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Issa, One Year After

Patron of California Recall Looks Ahead, Ponders His Own Ambitions

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) quips that he celebrated last Thursday’s first anniversary of the California recall election with some sugar-free vanilla flavoring in his morning coffee.

It’s hardly a momentous way to commemorate one of the most successful grassroots movements in political history.

But for Issa, the primary financial backer behind the initiative, which drove ex-Gov. Gray Davis (D) from office in favor of movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), there’s hardly time to dwell on past victories.

The two-term Congressman’s own bid for governor last year may have been sidelined by the Schwarzenegger juggernaut (and some negative headlines), but that doesn’t mean he’s quietly skulked off into the shadows.

If anything, California Republicans say, the success of the recall has considerably strengthened Issa’s hand, putting him in an enviable position to launch any number of future reform efforts or political bids.

“When he decided not to continue himself, so many people in politics just walk away [but] Darrell stayed true to his work,” said state GOP Chairman Duf Sundheim. “That’s why so many people throughout the state appreciate what he did.”

“He’s a man with lots of money, he’s very handsome, very intelligent … there’s no reason for him if he has ambition — and I think he does — not to move up,” said fellow Golden State Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R).

But what does Issa want?

That’s a question the 50-year-old Congressman from northern San Diego County has difficulty delineating, except in the broadest of terms.

“I want to use all my energy to do as much as I can for California and the United States,” he said in an interview last week.

For the immediate future, that will translate into capitalizing on his “political celebrity” to rally the grass roots during the current election cycle, said Issa’s state director, Phil Paule.

On Wednesday, Issa, who is of Lebanese descent, will appear with Energy Secretary Spence Abraham and Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) at a Bush-Cheney campaign event for Arab Americans in Detroit.

Next week, the man some have dubbed “the folk hero” of California Republicans will crisscross the state in his “Team Issa” RV to stump for more than a dozen GOP Congressional and state Legislature candidates ranging from Senate hopeful Bill Jones to state Sen. Roy Ashburn, who is running for retiring Rep. Cal Dooley’s (D) Central Valley seat. Issa said his “highest priority today” is to “work for and with the governor” on the group of ballot initiatives “he’s for and against.”

When the sun goes down on Election Day, however, Issa will push ahead with some of his personal priorities for reforming state government, with a redistricting overhaul expected to top the list.

“It’s the number one priority,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), referring to Issa’s reform agenda. Nunes added, however, that “redistricting is so confusing it’s got to have the governor’s help.”

“The last redistricting was done by incumbents for the benefit of incumbents,” said Issa. “The next redistricting, whether it’s in ’06, ’08, ’10, or ’12 has to be for the benefit of the people of California.”

Whether Issa — who with assets of more than $100 million is the seventh richest Member of Congress, according to a Roll Call survey — will serve as the financial sugar daddy of a future signature-collecting drive to put redistricting reform on a statewide ballot remains to be seen.

After twice declining to directly answer the question, Issa finally conceded, “I’ve never shied away from putting my dollars into things I believe.” He noted that he’d also never funded an initiative that didn’t have the financial backing of others.

Ted Costa, the architect of last year’s recall, is currently circulating a petition — which failed to qualify for the November ballot for lack of signatures — that would take the decennial redistricting process out of the state Legislature’s hands and place it under the auspices of a panel of retired judges.

“If Darrell would write a big check it would change things,” said Nunes of the redistricting effort.

Issa stopped short of giving Costa’s effort his imprimatur. But he said that in addition to Costa, Nunes and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), he’s held discussions with “multiple individuals” and reached out to think tanks about how to accomplish redistricting reform — whether by taking that power away from Sacramento or by adding a “veto or modification authority” to the current process.

Other issues Issa said need addressing in California include the large number of “independently elected officials,” such as lieutenant governor, secretary of state and superintendent of education, among others.

“The attorney general is not elected in Washington [D.C.], but he’s a separate player in California,” said Issa, who’d prefer a system similar to the federal model.

Then, there’s Schwarzenegger’s proposal to switch to a part-time state Legislature, which Issa says he supports.

Still, Issa insists his aim is not to impose his views on the state.

“You don’t direct from Washington, you look for energy and opportunity and then join if appropriate,” Issa said.

As for future political ambitions, Issa — who in addition to his aborted run for governor last year made an unsuccessful bid for Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D) seat in 1998 — said he has yet to make any decisions on whether to “rule in” or “rule out” a 2006 statewide campaign.

“Right now I’m running for re-election,” he said, adding that he intends “on running for re-election again.”

Privately, however, sources say his next move could include a run for either a Senate seat or for lieutenant governor.

“I think it’s best looked at if that was an open seat,” said an aide familiar with Issa’s thinking, referring to whether he will run for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D) seat in 2006. “A lot of folks are [also] talking to him about lieutenant governor.”

Another option, Costa suggested, might be a post in a second Bush administration (if the president is re-elected), possibly related to foreign policy and the Middle East — an area in which Issa has taken an active interest. Last month, Issa traveled to Syria to discuss a variety of regional issues, including the situation in Iraq, with President Bashar Assad.

“I’m sure he would give very serious consideration if an offer was made,” said Issa campaign consultant Dave Gilliard.

Whatever path Issa chooses, observers say his personal ambitions could dovetail nicely with a reform agenda.

“Darrell can shoot up like an Atlas rocket if he hits the right issue and does an initiative. I think he could capture a lot of people,” said Costa.

“There’s no question that a visible role in a state ballot initiative campaign positions him even more strongly for a future state campaign for office,” said Sacramento-based GOP consultant Dan Schnur. Schnur added that the recall had already put Issa in a strong position to “start a conversation” with moderate Democrats and independents.

State Democrats, however, saw nothing but personal opportunism behind Issa’s agenda and served a warning that they would only be too happy to remind voters of Issa’s checkered past.

“Reform from a car thief? I don’t think so,” said Bob Mulholland, a consultant for the California Democratic Party. “He wants power.”

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