Denham recall: Is it grass roots or politics?

In his 12th Senate District seat, Republican Jeff Denham won re-election last year by nearly 20 percentage points over his Democratic opponent.

That's in a district that had more registered Democrats at the time -- 45 percent to 37 percent Republicans, according to the California secretary of state.

Denham's résumé lacks any true scandal. No financial improprieties, no sexual miscues, no criminal allegations. An agricultural businessman before he was a legislator, Denham is of the moderate/ conservative ideology shared by most of his constituents.

Why, then, are volunteers at folding tables across his district asking folks to sign their names to a petition to recall Denham?

Politics, naturally. And politics that may have little to do with Denham's district -- which includes all or parts of Stanislaus, Merced, Madera and San Benito counties -- or its voters, and everything to do with the baffling power games played in Sacramento.

The burr in Denham's saddle was planted this summer, when state legislators had their ever-so-regular death march to a new California budget.

After protracted negotiations, the budget bill needed only to get through the state Senate, where just a handful of Republican votes were needed.

Denham, who disliked the budget's reliance on deficit spending, wouldn't sign off. The budget stayed in the Senate, until further negotiations pushed it through -- but not with Denham's vote.

State Democrats, who had threatened Denham with a recall while the budget was stalled, began pouring money into an effort to collect enough signatures to put it to the voters next year. Some of that money came from a campaign fund for Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland.

The premise of the effort can be found on the Web site dumpdenham.com, which curiously omits who is behind it as well as the budget that was supposedly so egregious that Denham voted against it.

That site says Denham should be recalled for voting against schools, flood control and improvements to Highway 99.

It also criticizes him for looking into running for another seat -- Denham is expected to run for lieutenant governor after his term ends in 2010 -- and accepting money from Native American gambling interests.

To be fair, those charges apply to many legislators in California, in both parties. Denham is hardly the first.

A Sacramento political consultant working with Denham said he's skeptical that the recall effort is based on discontent within the senator's district.

"If Perata and the folks with him want to play this game, you can't stop him," Wayne Johnson said. "But it doesn't mean there's any real support in the district."

Johnson said he's not sure a recall can get on the ballot. Organizers need about 31,000 signatures from registered voters in the 12th district by Feb. 13; he said most people won't support the petition unless they are deceived about it would accomplish.

A Modesto Democrat working for the recall said otherwise.

"He hasn't kept his word on anything," said Gary Robbins, of Denham.

Robbins said organizers already have collected more than 10,000 signatures for the effort, with just under three months to collect the rest. "This is very much coming from within the district," he said.

Yet down south, there's a different report. Marc Medefind, the Merced County Democratic Central Committee chairman, said he learned of the recall by seeing signs in front yards.

He said he believed state Democrats would request help at some point. He still hasn't gotten that call.

"Everyone wonders what's going on," he said. "I have a feeling that this is entirely coming from Sacramento."

Which leads one to conclude that the effort is largely political theater, though Medefind or Robbins think the recall could succeed.

Then again, if the recall makes the ballot, it probably would be next spring or summer. That's when state legislators will be tackling a new budget, and with a $1 billion deficit to start, negotiations then could make this year look like a nursery.

Having an actual recall over one politician's head -- say, a state senator whose vote could be vital to pass the budget -- would be a bit of leverage for Democrats, wouldn't it?

Keep watching.

Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at bvandermeer@modbee.com or 578-2331.