Davis out, Schwarzenegger in

A political newcomer confounds skeptics by winning California recall

Davis concedes, wishes him well

Voters angry over taxes, state's $8 billion deficit

October 08, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOS ANGELES - In a stunning finale to a tumultuous campaign, angry California voters fired Gov. Gray Davis less than a year into his term and lifted movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger into the governor's chair, according to exit polling and partial returns in yesterday's recall election.

Schwarzenegger overcame a stream of last-minute newspaper reports about alleged improper sexual conduct to win elective office on his first try. Among the keys to his victory were backing from independent voters and stronger-than-expected support from women, exit polling showed.

The one-time body-building champion from Austria campaigned as an outsider who would fundamentally change the government of his adopted state. A Republican married to Democratic royalty - Kennedy family member Maria Shriver - he vowed, with action-hero bravado, to "kick [the] butt" of organized labor, Indian gaming interests and big-spending Democratic lawmakers.

Davis, a Democrat, became only the second governor in 82 years to be dumped in a recall election. The first was an obscure North Dakota officeholder in 1921.

Davis, in conceding the election, said, "This state has been very good to me." but "tonight the voters decided it's time for someone else to serve, and I accept their judgment."

His supporters shouted, "Nooo." and booed when he said he had called Schwarzenegger to extend "best wishes" on his victory. Some chanted "Recall, recall." threatening another election round.

Based on exit polling, it appeared that Schwarzenegger's vote total, roughly 45 percent, was close to the number of votes against the recall. Counting the estimated 9 million or 10 million votes cast in the election could take days, or weeks, officials said.

Politicians in the state have said they would be watching closely to see whether Schwarzenegger drew more votes in becoming governor than Davis received in losing his job. If not, it could raise questions about the legimacy of his election and intensify demands for retaliation from Democrats.

Earlier in the day, speaking outside a polling place not far from his home in the Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles, Schwarzenegger said it was "cool" to be able to vote for himself. He had been attacked in the governor's TV ads for, among other things, not voting in 13 of the past 21 elections.

Surrounded by dozens of reporters from around the world and scores of cameras - 70, by one estimate - the actor thanked them "for following the campaign and, you know, always showing great shots and good pictures and getting the issues out."

His triumph recalled that of another figure from the entertainment world, Ronald Reagan, who was elected California governor in 1966. However, at the time, Reagan was a faded star, while Schwarzenegger's most re cent film, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, is among the top-grossing productions ever. And while Reagan spent decades honing his political speeches before he ran, Schwarzenegger had relatively little experience when he became a candidate two months ago.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the leading Democrat on the ballot, was running about 10 percentage points behind Schwarzenegger, exit polls show.

Speaking to supporters in Sacramento, Bustamante, who will retain his job, declined to concede immediately. Instead, he claimed victory as one of the leaders in the successful fight against Proposition 54, a ballot initiative that would have prevented the state from collecting information based on race.

He also lavished praise on the state's Indian tribes, which have become the largest political donors in California and were the main source of funding for his campaign. Schwarzenegger attacked the tribes for a failure to contribute a fair share of their casino profits to the state, and Bustamante's support from the tribes was seen as a drag on his candidacy by politicians here.

According to exit polling, Bustamante also failed in his effort to win an overwhelming share of the Hispanic vote, which appeared to be unusually heavy. He won a bare majority of 52 percent in his bid to become the first Latino elected governor of California, while Schwarzenegger captured nearly three in 10 Hispanic votes.

The new governor will take over as soon as the election results are certified, a process that could take until mid-November.

He began laying plans for his administration in recent weeks, but he will confront a state legislature dominated by Democrats and a budget gap estimated at $8 billion or more.

Californians remain deeply divided about the state's future and Schwarzenegger himself. He will enter office with a relatively high negative rating from the public, exit polling showed. A total of 49 percent of voters said they regarded Schwarzenegger favorably, while 45 percent held an unfavorable view.

Almost lost in the Hollywood tale of a 58-year-old actor's rise to power in the nation's richest and most populous state was the unprecedented fall of Davis.

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