LOS ANGELES — Californians banished Gray Davis on Tuesday, capping an extraordinary political melodrama by recalling the governor just 11 months after they re-elected him. Exit polls indicated Hollywood action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger was leading the field of candidates to replace him.
Davis became the first California governor pried from office and only the second nationwide to be recalled, in a remarkable campaign that featured one of the planet’s best-known entertainers and captivated an international audience.
Voters also rejected Proposition 54, a contentious initiative that would have banned state and local governments from tracking race in everything from preschools to police work.
Voters across the racial spectrum rejected the measure, according to exit polling.
Re-elected last November with less than 50 percent of the vote, Davis fell victim to a groundswell of discontent in a state that has struggled with its perilous financial condition.
A total of 135 candidates lined up to replace him, including the Democratic lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, conservative Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo.
But the biggest name was Schwarzenegger, who was bedeviled in the campaign’s 11th hour by reports that he had groped women over decades.
Voters faced two questions — whether to recall Davis, and who among the other candidates should replace him if he was removed. On the first question, they voted a resounding “yes,” based on an exit poll survey of more than 2,800 voters conducted for The Associated Press and other news organizations by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
About seven in 10 voters interviewed in exit polls said they had made up their minds how they would vote on the recall question more than a month before the election.
Long lines were reported at polling places through the day. By late afternoon, Terri Carbaugh, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state, said a turnout of 60 percent appeared likely — higher than the 50.7 percent turnout in last November’s gubernatorial election.
As colorless as his name, Davis was also known as a canny politician with sharp elbows. Once chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown, he rose through the political ranks as a state assemblyman, controller and lieutenant governor, before becoming governor in 1999.
By contrast, Schwarzenegger’s political inexperience seemed a virtue to many voters. The actor eschewed the usual political rally to announce his candidacy in August on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
The campaign included a parade of bit players among the 135 candidates, including Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, former child actor Gary Coleman, a publicity-hungry porn actress who wanted to tax breast implants and an artist who dressed in all blue and described his candidacy as the ultimate piece of performance art.
The cast of characters and outsized ballot gave the campaign a carnival-like atmosphere and provided late-night comics with a stream of material.
But to many Californians, it was serious business.
“I’m horrified at the thought that Schwarzenegger can be our governor,” said Gretchen Purser, 25, of Berkeley, who voted against recall. “I’m sick of Republicans trying to take over the state.”
Ed Troupe, 69, of Thousand Oaks, voted yes for recall and for Schwarzenegger. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “Gray Davis is one of the dirtiest politicians I’ve ever encountered.”