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.
But shortly after Davis was re-elected last November, Steel appeared on a Los Angeles cable-TV chat show with former Democratic Party pollster Pat Caddell. Caddell, says Steel, suggested that given the poor election turnout, a Davis recall was almost a sure bet. Caddell, who calls himself a liberal, confirms that account. Steel says he began believing that a recall "revolution," with support from disgruntled Democrats, was a real possibility.
Steel came back on Morgan's show, and they again discussed a recall. Listening that day were Costa and Howard Kaloogian, a former Republican assemblyman from Carlsbad, in northern San Diego County. On Feb. 5, Steel, Morgan, and Costa held a press conference in Sacramento after filing an official notice of their intent to begin collecting signatures to place a recall on the ballot. The "recall Gray Davis" movement was formally launched -- and carried statewide by a wave of around-the-clock talk show chatter.
Costa, who had drafted the recall notice, proceeded to write the text of the recall initiative that would appear on the ballot, if enough signatures could be collected. He and Kaloogian also set up recall Web sites. But Kaloogian's site, RecallGrayDavis.com, was slicker and more user-friendly than Costa's davisrecall.com, says Morgan, so she and her fellow right-wing talking heads around the state steered their angry legions toward Kaloogian's URL. Costa, a sort of right-wing version of Ralph Nader, and equally dour, was disappointed that his competitor for the historical honorific of "father of the recall" had snapped up the best URL.
Kaloogian gives Costa credit for drafting the petition but notes that "Costa is not media savvy. He's hard to watch, hard to listen to. I was better on TV and radio, and that upset Ted." The ex-assemblyman also freely acknowledges Morgan as the "mother of the recall." Costa, on the other hand, is more circumspect about the significance of Morgan's role. "I filed the [recall notice]. I had been working on it [before January]. All of a sudden she is 'the mother' of the initiative? Humpf."
Costa and Kaloogian agree it was talk radio that drove the grass-roots recall movement until May, when GOP Congressman Darrell Issa of Vista began kicking in money to hire professional signature-gatherers and a high-powered public relations firm. Issa ultimately shelled out $1.8 million of his own cash. More than 2 million people signed Costa's petition (which was downloaded 450,000 times from Kaloogian's Web site).
But the recall's success opened a Pandora's box for conservatives. Suddenly, a host of big-name candidates were running, representing not just the right but the full political spectrum. The strongest liberal is Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who says he jumped in because he was afraid Davis would lose and his party needed a serious backup candidate. On the right, Tom McClintock entered the race along with wealthy L.A. businessman Bill Simon, who lost the governor's mansion to Davis last year.
To the chagrin of many conservatives, McClintock and Simon have been overshadowed by Schwarzenegger, the pro-choice, pro-gay rights Hollywood star who happens to be married to a member of the Kennedy clan.
"The biggest question of the recall is how much compromise conservatives can tolerate," says Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. "They are not monolithic. Some support abortion, some support gun control. Raising taxes is a line in the sand, though. The conservative unease with Schwarzenegger is more about the economy and fiscal issues than it is about social issues.
"Are conservatives going to vote for McClintock because they think he has a chance to win? No, it will be a protest vote. They will vote for McClintock to thwart Schwarzenegger. Lots of conservatives in California are still driving around with Barry Goldwater stickers on their bumper. They'd rather be right than win. It's what we call a 'circular firing squad.' Republicans line up in a circle and start firing at each other. The party is split down the middle: moderates vs. conservative right. ... The question is whether the party will bog down in an ideological struggle or rally itself to win."
Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, says the recall is a good illustration of the law of unintended consequences, as applied to politics.
"The recall started out as a popular anti-tax movement and was captured by Issa, who wanted to run for governor, and then by Schwarzenegger and also Pete Wilson's people, who are using it as a kind of rehabilitation tour, and ultimately by Cruz Bustamante, who would have had a hard time becoming governor," says Cain. "It's like the little fish getting swallowed by the bigger fish. The irony is that [Ted] Costa started the recall as a no-new-taxes movement and then Schwarzenegger says that he'll think about raising taxes. Costa had hoped the recall would lead to a tax revolt ... which just goes to show you can't always control what you start."
For his part Costa can barely conceal his loathing for the Terminator.
"Arnold Schwarzenegger just pissed off every homeowner in California, through his financial adviser Warren Buffett," he says. "He wants to raise property taxes. Schwarzenegger will not be a leader for a long time. I hope that Simon and McClintock make a deal so that McClintock can [become the top GOP candidate] and people can tell Schwarzenegger to get out of the race."
Morgan, too, is furious at Schwarzenegger's ascension. She's a big McClintock fan. And she fully intends to use her celebrity power to promote his far-right candidacy. A sample soundbite: "He's smart, understands the budget, has good ideas. He's honest, he'll never lie, and he'll never back down."
Ever the purist, she dismisses Schwarzenegger as a faux Republican.
"If he won't say no to new taxes or doesn't want to cut spending, then he should run as a Democrat, not as a Republican," she says. "We have no idea what he really thinks or feels; he remains largely undefined. If he wants to raise taxes, [conservatives] will never utter his name again."
She smiles. Clearly, she is not above targeting the favorite son of the recall for his own recall, should he disappoint his mother.