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The Woes of Too Much Democratic Success

April 11, 1999|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

In the words of Mel Brooks, "It is good to be king." No doubt that thought crossed Gov. Gray Davis' mind as he took a media lap to commemorate his first 100 days in office. But it is also true that, in politics, you can never sit pretty. Opposition will always come from somewhere, even in what is essentially a one-party government, with Democrats holding most state constitutional offices, both U.S. Senate seats, and majorities in the Legislature and the state's congressional delegation.

Therein lies the real story of Davis' tenure. The good news for Democrats is that their new governor has a record to tout, especially his education-reform package. Some of these bills, particularly those dealing with performance rankings and peer review, were initially opposed by teachers' unions. Minority groups were disappointed when liberal Democratic legislators voted to establish mandatory high school exams, despite contentions that such tests are unfair to minority students who attend inferior schools. But swept away by the euphoria of controlling both branches of state government, disgruntled Democrats muted their pique and allowed Davis to secure his reforms.

Beyond this, by compromising on a temporary 5.5% salary hike for many state workers, Davis and state employees, another constituency important to his political fortunes, sidestepped a skirmish over a pay raise held up by Davis' Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson. The new governor also led a California political and business delegation to Mexico, an overture that cheered his Latino base and reopened a dialogue with a key trading partner alienated by Wilson's anti-immigration rhetoric.

Meanwhile, a cold war between Washington and Sacramento, which raged throughout most of the Wilson years, has ended. The construction of a radioactive-waste dump in Ward Valley, one of the more acrimonious battles, pitted the Wilson administration and certain state industries against a coalition of environmentalists, antinuclear activists and Native Americans. After six years of political maneuvering between Wilson and the Clinton administration, a lawsuit and a court ruling, the project is effectively dead. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is now talking with Davis, long opposed to Ward Valley, to "explore alternatives" to the dump.

Wilson and the Clinton administration also clashed over an agreement for the state and federal governments to buy thousands of acres of redwoods in the Headwaters. Davis arrived and sealed the deal two minutes before the deadline for federal funding was set to expire.

Davis' success at ending the California-Washington cold war has been helped by Vice President Al Gore, who is looking to build his 2000 presidential campaign around "Fortress California." Gore has dropped by three times in the three months that Davis has been governor, and the vice president usually bears gifts. On this month's visit, Gore delivered a waiver allowing California school districts to use $129 million in federal education funds to reduce class sizes in junior and senior high schools. Davis personally had lobbied for the exemption.

Still, Davis and his Democratic compatriots are learning a hard--and unpleasant--lesson: A hungry political party is never more united than when it is out of power. The real caterwauling begins when it's time to apportion the spoils of political victory among the faithful.

It has been reported that Davis characterizes his critics as " 'whiners,' even when they come from his own party." Well, those whiners nearly blindsided the new governor, who prefers tightly controlled messages, at his party's state convention last month. A dust-up over Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative, created the only real news at what was scheduled to be a lovefest. "Whiners" included prominent Latinos, who used the forum to pressure Davis into dropping the state's appeal of a U.S. District Court ruling declaring most of the initiative unconstitutional. Delegates unanimously approved a resolution, drafted by the party's Latino caucus, calling further defense of Prop. 187 "both a waste of taxpayer moneys and an insult to the newcomer community."

The governor landed in a political briar patch. Davis opposed the initiative when it was on the ballot but vowed, during the campaign, to uphold the will of the voters. Furthermore, two key constituencies split on the issue: moderates, 55% of whom voted for Prop. 187, and Latinos, who voted 77% against it.

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