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California and the West

Feinstein Ends Feud by Backing Davis

June 18, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Binding up a long-festering wound for the sake of party togetherness, Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Wednesday endorsed Lt. Gov. Gray Davis in the race for California governor.

Under most circumstances, that sort of event would be a distinct nonevent. After all, Feinstein and Davis are both Democrats. She's the state's senior U.S. senator. He's the party's newly minted gubernatorial nominee.

But the two have had a toxic relationship since 1992, when Davis challenged Feinstein in a losing bid for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination and further poisoned relations by running a desperation television ad that compared Feinstein to the notorious hotelier-turned-felon Leona Helmsley.

Making a rare foray into a contested party primary, Feinstein endorsed Rep. Jane Harman (D-Torrance) over both Davis and businessman Al Checchi in the June 2 primary and steadfastly refused to say whether she would endorse the eventual nominee if Harman lost.

On Wednesday, however, an ebullient Davis announced his hatchet-burying entente with Feinstein outside the White House, at the close of a three-day victory waltz across Washington.

Davis told reporters that he is planning a joint appearance in California with Feinstein sometime in the next two weeks to make "a positive announcement."

A spokesman for Feinstein confirmed--in triplicate--her plans to support Davis in the fall contest. "She will endorse him. She is supporting him. She's pledged to support him in the race for governor," said press secretary Howard Gantman.

The announcement capped a Washington whirl of backslapping and bouquets for a candidate who, scarcely six weeks ago, had to literally plead to be taken seriously by party higher-ups and know-it-all pundits inside the Beltway.

"Most of the people in Washington felt I was going to come in third," Davis said, savoring his landslide victory with no small amount of relish. "So they were flabbergasted at my performance."

With victory came a wellspring of newfound enthusiasm for the Democrat and his candidacy.

Harman and her husband, Sidney, hosted a small reception for Davis on Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill and plan to hold a July 21 fund-raiser at their northwest Washington mansion.

At the White House, Davis met with President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore on Wednesday for the second time in less than a week. Both pledged considerable personal assistance, with Clinton planning to headline an August fund-raiser in California and Gore--busy laying the groundwork for his own presidential bid in 2000--promising to attend other Davis events.

The nominee's capital tour also included meetings with California's Democratic congressional delegation, labor bosses who once tried to thwart their state chapters from backing Davis when his candidacy seemed hopeless, and with major benefactors of the Democratic Governors' Assn.

But perhaps the most sensitive meeting was a private one hour and 15 minute session that Davis held with Feinstein on Monday in her Senate office. The lieutenant governor has repeatedly apologized in public for the Helmsley ad, which not only antagonized Feinstein but outraged Jewish organizations and women's political groups.

Accounts differed over whether he apologized again in private. In an interview Wednesday, Davis said the 1992 Senate race never came up in his face-to-face session with Feinstein.

According to the senator's press secretary, Davis told Feinstein that the Helmsley ad was "one of the biggest mistakes" he ever made.

Both parties agreed on most of the rest of their conversation, which focused on education and their areas of broad agreement, including support for annual student testing, expansion of summer school programs and holding children back a grade if they fail to show improvement after remedial classes.

Times political writer Cathleen Decker and staff writer Jodi Wilgoren in Washington contributed to this report.

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