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Hero Awaits His Reward

Issa Hailed by California Republicans, but His Next Move Is Unclear

LOS ANGELES — Last Friday night, an enormous banner that said “Thank You Darrell Issa” was draped across an entire wall of a ballroom at the LAX Marriott, the site of the California Republican convention.

Issa was the keynote speaker at Friday’s dinner, which was marked by gushing tributes to the driving financial force behind the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis (D). The whole affair was somewhat incongruous, given that the two-term House Member has never had the best relationship with the state party establishment.

“The banner was a little over the top, I would say. It was huge,” Issa said with a chuckle in an interview the next day. “It was very special. It was heartfelt. The reward for what I’ve done is in every electorate, but when your own peers in your own party go this far out of their way to thank you, it’s very special.” 

The past few months have provided wild swings in the fortunes of several California Republican notables. Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t expected to get in the recall election, then he did, while the reverse happened with Richard Riordan. Bill Simon and Peter Ueberroth got on the ballot, then dropped out. State Sen. Tom McClintock has been pressured to follow suit, but hasn’t.

Issa, meanwhile, fronted the money for the recall, had his past raked over the coals by the press and then tearfully announced at the last minute that he would not run.

And now — if Monday’s ruling by a panel of federal judges stands — the election may be delayed until March.

Nothing about the recall has been predictable, so Issa isn’t surprised that so many prominent Republicans who were initially skeptical about the effort spent this weekend giving it their full-throated endorsement.

“At the convention six months ago there was a split,” Issa said of the state GOP’s February gathering in Sacramento. “The rank and file believed in the recall. The party leadership for the most part was opposing it, and that was similar to what was going on in the whole state.”

Even now, some top Golden State Republicans wonder privately whether the recall is a politically smart move, given that it is so fraught with uncertainty.

As one prominent California Republican put it, “There wasn’t a plan.” Davis could survive, or he could be replaced by another Democrat, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

Issa believes his fellow Republicans shouldn’t fear the unknown.

“It’s always going to be tough, because when you have an election — direct democracy — the outcome is never going to be certain, and many people even here today are saying, ‘Why did we do this if there isn’t a guarantee?’” Issa said. “And the answer is, ‘Why do you have elections?’ It’s not supposed to be about guarantees. It’s not supposed to be about predictability. It’s supposed to about the choice and the independent thought of the electorate.”

‘We Think Darrell Issa Is a Hero’

The recall likely wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for Issa, but you wouldn’t have known that from walking around the basement halls of the Marriott before his Friday night speech.

Schwarzenegger and McClintock signs jockeyed for space, along with those of three GOP Senate hopefuls — Rosario Marin, Tony Strickland and Toni Casey — and a handful of candidates for lesser offices and state party positions.

Donors and activists from around the state milled through the halls, some looking slightly dazed by the crowds and commotion, while representatives from various college and youth Republican organizations hurried through looking for the most hospitable hospitality suites. 

Tucked in among the booths of nearly every conceivable GOP group was that of Rescue California, the entity that served as Issa’s pro-recall vehicle.

None of the literature or paraphernalia at Rescue California’s table mentioned the lawmaker’s name. The only hint of his backing came in some of the fine print, which indicated that funding for the effort came from Greene Properties, the real estate holding company through which Issa has funnelled more than $1.5 million to support the recall. 

But even if his name wasn’t on display, GOP attendees from across the spectrum were full of praise for Issa, even if many didn’t know much about him aside from his largess.

“We think Darrell Issa is a hero,” said Jim Lafferty, spokesman for Californians for a Moral Government. 

The group is part of the Rev. Lou Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition, and Lafferty was trying to interest convention-goers in a press conference CMG was holding to renounce Schwarzenegger, whom the group considers disastrously liberal on social issues. 

“At the start of the recall I wasn’t that hot on the idea,” offered Kevin Dawson, a sales engineer from Pasadena who was helping out at the California Republican Federation of Women booth. “Then I heard the press trying to slander the entire movement just because Darrell Issa was bankrolling it. … My impression of Darrell Issa is better today than it was before the recall.” 

Dawson dismissed the negative stories about Issa in the press. “I know people screw up when they’re teenagers,” he said. 

Seth Norman — the editor in chief of Moxie, a magazine put out by the California College Republicans — admitted that Issa was a less-than-familiar name before the movement began. 

“He was unknown to me before the recall,” Norman said. “Now I think the entire party is grateful for what he’s done.” 

The fall 2003 edition of Moxie even named Issa an “All Star,” an honor normally reserved for standout college Republicans. (Issa’s profile in the issue was twinned with one of an “avid surfer” who had helped start a conservative book club at the University of California at Santa Cruz.) 

That goodwill continued inside the ballroom, where Issa’s speech was preceded by a very short Cruz Bustamante impersonator, who drew approving roars of laughter from the assembled guests. 

In his own remarks, Issa went through a series of sight gags that played off his tearful withdrawal from the gubernatorial race. After the announcement, apparently, Schwarzenegger sent over an enormous box of tissues festooned with one of the actor’s campaign stickers. Gerald Parsky, the Bush political operation’s point man in California, sent over a smaller box of tissues with a label that said, “Property of the White House. Do Not Remove.” McClintock, “because he’s a fiscal conservative,” delivered a small, travel-size tissue packet. 

The joke allowed Issa to segue into another applause line about his new role as a political survivor.

“For those of you who don’t know me very well, you need to know that I’m the guy who has my teeth drilled without novocaine and never sheds a tear,” Issa said as the audience chuckled. “Not only that, I can take simultaneous blows from Gray Davis, Cruz Bustamante, or even below-the-belt hits from the L.A. Times, and have a grin from ear to ear.” 

‘All of Them Are Opportunists’

On Saturday, Issa stood looking out his hotel window at the parking lot filled with empty metal bleachers 17 floors below. Earlier that morning, the stands had been packed full of spectators watching Schwarzenegger speak. 

Much of the oxygen at the convention — and throughout the whole recall — has been sucked up by the actor’s candidacy. While he may not have predicted that Schwarzenegger would jump in, Issa said he always figured there would be a big field. He did not expect other Republicans to get out of the way just because he funded the recall.

“I always knew that once it became a reality opportunism would prevail,” Issa said. “One hundred thirty-four candidates, and as you can imagine, 120-some of them are clearly opportunists. One might even say all of them are opportunists. What I wasn’t sure about was would we get, from a partisan standpoint, the worst possible situation in which we have many Republicans and only one Democrat? That was always the least favorable outcome.

“Many Democrats [in the race] would have been better. Had there been many Democrats, I would have stayed in the field. No Democrats would have been fine, so it was a referendum on Gray Davis, and I would have stayed in for that period.”

Now, Issa wants either McClintock or Schwarzenegger to drop out, though he won’t say which one. As he put it in his Friday speech, “You know the math just doesn’t work … and that’s why I’m not running for governor.” 

Issa also hasn’t endorsed anyone yet, though he certainly made clear this weekend — before Monday’s court ruling — that he was eager to get one of the Republicans out of the race.

“If no one does anything by, say, the day after the broadcaster’s debate [scheduled for Sept. 24], that’s the point at which I think I’m going to feel obligated to do the soul-searching for whoever is a candidate if there continues to be a significant difference [in the polls] between these two candidates.”

Simon and Ueberroth, whose names remain on the recall ballot, are both reportedly considering getting back into the race if the election is indeed delayed until March. But Issa has no such plans. “In March, Congressman Issa will be a candidate for the 49th district of California,” his spokesman said Tuesday.

Other statewide races could still be on the table, though. Of the possibility that he might challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in 2004, Issa would say only, “It’s premature to consider that.”

Issa lost in the GOP Senate primary in 1998, and although he won a House seat two years later, he and the state party establishment have always had an awkward relationship. Even with the praise he got this weekend, Issa understands that many in the party leadership will be upset if a Democrat remains in the statehouse after the recall is over.

“Parties are all about claiming that they were there if they succeed and looking for blame if they fail,” Issa said. “The party wasn’t here [for the recall]. There’s no funding that comes from the state party. I’m not complaining — the state party here was $400,000 in the hole when we started this process. … This has all been done outside the party.

“If you go back … [GOP Reps.] David Dreier, Mary Bono, most of these people were against the recall. Do we have the loyalty of the party now, not just the rank and file but the leadership? Yes.”

One of the primary criticisms of the whole recall effort is that it will set a bad precedent, and could set off an unending chain of recall elections.

“If Bustamante wins I hope no one would dare start a recall and I would not be a participant in any way, shape or form, because fairness says you have to give somebody the opportunity to do what the people told them to do,” Issa said. “If a Republican wins, yes, I hope the Democrats try it, because they’ll quickly find out that the voters are more fair than they appear to be.”

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