There was a common reaction when word spread this week that the state prison guards’ union was threatening a recall effort against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most Capitol watchers dismissed the talk as part of an ongoing public relations war between the union and the governor. But in the post-Gray Davis-recall world, few seem willing to completely write off the possibility that the effort may be for real.
While the Schwarzenegger administration downplays the seriousness of the threat, his political team snapped to attention this week, sending out press releases, organizing conference calls with reporters, and encouraging surrogates to send out statements of support for the governor.
The speedy – and angry — reaction may stem, at least in part, from the long-standing enmity between Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, and the prison officers. It also reflects the governor’s lagging popularity—more Californians disapprove than approve of his job performance, polls say, and more than two-thirds don’t like the direction in which the state is headed.
The California Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, and California State Association of Counties were among the groups that sent such statements to reporters at Team Schwarzenegger’s request.
“This is a union that has a history of throwing a lot of money at political issues,” said Schwarzenegger political adviser and former communications director Adam Mendelsohn. “We can’t be so naïve as to think it’s not serious.”
And in the post-Gray Davis era, the recall has become a political weapon that everyone must take seriously. If the union spends money to actually qualify the recall for the ballot, experts say, anything could happen. Few took the Davis recall seriously until Republican Congressman Darrell Issa forked up the money to qualify the recall for the ballot. CCPOA could qualify the measure on its own, say union leaders, but the effort to oust the governor would take a broader coalition.
“On one hand, the last seven governors have had recall papers served against them,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “On the other hand, only the last two servers were really, really, really rich.”
When asked if he saw any connection between the Davis recall and the Schwarzenegger administration, Schnur said, “No. That’s not to say it can’t happen again, but it’s not going to happen in the same way or for the same reasons.”
“We understand that it’s going to be very, very expensive,” CCPOA spokesman Lance Corcoran told the New York Times. “We know that we have some heavy lifting. We’re up against a multimillionaire with multimillionaire friends. But we have not been shy about putting what we think is necessary to run a successful campaign.”
For now, the recall talk is merely the latest chapter in a three-year war between the union and the Schwarzenegger administration.
The union served Gov. Schwarzenegger with formal notice that the recall was under way late Tuesday. The notice accused the governor of “Catastrophic leadership failings and inept management, including, but not limited to, repeated acts of untrustworthiness, gross fiscal mismanagement jeopardizing funding for schools, infrastructure, public safety and other essential services; reckless borrowing, saddling taxpayers and future generations of Californians with billions of dollars in new debt.”
The union also accuses the governor of “soliciting and accepting special interest money at levels never before seen in California history.”
During a call with reporters Tuesday, Mendelsohn suggested a number of motivations for the CCPOA effort.
Mendelsohn suggested the recall threat is inspired by a union effort to secure a pay raise from the Legislature, that it is part of a ploy by union President Mike Jimenez to secure support going into next week’s union elections, and that it may even be part of an effort to derail the governor’s redistricting initiative in November.
“Whether or not this has anything to do with union elections next week, I can’t say,” said Mendelsohn, who raised the issue without being asked. “It may play some role here in terms of the motivation.”
Later in the call, Mendelsohn was more overt. “It’s obviously to everybody what the motivation is,” he said. “This is a special-interest political play. This is not about CCPOA’s rank and file. This is about CCPOA’s current leadership.”
Mendelsohn noted that “CCPOA’s first move was to put half a million dollars into Don Perata’s committee (against) Proposition 11,” he said. “Nobody really knows whether the strategies are intermingled or separate.”
An anti-Jimenez blog, OfficersForChange.com, blasted Jimenez for the PErata contribution. The Web site is registered to Raul Garcia, a Corcoran prison guard and one of the candidates running against Jimenez for the union presidency.
“CCPOA has contributed $602,000 to Perata to help defeat Proposition 11. Who authorized this?” the unsigned blog post states. “Proposition 11 is a redistricting measure. There is a ‘No on Prop. 11’ fund. CCPOA apparently decided that Perata would be more likely to make a difference in the failure of Proposition 11 than a fund specifically set up to defeat it, which seems strange.”
“What does Jimenez think he’s going to get from Perata for this $602,000? Certainly not a contract, since Perata’s power is disappearing fast.”
That large contribution by the union to Perata’s committee triggered the latest dust-up in the war between the union and the Schwarzenegger administration. The administration privately buzzed that the contribution to Perata was the precursor to a Perata-backed push to move an 11-th hour pay raise through the Legislature. Skeptics still say they are on the lookout for future language in a budget trailer bill that may grant a pay hike for the union.
This is the second consecutive year that the union has crossed swords with the administration at the end of a legislative session. Last year, a last-minute effort to spike the union’s pay died in a Senate committee just minutes before the Legislature adjourned. Ironically, the union blamed Perata for the pay raise’s demise.
As the political gamesmanship again heats up, what’s clear, as of now at least, is that the threat from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is not part of a larger Recall Arnold effort.
Discussions with several union and Democratic leaders, many of whom did not speak for attribution, said the recall effort is simply a CCPOA operation.
“We have not had a conversation with CCPOA on this,” said Dave Low of the California School Employees Association. “At this point, it’s a CCPOA program, and if they are serious and move it forward, we’ll see what occurs after that.
Low said the recall “popped up out of the blue this past week. Right now, our first, second and third priority is the budget.”
Other counselors to the union say this is an idea that originated with the union leadership. “We do a lot of work for them,” but they have a lot of stuff they do on their own,” said Richard Temple, the longtime political consultant to the union.
“We give them political advice at times, but not on everything they do.”