Gov. Gray Davis (D)|
Last Updated June 6, 2001
term expires Jan. 2003
Born: Dec. 26, 1942,
New York, NY
Home: Los Angeles
Education: Stanford U., B.A. 1964, Columbia U., J.D. 1967
Marital Status: married
- Political: CA Assembly, 1982-86; CA Controller, 1986-94; CA Lt. Gov., 1995-98.
- Professional: Finance Dir., Tom Bradley mayoral campaign, 1972-74; Chief of Staff, Gov. Jerry Brown Jr., 1974-82.
- Military: Army, 1967-69 (Vietnam).
Office: State Capitol Bldg., Sacramento
916-445-2841; Fax: 916-445-4633; Web: www.state.ca.gov.
Gray Davis, the Governor of California, was elected in 1998--only the fourth Democratic governor of California in the 20th century (and only the second not named Brown). Davis grew up in Connecticut and, after age 11, in Los Angeles; he graduated from Stanford and Columbia Law School, then served in the Army in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star. In 1969 he returned to California and almost immediately plunged into politics. In 1973 he worked on Tom Bradley's first successful campaign for mayor; in 1974, at 31, he ran for state treasurer, and lost the primary to former Speaker Jess Unruh. Later that year, he worked on Jerry Brown's successful campaign for governor, and in 1975 he became Brown's chief of staff. To the always improvisatory and provocative Brown, Davis was a balance wheel: well-organized, unflappable, propitiating conventional politicians and bureaucrats, learning the ways of the powers-that-be not only in Sacramento but across the state. When Brown launched into the 1982 Senate campaign which he lost to Pete Wilson, Davis moved to Westside Los Angeles and, pre-empting serious primary opposition, won a safe Democratic seat in the Assembly. There he served two terms as a conventional California liberal, during which he had surgery for removal of a benign brain tumor. No other state legislative seat in the country has as many big Democratic contributors, and Davis cultivated them tirelessly.
That enabled him to move from top-level staffer and Assembly insider to statewide office. In 1986 he ran for controller, the one statewide position with significant patronage, and won; in 1990, when Attorney General John Van de Kamp and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein slugged it out for the gubernatorial nomination, Davis was cruising to re-election. In 1992 he made his one false step, running against Feinstein for the nomination for the last two years of Wilson's Senate term; he ran ads comparing Feinstein to convicted tax evader Leona Helmsley and enraged her and many feminists in the ''year of the woman.'' He lost the primary 57%-33%. But in 1994 he recovered and ran for lieutenant governor. As in 1986, he chose his spot well. His fundraising capacity deterred other potentially strong candidates; his base in the liberal Westside was strong enough to allow him to take moderate positions on some issues, like supporting the death penalty; his braininess and knowledge of state government made him an eminently respectable choice for editorial writers and endorsement groups. He won the primary easily and, while Pete Wilson was beating Democrat Kathleen Brown by 55%-40%, Davis was elected by 52%-40% over little-known and poorly-financed Simi Valley state Senator Cathie Wright.
It was no secret that Davis was aiming to run to succeed the term-limited Wilson, with whom he had almost no relationship. Politics and government are everything to Davis: he and his wife live in a tiny West Hollywood apartment; he has never made large amounts of money and his taste for California social life is undetectable. It was widely thought also that he was unelectable--too boring and uncharismatic, many said, too gray. Two seemingly dazzling and self-financed candidates entered the Democratic primary. Former Northwest Airlines Co-Chairman Al Checchi, with a net worth around $550 million, conducted a serious study of California government and called for striking education reforms; he was articulate, attractive (with a Spanish-speaking wife) and he spent more than $38 million on his campaign. And Congresswoman Jane Harman, after three terms representing the Los Angeles beachfront, decided to enter the race in March 1998. Harman also spent freely of her own money and raised more to spend $20 million. She argued that as a woman she was better able to listen to Californians and understand their needs: a seemingly strong platform in a state where Democrats had not nominated a man for governor or senator in 10 years.
But Davis was able to take advantage of mistakes made by the big money candidates. In March Harman surged momentarily into a lead in the polls, and Checchi ran negative ads against her. The result was that both sank in the polls. But their candidacies had deeper flaws. Checchi called for change in a year in which voters were mostly content; Harman, despite her competence at dealing with issues in the House, was not well schooled in state government. Davis's slogan was ''Experience money can't buy,'' which established his incumbent status and his knowledge of state government. And if he was heavily outspent by his rivals, he was able to use his Westside contacts to raise $10 million, an impressive amount in any context except this one. Davis had the forethought to save most of his money to run ads in the last weeks before the June primary, during which he was able to match his opponents' ad buys. The result was a blowout victory for Davis: of the votes cast for Democrats, he won 58%, to 21% for Checchi and 20% for Harman.
In the general election Davis positioned himself shrewdly. Sensing the mood of the voters, he called for an end to the confrontations promoted by Republicans over issues like capital punishment, welfare for immigrants and racial quotas and preferences, and for an era of cooperation and amity. He took some controversial issues off the table: although he had opposed Propositions 187, 209 and 227, he promised to respect the voters' choice and enforce them. Others he embraced: for years he had supported capital punishment, backed by some 80% of voters and the key issue in Pete Wilson's defeat of Kathleen Brown. Despite the fact that he had voted in the Assembly in lockstep with the teachers' unions, he proposed education reforms which, while crafted carefully to minimally annoy union leaders, still diverged from the liberal policies which had destroyed California's public schools. He joked about his lack of charisma, especially when welcoming Vice President Al Gore to the state, and emphasized at every turn his status as a Vietnam veteran. And he pounced on his opponent's mistakes. The Republican nominee was Attorney General Dan Lungren. Lungren has an outgoing personality, the aggressive friendliness of the California of the 1950s he grew up in, in the then-Middle American city of Long Beach, the son of Richard Nixon's doctor. In polls until midyear he ran roughly even with Davis and the other Democrats. Until well into October he emphasized the crime issue, and tried to argue that Davis was a closet liberal. But Davis's long record against capital punishment gave him no opening. He tried to portray Davis as a clone of Jerry Brown, who after three quixotic presidential campaigns was attracting attention as a candidate for mayor of Oakland. But Davis's positions on issues made this unpersuasive. Lungren ran few ads and talked little about education, which polls showed to be far and away the number one issue; Davis, whose party had mostly run the public schools, was able to establish himself as the candidate who would reform them. When Davis battered him for his opposition to abortion, Lungren could only say that as a believing Catholic he opposed abortion--not a good excuse for many voters in this increasingly secular state--and that the only relevant issues were parental consent and partial-birth abortions.
Davis won by the landslide margin of 58%-38%--a margin of the magnitude of George Deukmejian's 61%-37% in 1986, Jerry Brown's 56%-36% in 1978, Ronald Reagan's 58%-42% in 1966 and Pat Brown's 60%-40% in 1958. Davis carried the Bay Area 69%-28% and Los Angeles County by nearly as much, 66%-31%; he even carried the rest of southern California 49%-47% and the rest of the state 50%-45%. Davis carried blacks with 83% of the vote, Hispanics with 78%, Asians with 67%, white women with 60% and even white men with 54%. California became only the second state (Hawaii was the other) with a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators, a Democratic House delegation and a Democratic legislature. It was a victory as sweeping as that of Tony Blair's New Labour party in Britain in May 1997 and left Davis, like Blair, with a mandate to pursue conciliatory moderate policies not so far out of line as one might think with the confrontational policies of his increasingly inept conservative predecessors. He also came into office at a time when California's surging economy was producing budget surpluses--very different from the early 1990s, when Pete Wilson announced a $14 billion deficit.
Davis pledged to ''govern neither from the left nor the right, but from the center,'' and in his first two years kept his word. Education he proclaimed as his ''first, second and third'' priorities. Davis called a special session of the legislature and presented four bills--for peer review for teachers, enhanced reading instruction, a school-rating system and a standardized test for high schools. Democratic legislators watered them down and delayed some reforms until 2003 and 2004, but in March 1999 versions of all four were passed, and Davis claimed victory. He vetoed laws which would have undone Proposition 227 by restoring bilingual education and Proposition 209 by reimposing racial quotas and preferences; but he declined to appeal a federal judge's ruling against Proposition 187. He vetoed liberals' bills which would have banned racial profiling (though he signed a study of whether it was occurring a year later), limited big box discount stores, provided stiffer regulation of nursing homes, imposed taxes on Internet transactions, revised the "three strikes and you're out" law and granted journalists more access to prison inmates. He resisted unions' pressure to liberalize workmen's comp. He negotiated an HMO regulation bill that stopped short of what liberals wanted. He opposed the trial lawyers' proposal to raise the cap on medical malpractice awards. He signed several gun control bills in 1999, but said he would veto any others until he saw how those worked. He negotiated an agreement that allowed Indian casinos, but barred other casinos from the state. He opposed gay marriage and a bill to give rights to live-in partners, but signed a bill banning harassment of gays in schools and one setting up a domestic partners registry. Working with the legislature, he produced on-time budgets with big spending increases and some tax cuts, as revenues came gushing in. He increased spending on transportation.
"I've been underestimated my whole life, and I don't want it to change. It's my greatest strength. You know, this whole business is exceeding expectations," Davis once said. But by the end of 2000 Davis was the colossus of California government. Of Democratic legislators he said, "Their job is to implement my vision," and he added that he expected his appointees, including judges, to resign if they could not in conscience act in accord with his policies. He clearly had sway with voters on 2000 referenda. They rejected 71%-29% the school voucher proposal advanced by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper; Davis appeared in ads against it. They followed him in backing a proposal to reduce the required majority for approving school bond issues from two-thirds to 55%. They followed his early endorsement of Al Gore by giving him a big margin over Bill Bradley in the March 2000 primary and by giving him a solid majority over George W. Bush in November (though in October Davis consultant Garry South criticized Gore for not spending money in California and for distancing himself from Bill Clinton). As the California economy blossomed, voters seemed to share his philosophy. "There's nothing government can do to substitute for a growing economy. Twenty-five, 30 years ago I might have thought differently, but now I'm convinced that government has to do a few things and do them well."
Then in early 2001 came the electricity crisis (see California, above). At first Davis's ratings seemed to hold up well, as he came forward with plans to keep electricity flowing. But by early April 2001 there were signs that his support from voters was flagging, and other politicians started to circle in for the kill. Davis has spent most of his adult lifetime in California government, and has learned from the mistakes of others. From Jerry Brown's opposition to the death penalty and his penchant for appointing administrators and judges who used insider skills to produce results opposite from what the public wanted, he learned that he must always respect the will of the people when solemnly expressed in referendum or in sustained responses to polls over the years. He learned from Pete Wilson's crunchy opposition to aid for illegal immigrants that he must not disrespect any substantial segment of the electorate. He learned from the failure of liberal schemes across the country that he must not allow legislation to add too great a burden to a bountiful and creative private sector. But nothing prepared him for the electricity crisis. He worked to deny utilities' pleas to allow them to make long-term contracts for power in summer 2000 because he feared that voters would resent the somewhat higher utility rates they would cause and that so-called consumer advocates would put up ballot initiatives promising low-cost power which would "pass in a heartbeat." The result was that the utilities were bankrupted by much higher spot market rates six months later, and the higher costs would have to be passed on to consumers and/or taxpayers, or both.
At this writing, nothing definitive can be said of Davis's chances for reelection in 2002. Straight-line extrapolation from early 2001 poll results suggested that he would win easily, and escape serious opposition. But Davis's middle-of-the-road stance has left him without last-ditch allies. Liberal Democrats in the legislature see him as more an adversary than an advocate; Republicans admire his skills, but have no investment in his success; his institutional base of Westside fundraisers helped him to amass a campaign treasury of $26 million by January 2001, but he himself has seen how popularity engendered by campaign spending of that magnitude can evaporate overnight. Davis's popularity depends on the success of the California economy, which as summer 2001 approached and rolling blackouts seemed certain, seemed likely to diminish, and on his stance as a calm, soothing arbiter in the culture wars, which as the 1990s segued into the 2000s seemed increasingly distant. In March 2001 no serious opposition to Davis's reelection was visible. In April 2001 he began to be criticized by fellow Democrats--state Treasurer Philip Angelides, who as Democratic state chairman was critical of his campaign against Feinstein in 1992; State Controller Kathleen Connell, who ran unsuccessfully for L.A. Mayor in 2001; Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Bay area liberal; State senator Don Perata, an advocate of the view that Californians should never have to pay for increases in the price of electricity. In late March 2001 Secretary of State Bill Jones announced he was running for governor, charging that Davis had not shown leadership on the electricity crisis. In April 2001 Republican William Simon Jr., investor and son of former Treasury Secretary William Simon, was mulling his candidacy; actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, after a publicity binge, decided not to run. California's hapless Republican party has no institutional base for a serious challenge, and events may prove favorable to Davis--if rolling blackouts do not occur in summer 2001, if electricity supplies increase and rates are tamped down by the market, if Davis's initiatives produce a reliable supply of electricity and Californians feel free once again to enter an elevator without visiting the bathroom first. In the meantime, talk is vanishing of Davis running for president in 2004; he has always insisted that he was not interested in being a national candidate, and in fact his whole career has been devoted to California politics and government, and he has shown less interest in national and international issues than George W. Bush showed as a baseball team owner. He has always wanted to be governor of California and, against great odds, achieved his ambition and became for a time the most dominant governor since Pat Brown in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Whether he can sustain that position depends on how he is perceived as handling an issue which neither he nor anyone else expected would be the defining event of his administration.
Probably Safe. Davis has a campaign war chest in excess of $26 million and the state Republican party is on life support. But he is vulnerable to charges that he allowed the state's energy crisis to get completely out of control, relying on politics over policy to address the problem. The two announced Republican candidates are Secretary of State Bill Jones and businessman William Simon Jr., whose father was Treasury secretary in the Reagan cabinet. But the White House is trying to persuade former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to run, and venture capitalist Tim Draper is also interested. While Davis' war chest--which could reach $40 million--may keep him in office, incumbent state legislators could bear the brunt of voter fury over the availability and cost of energy.
||Gray Davis (D)
|Dan Lungren (R)
||Gray Davis (D)
|Dan Lungren (R)
|Al Checchi (D)
|Jane Harman (D)
||Pete Wilson (R)
|Kathleen Brown (D)
National Journal Group offers both print and electronic reprint services, as well as permissions for academic use, photocopying and republication. Click here to order, or call us at 877-394-7350.