It’s the other election, the one that only a handful even know is on the horizon.
Under the radar, the recall drive against Republican Sen. Jeff Denham is coming to a head, fueled largely by Senate leader Don Perata who, ironically, was successfully challenged as leader following Tuesday’s elections in which voters rejected a plan to extend his term by another four years.
Perata and fellow Democrats gathered enough signatures to submit petitions to the five county registrars in Denham’s 12th Senate District.
The pro-recall forces turned in more than 50,000 signatures on Friday to voter registrars in Merced, Monterey, Madera, San Benito and Stanislaus counties. About half of the signatures went to Stanislaus County alone, said campaign spokesman Paul Hefner.
The group needs at least 31,000 valid signatures of registered voters living in the district, and the registrars have 30 days to validate the signatures. Recall supporters say they have sufficient valid signatures, while Republican critics of the recall say there have been irregularities in the signature gathering, and they have questioned whether enough signatures will be validated.
If the signatures prove valid, the recall election would be called by the governor. The likelihood is that it would be scheduled to coincide with the state's June primary, although that decision won't be made until the validation is completed.
Conspiracy theories have been filtering through the Capitol for weeks on the potential recall, which was prompted by Denham’s refusal to cast a vote for the 2007–08 budget after nearly two months of gridlock — a move that rankled Perata and angered other Democrats. In one scenario, Perata is using the threat of the recall to leverage support from Denham for Perata’s bill targeting the meltdown in the subprime mortgage market. Denham was a key GOP vote blocking the bill, which was rejected. The proposal is the subject of new negotiations, and the plan is expected to be resurrected in a different form by the end of March. Perata’s plan would require extended notification before foreclosure and give protection to renters of property facing foreclosure.
In another scenario, the recall has little to do with Denham’s votes or policy but simply with the Senate Democrats’ desire to add to their numbers and get closer to the magic number of 27 — which represents two-thirds of the 40-member house and is the minimum number of votes needed to approve a state budget.
Yet another view is that the recall is payback for Denham’s bitterly fought election in 2002, in which he overcame a well-financed effort by then Democratic leader John Burton on behalf of Rusty Areias of Los Banos, a well-known Central Valley lawmaker and ranking official of Gray Davis. Areias, a Democrat, was defeated.
“It could be any of those things; it could be something else nobody’s heard about. People are sort of scratching their heads and saying, ‘So what did this guy do?’ And if he hasn’t done anything, why the recall?” said one Senate staffer, a Republican.
For the recall’s backers, however, Denham’s policies in office have been significant — and Perata’s subprime bill plays a role.
“That district is at the center of the foreclosure crisis, and he aligned himself with the banking industry,” said Hefner. “I think a lot of people were surprised to see him line up with the banking industry.”
Denham spokesman Tim Clark takes issue with the recall effort. “It was Perata who came into the district and filed for a recall,” he said. “The law was specifically designed to keep out intimidation from legislative leaders. It’s his way of trying to intimidate Denham and forcing him to case votes he will not cast. He voted against the subprime bill because it would kill the refinance market.”
Denham came into the Capitol as a moderate Republican representing a far-flung district where nearly half the registered voters are mostly conservative Democrats, and about a third are Republicans. Apart from the budget vote, Democrats have yearned to win back the seat, which had been carved out for former Democratic Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, who halted his state Senate bid when he ran for Congress to replace the beleaguered incumbent Gary Condit. Democrats believe Denham has moved to the right since coming to Sacramento and is vulnerable to a political attack.
“I do think that if enough voters in his district signed a petition to indicate some dissatisfaction, then there’s something to it. There is a lot at stake here. Namely, it’s what it would take to get two-thirds (of the Senate vote) for a budget. There’s a lot at stake for people without much of a voice. Look at those proposed cuts in health care and education,” said Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who this week publicly declared himself a contender to succeed Perata.
Thus far, no candidates have emerged to try to take Denham’s place. Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani of Tracy, considered by some Democrats to be a likely contender, has publicly ruled it out.
The recall effort is seen by some as a shadow effort aimed solely at intimidating Denham. Real or not, Denham’s backers are taking it seriously.
“Whether it’s really happening or not, we’re acting on it as if it is real. Every indication is that it’s real. We know they are paying for signature gathering. It’s something that has every possibility of happening, and we’ve got to be prepared,” anti-recall spokeswoman Dana Ferreira said.