Leaders of a campaign to oust state Sen. Jeff Denham on Friday turned in more than enough signatures to put an initiative before voters that would recall the lawmaker.
Two Democrats say they're interested in running against the Merced Republican if the recall qualifies for the ballot after five county clerks validate the signatures.
One, attorney George "Wiley" Nickel, unsuccessfully challenged Denham in 2006. Denham won 60 percent of the vote.
The other, Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas, served in the Assembly for six years starting in 2000.
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Denham is girding to defeat the recall effort, which his campaign calls a "bare knuckles" ploy to intimidate him. He raised $100,000 in the past month and finished 2007 with more than $250,000 in the bank.
State Democrats led by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata of Oakland initiated the recall campaign last summer when Denham refused to provide the swing vote on the state budget, contributing to a 52-day stalemate.
Denham called the budget unbalanced -- it has since been shown to be billions in the red -- but his opponents criticized him for holding up education funding.
"This recall was launched by Sen. Perata last year as payback for Jeff's refusal to vote for a badly out of balance budget," said Denham consultant Tim Clark.
Cash for the recall came from two sources: the state Democratic Party and a fund-raising account tied to Perata.
The recall campaign submitted 50,000 signatures to clerks in Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Monterey and San Benito counties Friday. Each county is part of Denham's district. The recall needs 31,084 verified signatures to get on the ballot.
Stanislaus County received 25,679 signatures for the recall, Clerk Lee Lundrigan said. Merced County's clerk's office confirmed it received petitions, but it did not have a count of how many it had accepted.
The counties have 30 days to verify the signatures. Gov. Schwarzenegger would set a date for the recall election if enough petitions qualify.
That vote most likely would be consolidated with the June election, the recall campaigns said.
"Dump Denham" backers said the number of signatures showed discontent with the lawmaker. They said Denham runs for office as a moderate but typically votes with conservatives.
"By signing these petitions, 50,000 voters are saying, 'We can't wait three years for honest representation.' It's time to dump Jeff Denham," Gary Robbins, leader of the recall push, said in a news release.
Joan Clendenin, leader of the Republican Party in Stanislaus County, criticized the recall effort.
"It's basically foolishness," she said. "The man was just re-elected by about 60 percent of the vote. He's not going to be recalled."
Clark said Denham's campaign would post attorneys in the county clerks' offices to check the signature verifications.
Denham has filed a complaint with the state attorney general alleging that Democrats paid signature gatherers from outside the district. State law requires recall campaigns to work with people from inside the legislator's district.
"The stipulation that they come from the district is designed specifically to protect legislators from bullying leaders like Don Perata," Clark said.
Paul Hefner, a "Dump Denham" spokesman, denied the allegation.
"It's one more dishonest charge from the Denham campaign," he said.
If the effort is placed on a ballot, voters would see two questions: One would ask whether Denham should be recalled and the other would list candidates running for his seat.
Nickel said he supports the recall, arguing that Denham shifted his focus to running for statewide office.
Bid for lieutenant governor
Denham has filed paperwork in the California secretary of state's office signaling his intent to run for lieutenant governor in 2010, when his Senate term expires.
Salinas didn't say whether he favored the recall but said he would consider running depending on if and when it goes before voters.
"It's a process that's available for the voters and they're using it just like the Republicans against the Democrats," he said. "I don't think (former Gov.) Gray Davis had any malfeasance. What's good for the goose is good for the gander."
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, is not interested in running against Denham in the recall, her spokesman said.
"She has not had any involvement in the recall," Robin Adam said. "She's running for re-election for the state Assembly."
Davis was the most recent California lawmaker to lose his office in a recall. Schwarzenegger unseated him in 2003.
Two Republican Assembly members lost seats in recalls during the 1990s because of their support for Democratic Speaker Willie Brown.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2366.