Ten years ago, California chose a different and even weirder path.
A state already renowned for wacky politics recalled Gov. Gray Davis -- only the second U.S. governor ever kicked out of office -- and replaced him with international movie megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Governator beat out a panoply of 134 candidates, including a porn mogul with a penchant for exposing political hypocrisy; a former child actor placed on the ballot as satire; and a porn star whose platform included making lap dances a tax-deductible business expense. All three placed in the top 10.
To some, it was a shining triumph of populist democracy. To others, it was a cringe-worthy circus of talk-show punch lines with a "be-careful-what-you-wish-for" finale.
Sure, the Golden State is better off in 2013 than it was in 2003 -- the budget deficit is gone and our lights stay on, at least. But, looking back a decade later, California's "different path" led us to a place very similar to the one where we had been. Some say it was the recall's failure to change anything that finally changed things.
It's not hard to remember why voters were angry in 2003: With memories of rolling blackouts still fresh, a seemingly intractable budget deficit and a governor who was re-elected in 2002 mainly because his GOP opponent ran so poorly, Californians were hungry for change. And they thought Schwarzenegger was it.
Voters saw "this bigger-than-life celebrity who was talking about 'blowing up the boxes' and sweeping clean the halls of the Capitol," said former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who finished a distant second to Schwarzenegger. "They were hoping they had found someone who would be a leader, who could deliver on his words."
But it soon became clear that the new governor couldn't simply vanquish the state's problems like so many movie villains.
Schwarzenegger "loved to be loved, and that's a dangerous thing in public office," said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, who finished third. "He had no particular point of view, I found him to be largely disinterested in the details of policy, and he ended up dramatically breaking every major promise that he made to reduce the tax and regulatory burdens that were crushing the state."
Eventually he was loved by few. And Tom Campbell, the former South Bay congressman who was Schwarzenegger's finance director from November 2004 to September 2005, said voters' current disillusionment with nonpolitician candidates is part of the recall's legacy.
"Celebrity candidates, particularly those who make the arguments 'I can fund it myself' or 'I'll run the state like a business' had some attraction" in 2003, Campbell said.
But candidates like former HP CEO Carly Fiorina and eBay billionaire Meg Whitman -- who failed in their bids to become senator and governor, respectively, in 2010 -- may have reaped the bitter harvest of voters' change of heart. "We have lost faith in that argument," Campbell said.
It's easier to list the things the recall didn't change than those it did.
It didn't solve the energy market manipulation and price-gouging that brought rolling blackouts, bankrupted California's utilities and cost the state billions of dollars. Before 55.4 percent of California voters decided to give him the boot, Davis had overseen the licensing of 38 new power plants, and California's attorneys general later sued energy companies to recover billions of dollars in refunds and settlements.
It didn't solve the state's long-term economic problems. After the dot-com bust and post-9/11 economic instability, the state's unemployment rate was 6.8 percent in October 2003. But amid the fallout of an international Great Recession, it was 12.2 percent in December 2010, Schwarzenegger's final month in office.
It didn't solve the state's budget problem. California had a $38 billion budget deficit in mid-2003 and a $25.4 billion deficit in November 2010.
Schwarzenegger's first act as governor was to repeal Davis' tripling of the vehicle license fee -- popular at the time, but costing the state about $5 billion per year. "As a budgeting matter, you do not remove a source of revenue without an equal source of revenue to replace it or an equal cut in spending," Campbell said.
It didn't solve the state's debt burden. Schwarzenegger vowed to "cut up the credit cards," yet the state's general obligation and economic recovery bond debt surged from $27.6 billion in July 2003 to $76.5 billion in July 2010. At the middle of this year, it was $79.2 billion.
It didn't restore luster to the governor's office. Only 22 percent of California voters approved of Davis' job performance in August 2003, and only 23 percent approved of Schwarzenegger's in September 2010, the Field Poll found.
Some cite Schwarzenegger's September 2006 signing of AB32, California's landmark greenhouse gas reduction law, as a key legacy. But Davis said he would have signed it, too, just as he signed a 2002 bill by the same author to set stringent tailpipe emissions standards. And the workers' compensation insurance reforms that Schwarzenegger signed in 2004 -- praised by employers but panned by labor -- had to be "re-reformed" in 2012.
Many believe Davis was recalled in large part because his dry, stiff style matched his monochromatic nickname while one of the world's most recognizable macho men wanted the job.
"California got what we deserved; (Schwarzenegger) was no heavyweight, that's for sure," said Christopher Thornberg, founding partner at Beacon Economics and a California expert. "He didn't accomplish very much. He didn't really understand politics, though I think his heart was in the right place."
Porn star Mary Carey, the recall election's 10th-place finisher, said she and Schwarzenegger had that in common: "I'm sure he didn't know that much about politics either until he started running."
The recall did interfere with some prominent politicians' career plans.
"I was likely to be a candidate for governor -- and as attorney general, probably a potentially successful one -- and Arnold obviously changed all that," said Bill Lockyer, who won the first of two terms as state treasurer in 2006 rather than taking on the Governator. Instead, Controller Steve Westly and Treasurer Phil Angelides fought a costly Democratic gubernatorial primary, with Angelides later losing to Schwarzenegger. Neither hold elected office today, though Westly plans a comeback.
It was probably worse for Republicans, said University of San Francisco political expert Corey Cook. The socially moderate Schwarzenegger could never have won a GOP primary, but the recall gave California a governor who became distasteful to Republicans and Democrats alike -- not quite the post-partisanship he'd promised. "I think the Republican Party held its moderates responsible for his transgressions, and as a result have been eating their young ever since," Cook said.
That dovetails with Campbell's theory that Whitman and Fiorina -- rich businesswomen without political experience -- might have paid the recall's price seven years later, helping propel Gov. Jerry Brown -- the very face of experience -- back into office.
While Republican candidates in the recall election won more than 60 percent of the vote, it ultimately led to "the Republican Party going out with a whimper" in California, said Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State.
Boilard also said Californians' disillusionment with the action hero later might have led them to approve ballot measures adopting a "top two" nonpartisan primary, creating a citizens' redistricting commission and allowing simple-majority budget votes.
"I don't think the recall itself was a major shift in governance of the state of California," he said, but "it clarified to the general population that it's less about personalities and more about structural issues."
Davis, meanwhile, looks on the bright side.
"My wife thinks I'll live at least five years longer than I would have," he quipped. "When you're governor, nobody comes up and pats you on the back and says, 'Are you having a nice day, Governor?' It's all, 'Why did you do this?' and 'I need you to do that,' so there's less of that in my life at the moment."
Schwarzenegger, whose spokesman said he was unavailable for comment because he was making a zombie movie in New Orleans, surely learned the same thing.
California's recall vote was a boon -- for comedians. Here are just a few of the jokes cracked at California's expense in 2003:
Jon Stewart, 2003: "California is choosing between the lesser of, uh, 300 evils."
Bill Maher, July 24, 2003: "Yes, in baseball when the team stinks, you fire the manager. But you don't fire him because it rains. And you don't let the opposing team choose a new manager for you. And you don't fire him between innings and replace him with a Viennese weightlifter."
Craig Kilborn, Aug. 7, 2003: "Yesterday Jerry Springer bowed out of the Ohio Senate race. He said, 'If I can't run the most embarrassing campaign in America, then I'm out of here.' "
Conan O'Brien, Aug. 7, 2003: "Yesterday, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he would run for governor of California. The announcement was good news for Florida residents who now live in the second flakiest state in the country."
Jay Leno, August 2003: "As of today, Arnold Schwarzenegger has filed to run for governor, Gary Coleman has filed, Gallagher has filed, Larry Flynt, Angelyne -- I don't know if it's an election or a bad episode of 'Hollywood Squares.' "
Garry Shandling, Sept. 21, 2003: "I don't even think any of those people running know it's about politics. I think they just heard there's a part available."
David Letterman, October 2003: "Arnold Schwarzenegger is now governor of California. He is a very shrewd man -- he already has all of his sex scandals behind him."
Gray Davis, 2013
Gray Davis isn't gone and doesn't want to be forgotten.
At 70, he's firmly in the private sector -- an attorney in the Los Angeles firm of Loeb & Loeb -- but has kept a hand in public policy.
He was a member of the Think Long Committee reform effort organized by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, and serves on the Southern California Leadership Council alongside fellow former Govs. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian.
"I still feel engaged," Davis said, adding that he's proud of his 31 years in Sacramento, particularly the five final years in which he was governor.
But now he has more time to travel and play golf with his wife, he said. "The whole package is very attractive, and I'm 30 or 40 percent through the process of writing a book which hopefully will come out in the next 18 months."