WASHINGTON – The congressman who bankrolled the petition effort to recall California Gov. Gray Davis is also seeking to replace him, making the perfect target for Davis' legendary political hit squad, say observers close to the fiery recall debate.
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (search) has emerged from relative obscurity to become enemy No. 1 among Democrats. They want to discredit the two-term congressman who sparked the smoldering effort to recall Davis, accused of misleading Californians about the true condition of the state budget. California's budget is currently $38.2 billion in the red.
For his part, Issa, 49, not only wants to unseat Davis, but wants to replace him. That has resulted in Democrats launching a character attack that includes recalling decades-old arrest records.
“It won’t be a very pretty campaign,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow for the Hoover Institute (search) at Stanford University. “Davis has to demonize the process, and Issa, he’s being made out as the bad guy.”
Issa, who earned his fortune in the auto security business, has spent $1.3 million of his own money in the effort to collect the 897,000 signatures necessary to put the recall before California voters in a special election. Recall supporters have already turned in 1.6 million signatures to the secretary of state for authentication, thanks in large part to Issa’s contribution.
But critics say Issa's penchant for civic activism is blinded by his political ambition.
“He bought the recall for the express purpose of running for governor. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out,” said Carroll Wills, spokesman for Taxpayers Against the Governor’s Recall (search).
“He is manufacturing an election for his own candidacy,” Wills said. “That is what is wrong with this.”
Jonathan Wilcox, a spokesman for the Issa for Governor (search) campaign, said Davis' supporters are attacking Issa because they can't defend the governor's actions.
“[Neither] his goons, nor Gray Davis, have done anything to defend their record,” Wilcox said. “This is a MASH unit of self-inflicted wounds.”
It is not the first time that Issa has jumped into the crosshairs of controversy. In 1996, he co-chaired the campaign to pass the California Civil Rights Initiative (search), a referendum that successfully ended race preferences in state hiring and higher education.
In 1998, he ran an unsuccessful primary bid to take on Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (search), who has spent the last several weeks denying rumors that she will step up to run if Davis is recalled.
But Issa's ancient history interests Davis supporters the most. They have been circulating newspaper articles that detail three incidents between 1971 and 1980 in which Issa was arrested but not convicted of car theft.
Issa’s opponents also paint him as a thuggish right-wing zealot, underscoring his defense of guns and anti-abortion views.
A 1998 Los Angeles Times article making a second round quotes sources who say Issa was investigated for a mysterious fire at his Cleveland, Ohio, factory, and that he once intimidated an associate with a gun.
Wills denies any direct campaign against Issa, and insists that most of the dirt was revealed during the 1998 primary bid. He adds the rap sheet speaks for itself.
“He refuses to take responsibility and refuses to come clean,” said Wills. “His constituents deserve to know about this.”
Davis will not say anything about Issa directly, and his aides refer inquiries to Wills’ group, housed out of the California Professional Firefighters’ Association (search) offices. The California Democratic Party is also posting the group's anti-recall press releases on its Web site.
Whalen, a former speechwriter for the state’s last Republican governor, Pete Wilson, said the behavior is typical of the Davis administration when backed into a corner. He said the fight to maintain the office will likely be bloody, considering Davis’ reputation for the political version of street fighting.
“If the recall happens, the Democrats will be in survival mode and they will do anything they have to to stay in office,” Whalen said.
Even if recall supporters are victorious, Issa may still have trouble getting to the governor's mansion. According to a July 4 Los Angeles Times poll, which found Californians are 51 percent in favor of recalling Davis, Issa trails behind the potential candidacies of Hollywood tough-guy Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (search).
A source close to the state GOP indicated that Issa has yet to prove to party leaders that he can run a credible campaign for governor, and he is far from being the “anointed one,” as some might suggest. Others charge that Issa may be too compromised by the time the recall fight is over.
Issa told Fox News Sunday that despite questions about too many Republicans splitting the vote in a special election, no such scenario will occur.
"Right now, there is only one candidate, and I'm the candidate. So, I think narrowing the field at this point would be inappropriate," he said.
Meanwhile, Issa's backers say he has the fortitude to run a tough bid. They dismiss the Davis backers' attacks.
“Darrell Issa is made of sterner stuff than the Davis attack machine is used to,” said Wilcox. “It’s sad for the process, it’s sad for any hope of real public dialogue. But, I will tell you, it will backfire.”