He openly considered running for governor in 1998, but let DiFi bluff him out of it.) Popular in Silicon Valley, which he represented in Congress, so the money side should be OK. Squeaky-clean, which is a plus, and he can claim some of the credit for Clinton’s getting the federal budget in order. Would probably be a terrific governor, from what I hear. Biggest problem: not a household name statewide.

Those in the know in Sacramento seem to like Dede Alpert, a State Senator from San Diego who wins consistently in a heavily Republican district. She’s apparently very well thought of as a workhorse legislator. Gender might help if she turned out to be the only woman among a bunch of men. Not much name recognition, and there’s doubt about her ability to raise money. She also has to worry about what would happen if Davis survived: he’s known to be incredibly vindictive.

Henry Cisneros has moved to LA and is running Univision. The Clinton connection, and his own mini-scandal, clearly don’t help, but he had a very good reputation both in Texas and in Washington. If he could bring out a big Latino vote, he would be very hard to stop in a special election unless the Republicans could unite behind a single non-crazy candidate. Head-to-head with Issa, my money would be on Cisneros. [Update: I’m told Cisneros has moved back to Texas. Too bad.]

Other names aren’t hard to come up with. Two that come right to mind are Howard Berman, a very smart Congressman from LA who used to run (with Henry Waxman) the dominant political machine on LA’s Westside, spent a long time in Sacramento before moving to Washington, and has strong ties to the entertainment industry, and Al Checchi, who self-destructed in his previous governor’s race but could pay for his own campaign. Berman would probably be a great governor; Checchi might be a disastrous one unless he can unlearn the idea that running a state is just like running a company.

In my view, any of the above could win, and any of the above would be superior to Davis and to any likely Republican candidate. The first one into the race is welcome to use my house on Mulholland Drive for a fund-raiser.

Update Virginia Postrel nominates Kathleen Connell.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com