Seven journeys to a choice

Times Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Jim and Mill LaVerde followed it like a pennant race. Sam and Stephanie Larson saw it as a morality play. Eleanor Viggers was drawn to it like a train wreck. Steve and Yolanda Whitehorse just tried not to come to blows over it.

All seven people, spread over three generations, defied the snickers of the rest of the nation and took the California recall election seriously.

For nearly two months, they weighed whether to follow their hearts or their heads to choose who should lead a state of 33 million residents with a $1.4 trillion economy.

They live within blocks of each other in Burbank, a city with a dead-center voting record that deviates little from the state norm. Found on one street on one day, they were united only by a willingness to share their squabbles at the breakfast table, shouts at the TV and quiet late-night talks.

They are neither a poll nor a focus group, and don't want to be reduced to a label. They just want to have their say today. Here's how they decided.

Responsibility at issue It's about responsibility. That's the way Sam and Stephanie Larson saw the recall from the outset.

Sam, a 37-year-old medical marketing executive who grew up on a ranch in eastern Washington, heard snippets of Gov. Gray Davis at his first town hall meeting Aug. 19. In a contrite note aimed at repairing his image, Davis admitted that he should have reacted more quickly to the energy crisis that darkened homes.

So far, so good, Sam thought. Then Davis went on to blame energy companies, the Bush administration and an alleged national Republican conspiracy.

He lost the Larsons there and then. "I guess my soapbox that I'm always getting up on is about personal responsibility," Sam said. "Nobody feels like they're responsible for anything anymore. Our society has developed this sense of entitlement to everything. ... So people complain about illegal aliens, but guess what? There's a ton of crops up in the San Joaquin Valley that need to be picked, and if it's not illegal aliens, are you going to do it? You know, and they complain about the price of gas, but they have to drive their Hummer that gets eight miles to the gallon."

Sam and Stephanie, 34, met at a medical convention in Atlanta in 1999, when Stephanie was working as a product spokeswoman at Sam's booth. Right away, she said, their conversation went beyond chitchat. But it went no further until they ran into each other at another convention in Anaheim. They found that they ran counter to the Generation X stereotype. They were motivated, took moral stands and rejected the me-first culture they saw.

On New Year's Day 2001, Stephanie Ladenburger moved from Atlanta to San Jose to give Sam Larson and the Golden State a chance. They moved to Burbank summer before last and married in May.

Like many newlyweds, Sam and Stephanie are still feeling out each other's views. They pause to hear each other out. They seldom interrupt. They look each other in the eyes when they speak. They don't talk politics. They talk values.

Sam is a registered Republican. Stephanie, who grew up in a Democratic family in suburban Iowa, swung from Democrat to Republican and now calls herself an independent. Neither voted in the 2002 governor's election, when Davis beat Republican Bill Simon Jr.

The Larsons oppose abortion and favor school prayer. They keep a Bible on the coffee table of their one-bedroom apartment. They live on Sam's income, saving for a house, unsure yet if Southern California is home.

Stephanie spends her time organizing a local chapter of Mustard Seed Communities, a Christian philanthropic group that sends volunteers to orphanages and schools in the developing world, with the hope of converting them to volunteers at home. Last year, Stephanie got Sam to go to Jamaica. Now, he would like to see everyone spend some time doing something for others. "I would almost rather see us go to some type of mandatory public service for young people," he said. "Like two years in the Peace Corps."

Sam is worried about people thinking too little about helping others and more about what to buy. "My profession is a lot to blame," the marketing executive said, "because we're constantly pumping messages toward people that you need this or you're not cool, you've got to have the latest whatever. You know: Work hard and take care of you; look out for No. 1; if someone is not up to your standard, you turn your nose at them."

In late August, the Larsons looked at the 135 candidates -- including a porn star, a former child actor and a comedian who smashes watermelons -- and wondered if anyone matched their convictions.

They barely even knew the seven top contenders: Simon; Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante; state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), a stalwart conservative; businessman Peter V. Ueberroth; talk radio host and author Arianna Huffington; Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate who fought for attention in the last campaign; and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose announcement brought out the paparazzi in force.

"You look at it, and of the realistic candidates, there's really only three I hear about, and that's Arnold, Bustamante and Ueberroth," Sam said. "I mean, that's really all I hear about, so far. The recall itself? Do I support it or not? I don't know. Honestly, I don't care very much for Gray Davis. I've always felt like he's basically continually fund-raising and continually promising things to anybody who'll give him money to support his next campaign, whenever that may be. But do I blame him for the situation of California? No. I think that's a much bigger issue that's more complex than people want to make it. But at the same time, will I necessarily vote to recall him? I don't know."

Stephanie said she was troubled by the character of the coverage, particularly on television. "Now they're showing all the clips of Arnold Schwarzenegger, all the past things he's done," she said. "Like they showed video of him today smoking marijuana. ..."

"I'm like: So what, you know?" said Sam, who was following the recall on an Internet news page at work. Any camera 20 years ago could have caught a lot of other people doing the same, he said.

Stephanie decided to vote Davis out. Still, with seven weeks remaining, she worried whether she could find out enough about the candidates to choose a replacement.

Sam would work the same dilemma backward: Find the right candidate before deciding whether to throw Davis out.

A domestic debate The green marble kitchen island in the Whitehorse residence had become a battleground by early September. Steve, 54, an accountant with his own firm, would do his exercises and wait for Yolanda to come to breakfast. He would spread the paper, point to headlines and they would have it out.

Yolanda, a few months younger than Steve, is a liberal Democrat. Steve is an irascible conservative. Both came up on hard streets in poor families. Their jousts were those of a comfortably married couple who can spar without drawing blood. And the recall was their latest excuse.

They were not alone in their obsession. By the last week of August, a Times poll showed that 97 percent of likely voters were engaged by the contest. Half the sample favored recalling Davis, with 45 percent against; Bustamante led Schwarzenegger, 35 percent to 22 percent. McClintock, Ueberroth, Huffington, Camejo and Simon already lagged far behind.

With the polls going against him and little chance of squeezing into the limelight focused on Schwarzenegger, Simon dropped out the weekend the Times poll was published.

All of the contenders but Schwarzenegger gathered in Contra Costa County for a debate Sept. 3. Davis was granted half an hour alone.

On his way home from work, Steve Whitehorse caught a few minutes of the debate on the radio. "I started laughing at one point," he said a few days later. "I had to pull over. It was just bad. Bustamante and Arianna Huffington got into it. They had a real spat over who took money from the tobacco companies. ..."

"See, why wasn't Arnold there?" Yolanda interrupted.

"I'm glad he didn't show up to that," Steve said.

"Because he was not prepared," she said.

Steve frowned. "No, that was a presumption," he said. "You're assuming something. I don't think he had to show up to this. I don't think it did anything for the candidates. Some of the questions asked, I mean -- I only listened it between the office and the house, so that's 10 minutes -- and it was meaningless questions. Nothing was on point."

Steve, a burly man with a sharply sarcastic sense of humor, jumped onto the Schwarzenegger bandwagon early, and hectored Yolanda with AM talk radio arguments every day.

A Panamanian immigrant and die-hard liberal who worked the 1960s Kennedy campaigns, Yolanda agreed that Davis should be kicked from office. But Schwarzenegger, she said, should go back to Hollywood.

"There's nobody out there that at this point I feel comfortable with," she said. "And I'm just -- which is the lesser of two evils?"

Two Schwarzenegger ads already were on the air. "Special interests have a stranglehold on Sacramento," Schwarzenegger said in one ad. "Here's how it works: Money comes in, favors go out. The people lose. We need to send a message: Game over."

Steve was all ears. "I didn't vote for Gray Davis either time, and on his reelection he kept the deficit on the hush-hush," he said. "And when it first came out we had a $12 billion deficit and then suddenly it grew to $38 billion. ... If California is a publicly traded company and the CEO took his company from an $8 billion surplus to a $38 billion deficit -- that's what we know so far -- he'd be bounced in a minute. He'd be on the street."

Steve went on. "What's this deal of the employers providing health insurance to their employees?" he said. "Where it's mandatory for small business to provide health insurance, and for larger companies to provide for employees' entire family? The projected cost to business is $3.5 billion? Of course, on top of that, Cruz Bustamante's brilliant idea of saving the state is to raise taxes by $10 billion ... ? If you want to attract business and create jobs, you've got to reverse this trend."

Yolanda reminded him that he is more generous, anyway: Steve pays his employees' health-care premiums. That, he said, is a private business decision.

When they first met, Steve and Yolanda had an up-from-the-bootstraps background in common, and they thought alike.

"At one time or other, I had liberal leanings, if you could call it that," Steve said. "My beliefs changed the minute I started pulling down a steady paycheck."

"Steve and I met in college and have been together ever since," Yolanda said, glancing at her husband and laughing. "I don't know why. We still don't know why."

Steve's story starts in a housing project, and he glides through it like a resume: "Born and raised in beautiful East L.A., grew up in Ramona Gardens. Nothing's ever been handed to me on a silver platter -- I worked my way through college. I graduated from beautiful Lincoln High School. I attended Los Angeles City College, Cal State L.A. and got my master's degree from Golden Gate University.

"Originally, there were five children, three surviving children, father abandoned the family before I was even born. So I grew up on welfare and just delivered newspapers, mowed lawns. And I don't know what a day of unemployment is. So there's where my values come from."

Yolanda's values come from Panama by way of the Pico-Vermont area. Her parents lectured her constantly about getting an education. She and all her siblings got college degrees.

"My family came here in search of a better life," she said, "and we got it. Maybe it's my upbringing, because of our family having worked so hard and what we were given when we first came here. ... I firmly and truly believe that we can do so much more for the people. But then I also respect his [Steve's] views, because he's had to work so hard for everything."

On Davis' fate, they were in accord. But on Schwarzenegger, they had to agree to disagree.

A fear of liberals In early September, Peter V. Ueberroth looked good to Jim LaVerde and his wife, Mill. He was understated, confident, a guy who did a good job on the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

There was just one problem. The LaVerdes turned on the TV and learned that Ueberroth was about to step out of the race. That left five serious contenders: Bustamante, Camejo, Huffington, McClintock and Schwarzenegger.

"It's too bad," said Jim, 86. "I was between him and McClintock. I would probably have gone for Ueberroth. I know Schwarzenegger; he's kind of liberal. I wish he'd step out for McClintock."

Mill, 80, shook her head in disapproval. "When Schwarzenegger first came into the picture, he seemed great," she said. "He said, 'I won't take any money; I've got my own money. I'm not going to ask for anything.' The next day, he took donations."

"From the Indians," Jim said.

"No, that was Bustamante," Mill said. "And then when he wouldn't do the debate, that really -- I said, 'Something's wrong with this picture. ...' And then he said he's going to go in the next debate because he's going to have the questions already for him. To me, that's not a debate."

The LaVerdes have been together since they met at a dance in Buffalo, N.Y., when she was 16, visiting from Columbus, Ohio. A month later, they were married.

"I drove her home to Ohio. It took me 12 hours," Jim said. "Then I asked her father, 'Can I take her home?' and he said, 'Yeah, if you marry her.' So we drove my car ... to Kentucky and we got married." The marrying age was lower in Kentucky, he explained sheepishly.

It was 1940, and Jim LaVerde was a 22-year-old Sicilian American kid from "The Hooks," a working-class neighborhood of Buffalo. On those streets, you were a union member and a Democrat.

"I was a Democrat right from the beginning, right until I came to California" in 1954, he said. "When I saw what Gov. Brown was doing, I changed. I mean Gov. Brown Sr.," he said, referring to Pat Brown.

"These guys all went in with a surplus, and went out with a deficit," he said. "Every one of them Democrats."

Jim started out at General Controls, a blue-collar job, at a time when Burbank was all about aerospace and defense. But he soon shifted the way Burbank would -- joining 20th Century Fox in the shipping department, and rising to become a negative cutter.

Mill was a maverick of the 1950s. She defied Jim's wishes and went to work. "I threw away my apron and burned my broom," she said. After 32 years as an auditor at ITT, Mill bristles at Davis' failure to give a proper accounting of the state's budget troubles.

During one of Davis' town hall meetings, someone asked where several million dollars went, she recalled. "He danced right around it and said, 'I know I've made some mistakes.' But he never once -- and I'm sitting there glued to the television -- never once said, 'Well, I did this and I did that.' Something's wrong."

Mill rolled her eyes and pursed her lips. "I went into my office, and if I had to find $140,000 and it wasn't there, I better find out where it went, you know?" she said. "You've got to give an explanation for that kind of loss. You've got to."

The LaVerdes are comfortably middle class, retired in a home they have had for nearly four decades. "I'm on a fixed income," Jim said. "I gotta live the best I can. I was no businessman. I didn't make a million in the stock market." Still, he added, they did well enough to afford cruises to South America, the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean.

From the start of the recall, they watched the news -- "Channel 5 in the morning, Channel 4 at 11 a.m., and Channel 7 at 4 o'clock," Jim said -- and were glued to the first debate.

"I absolutely couldn't stand that Arianna ...," Mill said, forgetting Huffington's last name.

"Her and the one guy that was sitting next to her," Jim added, referring to Camejo. "I don't like his views. He sounded like an ultra-liberal. Even Ueberroth and McClintock, we didn't know much about them. We knew the good they did."

Out of all of them, though, Bustamante drew the strongest reaction. "The lieutenant governor -- I can't think of his name -- he just leaves me cold," Mill said.

Both voted for Simon last year, but "against my better judgment," Jim said.

"That's right. I didn't vote for Simon," Mill said. "I voted against Davis."

The margin for Davis over Simon in Burbank -- 46 percent to 40 percent -- closely matched the statewide figures of 47 percent to 42 percent. And Burbank also has roughly the same percentage of registered Democrats to Republicans as statewide.

"Let me get something straight," Jim said. "We're not far-right Republicans. You can go too far as a conservative and too far as an ultra-liberal. Within reason, within reason. I wish Schwarzenegger didn't have so many liberals around him."

One liberal he referred to was billionaire Warren E. Buffett, whose off-the-cuff comment that Proposition 13 had hamstrung the state's revenues prompted much backpedaling by Schwarzenegger's camp. At his first major news conference, Schwarzenegger mockingly threatened to make Buffett do 500 sit-ups if he repeated the comment. Since then, the billionaire has been largely quiet.

Jim first weighed Schwarzenegger against Bustamante. "If he's a liberal, I'd rather have the liberal than the ultra-liberal," he said.

Pairing Schwarzenegger against McClintock was a tougher call. "It's going to have to be one of the two," he said. "I like McClintock. I like him."

Isolated by history By mid-September, Eleanor Viggers, 83, couldn't stand the sight of Schwarzenegger. He was on campaign commercials, news shows, entertainment shows.

"I keep turning off Schwarzenegger," she said. "It's like that guy who advertises for mattresses. I just have to turn him off every time."

When Viggers was growing up in San Diego County, men such as Upton Sinclair ran for governor. She heard him when she was 12, and came of age when politics involved high stakes and outsized protagonists. Her first vote went to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and all politicians since then have been dwarfed by his memory.

Her hero, FDR, "had an idea, he had a drive, he wanted to help people," she said.

"They can talk all they want to, but this guy could really make something happen -- Social Security, the WPA, NRA, all that stuff. It was just incredible."

The widow of a Spanish Civil War veteran, Eleanor lives on a fixed income in a high-rise for seniors, where she seldom talks politics with neighbors. She finds refuge in a few favored newspaper columnists, and the New Yorker and Vanity Fair magazines.

Her flat is a find, she said, compared with the single room she had in Santa Monica. But she misses the political atmosphere of her old haunt. "There was always something in the air," she said, "and it wasn't the sea spray."

Eleanor misses the conversations she would have had with her late husband, Ralph, who sparked her political activities when they met in San Diego County after World War II. A pacifist, he sneaked off to serve as a scout in the Spanish Civil War, and was a reporter in Iran, chronicling supply missions to Russia, during World War II. They married in 1947, with a justice of the peace, under a fig tree in Pasadena.

Ralph took Eleanor to New York, where they lived the life of the bohemian left, in an apartment on the Upper West Side shared with six European immigrants. He studied at Columbia and worked odd jobs. They worked the campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, who was defeated by Harry S. Truman.

Defeated themselves, they returned to Southern California and got to work on the 1950 senatorial campaign of Helen Gahagan Douglas. The onetime Hollywood actress lost the bruising campaign when she was accused of being a "conduit" to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin by a young congressman from Yorba Linda, Richard M. Nixon. "What a shocker that was, that he was such a dirty-pool player," Eleanor said, shaking her head.

And now, California politics had come to 135 candidates vying for a sitting governor's seat.

"I'm no big fan of Davis, but I think the recall thing is a bad beginning to God-knows-what," she said.

Eleanor said she will vote for Bustamante. "I think he's an experienced man, mostly," she said. "If anyone should know Sacramento, he should know it."

She rolled her eyes at the thought of Schwarzenegger. "I think this is a very serious time and I can't take him seriously," she said. "And I'm so disappointed in Maria Shriver. I can't tell you."

The final choices For the Larsons and LaVerdes, the decision was all coming down to the "Super Bowl of Debates," as Schwarzenegger dubbed the Sept. 24 broadcast. More Californians would watch it than tuned in to the final debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

The Larsons watched from their one-bedroom apartment over Thai take-out. The newlyweds held hands, rapt, and gave each contender their last shot.

Within minutes, the five candidates were bickering over workers' compensation. "So I guess they all agree with Arnold that fixing the economy is the biggest issue," Sam said.

Then Camejo blasted both Republicans and Democrats over taxation. Sam chimed in: "Is he in here for comic relief? I mean, everybody knows he doesn't have a valid chance."

He added, "I think he's got a valid point, regarding everybody should pay about the same percent of their income."

When it was over, Sam was surprised to find he liked the two men at the edges of the political spectrum. Only Camejo and McClintock were straight shooters, he said.

"Arianna was a gadfly to me. All she wanted to do was bust people's chops," Sam said. "Cruz [Bustamante], I just get this slick, kind of fat-cat, sitting back, kind of, 'Oh, hmmm, yeah.'"

"Trying to say the right thing," Stephanie said.

"I just don't see anything changing with him. I don't," Sam said. "My feeling is that I have to say yes on the recall because I think the message has to be sent. ... And I think the best thing would be McClintock or the Green guy, Camejo. I mean, honestly, that would send the sharpest message, to really shake things up."

"I think I like McClintock for his forthrightness," Stephanie said. "I think Schwarzenegger is likable and cares, but he -- I don't know -- my values I think go with McClintock more. And he just seems to be more, he says it like it is."

"Maybe voting for Arnold is the way to say, 'Throw out all the establishment and get to something completely new,'" Sam said. "But part of me says, 'Gosh, if you could just get McClintock in there, he would sure shake things up.'"

Sam decided. "Is McClintock going to win? Probably not," he said. "But I am going to vote for him."

"Then there's the thing about splitting the vote and then Bustamante wins," Stephanie argued. "That stinks."

But in church that weekend, the priest had spoken strongly about the election and the Vatican's stand against abortion. It was enough to tip the balance, and the Larsons chose McClintock.

By the end of the debate, Jim and Mill LaVerde opted for expediency. The retirees who were turned off by California's past liberal governors didn't want Bustamante to win on the backs of a split Republican vote. They chose Schwarzenegger over McClintock.

"There's no sense in voting for a loser," Jim said.

A day later, Eleanor Viggers dug out the absentee ballot she received before leaving on her cruise. She'd had enough. She marked "no" on the recall, and searched out Bustamante's name. Then she voted against both ballot initiatives. She went down to the lobby of her building, and dropped it in the mail.

Steve and Yolanda Whitehorse, meanwhile, kept to their separate ways. Steve was already talking about Gov. Arnold. What really stuck in Steve's craw were the bills being rushed to the governor's desk: granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, a compromise reform of workers' compensation and making health insurance mandatory for most businesses.

"We're giving the state away. I can't believe what's going on," he said. "I scratch my head and say, 'Don't you people get it?' Maybe it's me, in my conservative middle age."

Steve was pleased when polls a week before the election showed Schwarzenegger outpacing Bustamante, and voters solidly in favor of the recall.

Schwarzenegger's lead jolted Yolanda. "I changed my vote," she said. "I'm voting 'no' on the recall. There's nothing out there that's going to be better. The more I read about it, the more I thought about it. I said: 'This is an elected official. We can't just change our minds about him.'"

On Sept. 29, the day before her 54th birthday, Yolanda filled out her absentee ballot: no on the recall, yes on Bustamante. Steve also voted: Yes on the recall, yes on Schwarzenegger.

Three days later, Yolanda had all the ammunition she needed: six women told The Times that they were groped by Schwarzenegger.

But at the breakfast table, Steve was a step ahead.

"First thing this morning, that's what he hit me with -- 'The liberal media is after us!'" Yolanda said, laughing.

"I take all this with a grain of salt," Steve said. "Next thing you'll hear is Arnold's a drag queen and his shoulders are too big to fit into a gown."

An election that started with jokes was ending with one, though this time, the laughter was a bit more tense.

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