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All Corruption is Local

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Though we're over four years removed from the spectacle that allowed Arnold Schwarzenegger to bypass the Republican primary and replace a sitting governor, the recall is still very much alive and well in California. We can't help it, really. No matter what the east coast snobbery may have led you believe, the rest of the nation loves a nasty, bare-knuckled mud fight just as much as DC.

The recall fad has even taken my tiny San Francisco suburb of 9,000 voters by storm, bringing with it smear campaigns and death threats -- even causing one target to flee to Iraq.

Last year, two members of the local city council (and allegedly, another former member) began targeting three others for recall. That number fell by a third when Councilman David Cole, aged 38, enlisted in the Army and high-tailed it to the middle east.

I'm really not sure what to make of Cole's decision to flee the country. On one hand, I'm against politics so ugly they can draw out the allure of an Iraqi war zone. On the other, I'm for anything that gets our elected officials to actually fight our wars.

The two remaining accused have become the targets of invective-filled direct mail, pro-recall yard displays, and demonstrations outside the local post office where recall supporters hold picket signs and chant things like, "No corruption in Pinole!"

Apparently, this fantastical opera opened when a local restaurant, The Pear Street Bistro, fell over one year behind on payments for redevelopment loans from the city. When the council members now targeted for recall then voted not to renew the contract of former city manager Belinda Espinosa, the "no" votes accused them of scapegoating her and firing her "illegally." The pro-recall council members are generally acknowledged to have been close with the ousted manager.

I'm not entirely certain how any decision not to renew a contract can be illegal or grounds for a recall, but then I don't know how anyone gets away with falling $400,000 behind in loan payments, either.

In fact, the leap from this event to the actual allegations is a bit bizarre. Council members Mary Horton (a former mayor,) and Peter Murray (the new, post-allegations mayor,) are accusing then-mayor Maria Alegria and Mayor Pro Tem Stephen Tilton of having an inappropriately friendly relationship with the Bistro's owner, and firing the city planner to cover it up. The restaurant was popular with city employees and there seems to be no proof that the accused council members were ever aware he wasn't making loan payments, so the "evidence" amounts really to speculation.

Then again, as I once told a Tijuana border guard, a small amount of power can go a long way in the hands of even smaller people, and Horton especially has done little to hide her contempt for Alegria and the fact that she had become mayor.

A photo of the two remaining accused council members with the dead-beat restaurateur has been widely circulated in pro-recall campaign literature. The picture was taken at a small business award ceremony in which Alegria and Tilton were attendance in their official capacities, and a city planner has been cropped out of it. Anti-recall groups, illustrating their own gift for histrionics, have called this "doctoring" the photo.

More uproarious are accounts of an incident that took place outside the popular local restaurant in which then-mayor Alegria, allegedly intoxicated, interfered with a police traffic stop. According to police, the driver had made an illegal turn and wasn't carrying a license or proof of insurance. The city's highest elected official, slurring under blood-shot eyes, first spoke to the officer only in Spanish. She then accused the police of "selective enforcement" and said that it could "have a negative effect" on the department's funding.

Rather than using the incident to illustrate poor judgment or disrespect for law enforcement, recall proponents are instead using it to link the former mayor to the restaurant. The driver, it seems, was a Bistro employee. If the pro-recall bloc for anything other than sour grapes, it's for missing the point.

The police have stayed neutral in the fracas, but they're just about the only ones. Local papers, unions -- even the firefighters -- have all come out against the recall. The Chairman of the county Democratic Central Committee said he received death threats on his cell phone after the party attempted to enter the fray on behalf of the targets. Police found the threats to be unrelated.

Recall backers are keeping their spirits up through an endearingly amateurish website that in bold letters spells out the many organizations opposed to their movement and even looks to the man they hope to oust, interim City Manager Charlie Long, to denounce the opposition. Long has called a mailer blasting his predecessor "really mean," "nasty" and "one of the most offensive pieces of political literature I have ever seen in my life."

You see, backers of the recall aren't the only bullies on the block. Opponents have also mobilized, in predictably ludicrous ways. Pro-recall sign stealing has become such a problem that the stakeouts have been arranged at the eye of the storm, the Pear Street Bistro. An employee was caught swiping signs and charged with petty theft. "Petty theft": I'd say that just about sums up the entire campaign.