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For Davis, the Hard Part Begins

April 11, 1999

Except for a few stumbles in style and execution, Gov. Gray Davis has got his administration off to a productive start. He generally has steered along a moderate course with no radical departures from the direction set by his predecessor, Republican Pete Wilson. Davis promised to govern from the middle and basically he has done that.

With Democrats controlling both the governor's office and the Legislature, the mood in Sacramento is less contentious and more focused on achievement than during the previous eight years. That's no surprise considering Davis' overwhelming election victory, which helped Democrats strengthen their hold on both the Senate and the Assembly.

Political honeymoons often are short-lived, even with a party in full control. The early successes often are the easiest. But it's also true that success can strengthen a chief executive's hand. As Davis approaches his 100th day in office, he appears to have muted critics who carped about his tendency to micromanage and his slowness in filling jobs. Davis should, however, loosen the reins on his appointees and allow them to make decisions without fear of second-guessing or public retribution. It is up to Davis to make his priorities clear and trust his appointees to carry them out.

The governor's major achievement is the one he set as his absolute priority: public school reform. While his four-bill schools package was not as far-reaching as some would have liked, the Davis program zipped through the Legislature in fewer than 80 days. Now he needs to make sure the programs are implemented effectively and backed up by a systematic assessment of what additional steps are needed.

Outside his legislative endeavors, Davis was impressive in his three-day trip to Mexico, helping to overcome years of bad blood between Wilson and Mexican leaders. The trip was partly symbolic, but improved relations are bound to lead to greater economic interaction between Mexico and California and better cooperation on a host of border issues. The governor also played a critical role in concluding the $480-million deal in which the state and federal governments acquired the Headwaters Forest of old-growth redwoods in Northern California from Pacific Lumber Co. Pacific executives played hardball right up to the last moment, but Davis refused to blink.

He also deserves credit for his adroit handling of the MTBE issue, ordering a phase-out of the controversial gasoline additive. His administration needs to make certain that a new-formula gasoline is made available without sacrificing air quality or sticking consumers with exorbitant pump prices.

Lots of tough issues lie ahead: health care reform, the crumbling infrastructure and the need for better commuter transportation. Water problems, gun control and the fiscal plight of local government are also high on the list.

The governor must end his curious equivocation about dropping the Wilson administration appeal of a court ruling that nullified provisions of Proposition 187, the ballot measure that cut off all state aid to illegal immigrants. Davis promised in his campaign to uphold ballot decisions of the voters, but in the case of Proposition 187 the court already has ruled against the people's judgment and the appeal is not likely to succeed anyway.

Davis will present a revised budget in May based on updated economic data. So far, he has had the benefit of an ever-expanding economy. He needs to exercise fiscal discipline and set aside a comfortable reserve against a possible downturn.

The first three months of a governor's term offer hints of what might follow. But Davis' leadership abilities have not yet been severely tested. The hard part of political leadership, the need for perseverance after the honeymoon ends, lies ahead.

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