Thursday, May 8, 2008
Republican state Sen. Jeff Denham made a bold move last summer when he stood up to The Don, and told the Governator what he could do with his budget proposal. Now, Denham’s decision to vote no on the state budget is coming back to bite him in the ass. Supporters say Denham was doing precisely what he was sent to Sacramento to do: his job. Come June 3, however, Denham could be out of one.
A 1911 Constitutional amendment gave Californians the right to recall a sitting lawmaker. But when Denham’s name appears on the June 3 ballot, it will be only the eighth time in California’s history that a legislator has been on the ballot for recall. Instead, the electorate has historically chosen to flex its political prowess by refusing to reelect the occasional wayward politician.
Five years later, the sting of the 2003 Republican-led recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis still burns – perhaps made even more painful by an election that pitted a serious politician (Davis) trying to save his job against 135 gubernatorial wannabes (a porn star, Larry Flint of Hustler magazine fame, and actor Gary Coleman, among others) who threatened to make a mockery of California politics. Critics of the Denham recall say it cuts even deeper: This is tit-for-tat time for Dems, and Denham will take the fall. It didn’t help that Denham’s vote against the budget, and refusal to budge for seven solid weeks pissed off one of the most powerful politicians in Sacramento: Senate Pro Tem Don Perata.
“This is Jeff Denham versus Don Perata,” says Tim Clark, Denham’s political strategist. “Jeff was right to oppose the budget and not back down because of Perata’s bullying.”
Perata led the move to get Denham’s name on the ballot in Denham’s wackily drawn 12th District that includes parts of Monterey, San Benito, Stanislaus, Merced and Madera counties.
Though the district’s registered voters are split 46 percent Democrat to 36 percent Republican, a Democrat has never been elected in the 12th. In 2002, when the district was redrawn to its current configuration, then-rookie Denham beat out long-time politically connected Democrat Rusty Areias. In 2006, Denham won nearly 60 percent of the vote in a reelection bid against Democrat Wiley Nickel. “The failure of any Democrat to win a single election in that district has become an embarrassment to the party,” says a long-time elected Dem.
Recall critics say the district’s Democrat-to-Republican ratio made Denham a sitting duck, since the other Republican holdouts on the budget represented largely GOP-dominated or 50/50-split territories.
Some say Denham hasn’t helped matters much by being largely inactive in the Legislature. “He hasn’t done anything he was elected to do,” says Gary Robbins, an activist who led the charge to get the recall on the ballot. “I know he’s said he votes his conscience, but I don’t know how he can call it conscience when he simply votes in favor of legislation that supports people who give him huge sums of money. He votes the way the money flows,” Robbins says of racetrack owners and casino owners who have made big donations to Denham’s campaigns over the years. Denham has authored several bills to benefit both industries.
If voters decide to yank Denham’s Senate seat out from under him, they will be sending Monterey County Supervisor Simón Salinas to Sacramento. Salinas, the only candidate on the ballot to replace Denham, was termed out of the Assembly in 2006. Instead of challenging Denham for the District 12 seat that same year, Salinas ran for local office to stay close to home and tend to family matters. He says he has no regrets.
“Thousands of registered voters signed petitions to get this recall on the ballot,” Salinas says. “What that says to me is that voters are ready for change. There is so much work in Sacramento to be done for the district. And I think people are tired of the bickering and just want someone to get in there and get things done. It’s time.”