Gray Davis

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–With the voter recall to remove California Gov. Gray Davis from office scheduled for October, pro-choice groups and Democratic leaders are formulating a strategy to mobilize women voters against the recall, arguing it would turn back the clock on their rights.

“On a woman’s right to choose, the environment, gun safety–you name it, the governor is there for us,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at a pro-Davis rally
July 19 in San Francisco.

Pelosi and other leading Democrats are repeatedly evoking Davis’s record on abortion, primary education, guns and the environment to appeal to part of their core base–women.

This is the first gubernatorial recall since 1921, when the governor of North Dakota was booted out of office. The little-used provision, passed by California voters in 1911, allows voters to replace a governor in times of corruption or misdeeds.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from the San Diego area, financed the recall, arguing that Davis misled voters over the size of the state’s budget deficit–now at $38 million–in order to get reelected last fall and mismanaged the state’s energy crisis.

Issa, who has announced his candidacy to replace Davis, made his fortune as a car alarm magnate and has spent $1.7 million of his own money to hire signature-gatherers for the recall. In recent months, those collecting signatures became a familiar sight on city buses and streets and at shopping malls throughout the state.

California’s Secretary of State Kevin Shelley certified the recall Wednesday July 23 after it was determined that 1.3 million signatures had been gathered–more than enough to make the recall a go. Voters will be asked if they want to remove Davis from office, and they will also likely be asked to choose a replacement among Democrat, Republicans and third-party candidates.

Abortion May Be Central Issue in Recall Vote

In an attempt to cast the recall as a right-wing power grab, some women’s groups are focusing on Issa’s record against abortion. During Issa’s 1998 failed campaign during the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, Issa said he would support a constitutional amendment banning abortion, according to news reports at the time.

Issa has said repeatedly in recent months that he opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk, and that he doesn’t support a constitutional amendment against abortion.

Representatives from the California chapter of the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California and the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League appeared at a series of news conferences this spring to highlight Issa’s record on abortion.

Issa is dragging in the polls behind other potential Republican contender Richard Riordan, former mayor of Los Angeles, who says he is pro-choice. Liberal pundit Arianna Huffington is considering a run as an independent. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also said he is pro-choice, on Wednesday announced he would not run after toying with the idea for weeks.

Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California said it will put a strategy in motion to mobilize votes against the recall.

“Our goal is to get pro-choice Democratic voters who don’t vote in every election to turn out,” said Kathy Kneer, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, based in Sacramento. “Republicans are playing partisan politics. Clearly Davis is unpopular but he’s not corrupt.”

Removing Davis from office is tempting to many voters. He consistently shows approval ratings of less than 20 percent. But Davis has approved legislation that many California women support, like the Reproductive Privacy Act, which reaffirmed a woman’s right to an abortion and expanded the availability of medical abortion in physician offices. He also signed the California Senate Bill 1661, an expansion of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, making California the first state in the country to provide up to six weeks paid time off for workers to care for newborns or a sick relative or domestic partner.

The abortion issue has helped Davis before. In what is widely considered a crafty political move, Davis helped lock in conservative businessman Bill Simon as his opponent in last November’s gubernatorial race by launching a television campaign during the primary of spring 2002 against a more moderate Republican candidate–Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles. Riordan was viewed as the Republicans’ best hope of winning back California.

A Davis-backed multimillion-dollar ad blitz showed old footage of Riordan calling abortion “murder,” Davis succeeded in turning off many moderate women voters from Riordan, who has said he has changed his mind about abortion and is now pro-choice. Simon went on to win the primary through support from the more conservative wing of his party.

Democratic leaders are hoping that by focusing their campaign on women’s rights and away from Davis, they can gain support from women voters–no matter how unpopular Davis is. Even Davis is attempting to shift the focus away from him by calling the recall “not about changing governors, it’s about changing directions.”

At the pro-Davis rally in San Francisco, Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation put the message this way: “These people are against women’s rights, gay rights and environmental protection. This isn’t about one man. It’s about partisan politics.”

Rebecca Vesely is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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