News that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had twice been accused of car theft first surfaced — if anyone was paying attention — back in 1998, when he was a political neophyte vying for the Republican Senatorial nomination in California.
News that Issa had been accused of stealing a car on a third occasion was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle late last month, as the second-term Congressman led the charge to recall California Gov. Gray Davis (D) and win the state’s top job for himself.
“A new guy comes into town, people want to know about him,” shrugged Bob Mulholland, a consultant to the California Democratic Party. “So a lot of newspapers are making a lot of phone calls.”
Republicans and recall supporters, however, believe it is Democratic political operatives and other Issa allies who are dropping dimes in a conspiracy to derail the recall locomotive — and ruin Issa.
In recent weeks, California voters have learned about the three times Issa was accused of car theft — all of which were dismissed or forgiven.
Twice he was arrested, but charges were later dropped. A third time, when Issa was in the Army, a superior officer accused him of stealing a car, but no disciplinary action was taken.
But voters have also read articles about Issa’s hard-nosed — some would say questionable — business tactics as he built a multimillion dollar car alarm company.
They have been reminded that he once faced an illegal weapons charge. They have seen a political cartoon depicting him as a jail bird trying to break into a car. They have read about how Issa audaciously jump-started the foundering recall movement two months ago to feed his own insatiable ambition.
And they have heard Issa described, by Davis himself on CNN, as “a right-winger.”
“Gray Davis has only one play in his playbook and that’s to try to destroy his opponents,” fumed former California Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian (R), chairman of the Recall Gray Davis Committee, one of the groups working with Issa to get the recall on the ballot.
To the charges of a coordinated effort, Davis allies more or less plead guilty.
“It makes sense to target Darrell Issa because he is the one writing the checks,” said Carroll Wills, a California union official and spokesman for Taxpayers Against the Governor’s Recall. “He did that because he wants to be governor and figures that a low-turnout special election is the only way to accomplish it. He’s way out of the mainstream of the California electorate.”
One Golden State Democratic operative said opposition research had unearthed the information about the third car-theft incident as far back as 1998, but the incident never came to light once it became apparent that Issa was not going to be the 1998 Republican Senate nominee.
And Mulholland insisted that it isn’t only Democrats who are digging up dirt on the Congressman.
“The untold story is, in many cases we work with Republicans,” he said. “They have their own family fights. … There’s an awful lot of Republican leaders around the state who are gasping about the new leader of the Republican Party, Darrell Issa.”
This much is certain: As the recall advocates close in on their goal of obtaining the necessary petition signatures to force a vote — perhaps as early as October — the public focus has shifted from Davis and his inability to tame a staggering $38 billion budget deficit to the obscure 49-year-old Congressman from San Diego County who bought his way into politics a few short years ago.
The question is whether all the scrutiny of Issa’s brushes with the law and take-no-prisoners business style are hurting the recall — or Issa’s bid to replace the embattled Davis as governor.
Recall Rolls On
The answer to the first part of the question is an emphatic no. Advocates need to collect 900,000 signatures of California voters to put the measure on the ballot; as of Tuesday night, organizers said they were halting their collection and were ready to turn in more than 1.5 million signatures to state elections officials.
“Voters of California are very angry at Gray Davis, [for] his failure on the budget,” said Sal Russo, a recall organizer and California consultant who ran the campaign of Davis’ 2002 Republican challenger, businessman Bill Simon. “That anger is so strong, I have not in my 37 years in California politics seen anything so strong since Proposition 13 in 1978. … So people are not going to fall for Gray Davis’ character assassinations of Darrell Issa.”
It is now almost a foregone conclusion in California political circles that, barring widespread fraud on the petitions, a recall election will take place sometime between this October and March 2004.
The recall is a two-step process: Voters will simultaneously be asked whether they want to remove Davis from office and, if so, whom from among an unlimited list of candidates who have qualified for the ballot would they like to replace him. It is sure to be a crowded field, and if the majority of voters sanction the recall, the next governor will probably be elected with only a plurality of the vote.
Before all the negative publicity, some political observers believed Issa had a chance of winning a recall election — because in a multicandidate field he would not have to win a majority of votes. Likely too conservative for the California electorate, Issa could instead count on motivated anti-Davis voters turning out in big numbers and rewarding him for propelling the recall movement with more than $1 million in seed money.
Now, opinions differ as to whether the barrage of criticism has killed Issa’s political future. Already hampered by low statewide name recognition — just 6 percent in one recent poll — Issa must now come to grips with the reality that many voters are hearing about him for the first time as someone who was accused of stealing cars.
“A lot of grassroots supporters [of the recall] are appreciative of Issa,” Russo said. “For the voters that don’t know him, it’s a bigger hurdle to get over.”
But other state political professionals believe that Issa is elevated — and at least gains needed publicity — when he is attacked by Davis and his allies.
“There’s almost no one left to slime,” said Jonathan Wilcox, communications director for Issa’s gubernatorial campaign, which is operating in a sort of parallel universe to the recall. “They’ve gotten around to Congressman Issa because he is the leading figure to remove Gray Davis.”
A California Republican consultant who is not involved in any aspect of the recall said the Democrats’ tactics enable Issa to easily counterattack.
“He can say, ‘Look at the ridiculous lengths they’re willing to go to smear me,’” the consultant said. “‘While they’re talking about my sex life or my business practices, the state is going to hell in a handbasket.’ There’s a compelling argument.”
Roman Holiday for Democrats
But Issa has not always been so steady when it comes to defending himself. Asked Tuesday night on CNBC’s “Capital Report” whether he had ever stolen a car, Issa replied, “The truth is a relative term.”
Small wonder many recall foes savor the notion that Issa is the point man for the recall. They argue that his high profile helps Davis and the opposition.
“We thought that Gray Davis couldn’t get any luckier than Bill Simon as an opponent,” said a Democratic operative with ties to Davis. “Now he has Darrell Issa — oh my goodness.”
Said Mulholland, the state party consultant: “I hope Issa runs. I’m going to enjoy it. It’s going to be kind of like the way it was in the Roman Coliseum days, in the front row.”
Inevitably, however, as the recall progresses and other candidates for governor emerge, Issa will have to share the spotlight with a list of contenders that could include Simon, the 2002 GOP nominee; former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan; and movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, among many others.
The attacks on Issa may recede, as the state’s Democratic establishment calculates who represents the greatest threat to Davis, but Issa could also be swamped by the media frenzy if a better-known candidate — especially Schwarzenegger — gets in the race.
Wills, of the anti-recall committee, predicted that Issa will continue to be a target because he represents everything that is wrong with the recall movement.
“It helps to provide some texture to the recall, to highlight the role of a few far-right individuals who are trying to engineer a do-over of last fall’s gubernatorial election just because they didn’t like the results,” he said. “It gives voters a window into the mentality of the recall.”
But Kaloogian, the Recall Gray Davis committee chairman, said Issa just may ride the publicity all the way to the governor’s mansion.
“I think Darrell Issa has demonstrated leadership qualities by putting up the money for the recall,” he said. “And I think we ought to support him.”