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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS | MIKE DOWNEY

Election Day Is Painted in Shades of Gray

June 03, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

A few weeks ago, I would have given Gray Davis about as much chance of becoming California's Democratic candidate for governor as I would have given India or Pakistan a shot at becoming a world nuclear power.

He was running a poor third--well, a relatively inexpensive third--in the polls behind Jane Harman and Al Checchi, who between them spent so much money, they could have chipped in for a little plutonium and become nuclear powers themselves.

Davis was called dull, uninspiring. His "first name pretty much sums up his political presence," wrote Joe Klein in the New Yorker, although, as many people know, Klein isn't necessarily an authority when it comes to publicly recognizing someone who's anonymous.

By the early days of May, the lieutenant governor's primary colors couldn't have been any grayer. Davis was as outspent as a public access TV channel going up against Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner. He also was needled as "a career politician" by those who for some reason considered it advantageous to be an amateur, people who apparently felt that being a chief executive officer could qualify Checchi someday to be a chief executive. (See Ross Perot, 1992.)

Then, bang, things changed overnight.

Which things? Which night? I don't think anybody knows for sure, but the canny Davis began to rally. He came up with $9 million to spend and got his message across however he could, although Harman and Checchi continued being seen on TV more often than any woman and man in this state since Lucy and Desi.

By the time Tuesday's polls closed, there were indications that Davis not only would win his party's nomination for governor, but might even double the totals of his two key opponents.

Oh, that unpredictable El Nino. . . .

It really did appear to be a Gray day in California.

*

Veteran political observers often find primaries to be pretty dull, but not this year's.

For starters, this one was an experimental "blanket primary," in which anybody was free to vote for anybody, rather than just along party lines. For example, on the ballot there were 17 candidates for governor from seven parties, here in an America that has always needed a good seven-party system.

This means that at some candidate's campaign headquarters Tuesday night, it was entirely possible that once staffers and supporters heard the vote count, they began chanting: "We're No. 17! We're No. 17!"

As if our lively gubernatorial campaign wasn't interesting in itself, there was also a tightly contested race between Darrell Issa and Matt Fong to be the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Barbara Boxer.

I believe Issa first came to my attention a few months ago, when Bill Clinton's extracurricular exploits began dominating the nightly news. Issa was the one whose wife reportedly referred to Clinton as "a slut," to which Issa later added that as a rule of thumb, he doesn't disagree with his wife.

I've heard a lot of name-calling in politics, but I never expected to hear a president of the United States called that name.

On the campaign trail, California is too large a state to cover every inch, but Issa and Fong got around. Issa did some last-minute campaigning in a 30-foot recreational vehicle that became known as the "Issa-bago," while Fong, a former Air Force officer, was seen taking the controls of a private jet. (To my knowledge, the plane never became known as the "Fong-bago" or as "Air Fong One.")

By far, though, our gubernatorial derby gained the most attention, not only statewide but nationwide. And a peculiar little election it was.

*

I have never seen money spent on an election the way it was spent in this one--and this was only a primary. Imagine if somebody actually could have won something Tuesday.

They say no nonpresidential campaign has ever resulted in as much expenditure as this one has. At last report, Checchi had shelled out something like $40 million. Had he made it to Sacramento, he could have sat behind a sign on his desk reading: "The Buck Stops Here, There and Everywhere."

Checchi and Harman spent a bundle, but Davis apparently got a bigger bang for his bucks.

Forty million just doesn't go as far as it used to, I guess.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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