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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

High Marks for Gov. Davis, but With an Asterisk

April 08, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Next Tuesday will be Gov. Gray Davis' 100th day on the job, the traditional point when a governor's first grade is due. Give Davis a B-plus.

Maybe that's unfair. This freshman could be due an A. But I dock him for some silly shenanigans like reading "The Little Engine That Could" in grade school classrooms--any and all TV welcome--while administration job applicants wait on hold because he insists on personally interviewing even third-level appointees. Mark him tardy on organizing and decision-making.

However, there's no big harm so far. Indeed, Davis has achieved virtually everything he's sought--mainly four school reform bills. Credit him for focus. But he also has benefited from feeble opposition.

Assembly Republicans not only are greatly outnumbered, they're in terrible disarray. They just dumped their third leader in two years--this one their first-ever Latino leader, Rod Pacheco of Riverside. It's as if they were getting their PR strategy from the same guy who advises Slobodan Milosevic.

Meanwhile, if Democrats aren't behaving exactly like lap dogs, they're at least content to sit placidly at the feet of their first governor in 16 years.

In this atmosphere of a landslide-victorious governor, a grateful Democratic Legislature weakened by term limits and a pathetic GOP, Davis definitely has taken command of the Capitol. It's all being done his way. Period.

*

The latest example of Davis dominance was his rejection Monday of a bill designed to fit California's new open primary system to the peculiarities of the political parties' national convention rules. The bill had passed overwhelmingly in each house, but Davis kicked it back at the lawmakers, threatening a veto if they didn't rewrite the measure.

The bill's author, incidentally, was the Legislature's most powerful member, Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco). Davis contends the proposal would have undermined the open primary, which he strongly supports, and cost too much: at least $5 million per presidential election.

Some change presumably is needed because the national parties insist they'll refuse to seat convention delegates selected in a California-style open primary. They don't want Democratic voters selecting Republican delegates, and vice versa.

The proposal Davis rejected would have allowed Republicans to use two separate ballots--one for everybody, the second only for GOP voters. The first would have been for show, the second for real. Democrats, meanwhile, would have used just one ballot, but coded for party registration. That way, the party could count only Democratic voters in the presidential contest. This is the system Davis prefers for each party.

Basically, this governor--playing the centrist populist--is thumbing his nose at all party poo-bahs.

"The parties are just going to have to be flexible," Davis declares. "The state of California is not subordinate to national parties. . . . We're the big enchilada. We're not going to change our law for political parties. The political parties have to accommodate California's law."

He adds: "I'm not going to be a party to subverting the open primary process. I think it's healthy for democracy. It generates interest. The voters have spoken, and I concur with their judgment."

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Davis is facing a more dicey decision on a much bigger matter where the voters have also spoken: Prop. 187, to deny public services for illegal immigrants. On that voter judgment, Davis did not concur. But as he told me: "A lot of laws I enforce I don't believe in. They don't give you an option as governor. It's like being in the Army."

A federal judge scuttled Prop. 187. Former Gov. Pete Wilson appealed. Now Davis must decide whether to continue the appeal or allow Prop. 187 to die. He's reluctant to "defy the will of the electorate," but the Democratic Party and Latinos are pressuring him to do just that.

Davis believes if the suit stays alive, there's a good chance the courts will kill Prop. 187 for good; if he kills the suit, that could trigger another divisive initiative campaign.

He's "leaning" toward pursuing the appeal, Davis reports, "but I'm not quite there yet." He still must consult legal scholars, the governor says. Not to mention key pols.

Speaking generally and reflecting back on these first 100 days, Davis says: "I feel strongly about this need to resist the siren song of extremism. I'm going to lead boldly down the middle. . . . I'm proud of our start. Has anybody had a more productive first 100 days?"

Probably not. And B-plus is a good initial grade. But tougher tests are on the way.

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