Unintended Consequences

Right-wingers cooked up the Gray Davis recall only to see it hijacked by a political moderate named Arnold

Beginning last January, right-wing San Francisco radio talk show host Melanie Morgan gleefully began throwing her wattage behind the gathering movement to recall Gov. Gray Davis.

Morgan, co-host of the KSFO-AM (560) Morning Show, invited a string of conservative Republican activists onto her program to brainstorm ways to knock off the Democratic governor, who had been weakened politically by the electricity crisis and would drop further in the polls as the extent of the state's $34.6 billion budget deficit became more widely known.

After a former GOP assemblyman set up a pro-recall Web site, Morgan and other mock jocks told listeners to use it to download recall petitions, which helped jump-start the massive signature-gathering drive that produced the first recall to reach the ballot since the Progressive Party introduced the reform in 1911.

"Melanie says, 'What can we do about Davis?'" remembers Shawn Steel, immediate past chairman of the California Republican Party, of his Jan. 20 appearance on her show. "I said, 'How about a recall?' The phone lines lit up, and she got excited."

But now, with the historic recall qualified for the Oct. 7 ballot and Davis continuing to sag in opinion polls, Morgan, Steel, and other conservatives are increasingly alarmed at what the recall has spawned: a front-running GOP candidate, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who espouses the ideals of moderate and even liberal Republicanism.

"I had been waiting to see more of Schwarzenegger, but when I saw him bring Warren Buffett on board his campaign [as an economic adviser], something snapped," says Morgan, who supports ultra-conservative GOP state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks. "We [conservatives] have been in the wilderness for so long that we became overwhelmed by the enormous free publicity because of the way [Schwarzenegger] made his entrance. If he had come up the traditional way, we would not have given him a second look."

Despite Schwarzenegger's unsavory politics, Morgan still likes to call herself the "mother of the recall."

A former radio and television reporter, she has anchored the KSFO talk show with Lee Rogers since 1995, spinning facts and opinion into diatribes against government policies on immigration and affirmative action. From 6 to 9 a.m. every weekday, Morgan broadcasts her contempt and loathing for the welfare state, taxes, nutty environmentalists, limousine liberals, the Democratic Party "elite" that controls the media, and San Francisco's legions of anti-war protesters.

"We never broadcast to San Francisco," she says with a chuckle. "We use it as a foil, as a punching bag. Our audience is grass-roots conservatives in the Bay Area."

Morgan, 46, admits that she is no longer a journalist. "I am an entertainer. But I bring my journalistic skills to bear when dealing with political issues. I use these skills to ascertain facts."

She is particularly proud of having used her journalistic skills a few years ago to uncover facts about the gasoline additive MTBE, which has contaminated drinking water supplies across the state. She employed her talk-radio pulpit to help push for a ban on MTBE.

"I was a liberal Democrat all my life," she says. "Until eight years ago [when she was hired by KSFO, where her husband is operations manager], I had not thought much about politics." Morgan attributes her switch to far-right Republicanism to the persuasive power of her co-host, Lee Rogers. "His ideas made sense."

Like many converts, Morgan embraced her new ideology with a vengeance, purging her political soul of leftist taint. "Illegal immigrants are our biggest safety problem," she says. "Our schools, roads, hospitals, public services are all endangered by the flood coming across our borders."

She envisions a complete lockdown of America's border with Mexico. But, somewhat incongruously, she would like to see an end to racism through the simple device of "intermarrying until all traces of racial differences evaporate and we can't tell our ancestry." A century from now, she posits, America will still be a bastion of middle-class affluence and consumerism. "The rest of the world will be a mess."

She thinks oil companies should be allowed to freely drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off the coasts of California and New England. "We need a stable supply of oil. It's a good thing we are in charge of Iraq. They have a lot of oil."

Morgan makes no bones about using her celebrity as a political-organizing tool. "People identify with celebrity, and imagine they have an ongoing relationship with the celebrity. It's all about the convergence of celebrity and politics."

Morgan says she used her celebrity power to organize a feminist protest against Bill Clinton as a "sexual predator" when San Francisco billionaire Gordon Getty held a fund-raiser for him a few years ago. The success of that "prank" inspired her to further action. "I used the power of my celebrity to bring people out on the weekends to gather signatures on the recall-Davis petition."

Following his January appearance on her show, Shawn Steel says, he contacted GOP lawyers and found out that a recall initiative "didn't have to be approved by the state Attorney General's Office, which is usually the death chamber for ballot initiatives."

Steel acknowledges that he did not invent the notion of tossing Davis out of office; a right-wing, anti-immigrant group in Southern California circulated a recall petition during the governor's first term. Steel even pooh-poohed the idea when it was broached by Ted Costa, an anti-tax activist based in Sacramento.

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