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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Davis Finally Enters the Real Race--on TV

April 23, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — This is Gray Davis' time. The time to make a run, to use basketball lingo. To rally, borrowing from baseball. In the jargon of political junkies, Davis has gone up--gone up on television with campaign ads.

He's showing his stuff, making his move, trying to climb back among the front-runners in the gubernatorial race.

Megabucks businessman Al Checchi has been up since November, blitzing TV at a record clip. Rich Rep. Jane Harman also has been all over the tube. They've beaten back Lt. Gov. Davis and are running neck and neck among likely voters, according to the most recent public polls.

Until Monday, Davis was helpless to respond. A pauper by comparison to his Democratic rivals, Davis has little personal wealth and is dependent upon traditional contributions to finance a campaign. But now, with only six weeks remaining before the June 2 primary, the underdog reports that he has scraped together enough money to average $1 million a week on TV until election day, still far less than Checchi.

"My campaign began in earnest on Monday," Davis told me. "This race is changing very rapidly. It's changing as we're talking."


Davis had just finished speaking Tuesday to a labor convention, roughly 200 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

There, unlike, say, a Rotary club, Davis could brag about having been Gov. Jerry Brown's chief of staff two decades ago. "We did some wonderful things," he reminisced. "We provided collective bargaining for public employees, collective bargaining for farm workers. . . . Those were good years. It's hard to remember that a governor can actually be a force for good."

Indeed, polls indicate that while Brown is considered a flake by Republicans and many independents, he still is highly regarded by the majority of Democratic voters.

Continuing his populist theme, Davis, 55, also talked about serving in Vietnam, the only major gubernatorial candidate who did.

"I did not see a lot of people there from Stanford or Columbia Law School," the former Army captain noted, mentioning his alma maters. "I saw a lot of people of color and a lot of people who didn't have a college degree. It became very clear to me that not everyone was sharing the burden of this country fairly. And I didn't know exactly what I was going to do about it, but I knew I didn't like it."

That's what prodded him into politics, he asserted.

Davis brought the audience to its feet by denouncing Proposition 226, which would require unions to obtain members' permission before spending their dues on politics. And he got into some other issues. But here was his main pitch--and the main pitch of his candidacy:

"Governing this state is not for beginners."

Davis has spent 24 years in state government, including stints as a legislator and state controller. "Experience money can't buy," his TV ad stresses.

Checchi never has held public office. Harman's career has been a mix of federal service and lawyer/lobbying.

"It's a very simple choice for people," Davis told the union members. "You have two people who have spent most of their adult life accumulating wealth. That's fine. But people want a governor with whom they have confidence, who is tested."

The delegates agreed. They endorsed Davis, the 11th major union to do so. The day before, they had listened to Checchi. (Harman didn't show.)

"They loved what Checchi said," reported Willie Pelote, the union's political director. "But they haven't seen him perform in the public sector. He's got no track record. Gray does."


Davis' scenario for winning the Democratic nomination is this:

* Checchi's attack ads will severely wound Harman, but also backfire on Checchi. Davis' pollster, Paul Maslin, says the voters' impressions of both Checchi and Harman now are as negative as they are positive. Davis' are 2-1 positive.

* Harman will not appeal as much to women as have other, better known female candidates, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown.

* Proposition 226 will bring out union members who will vote for Davis. "226 is my secret weapon," he says.

* Voters this year are not chomping to throw the bums out and elect a novice outsider. "People believe California is on a roll," Davis says. "They want a governor to continue this momentum. They are not looking for outsiders to bring radical change. . . . They won't trade in an old friend for a new friend."

Davis is dull and he has been around the track. But he's only now starting to compete on this track. The junkies aren't predicting he'll win, but neither are they yet counting him out.

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