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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Davis' Helping Hand Was More of a Slap in the Face

March 13, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It's a common throwaway line: Let me know what I can do to help.

But Gov. Gray Davis seemed sincere. And that's the way he was taken by Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Assn.

In the phone conversation last December, Davis offered to help the CTA win public approval of Prop. 26, which would have reduced the vote requirement for local school bond issues from two-thirds to a simple majority. "I'm sure there are a lot of things you can do," Johnson recalls telling the governor.

Prop. 26 strategists huddled and came up with a plan. On Dec. 20, they sent the governor a letter signed by John Hein, chief lobbyist for the 300,000-member CTA, and Bill Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable, representing CEOs from the state's largest corporations.

They urged Davis "first and most importantly" to make fund-raising calls for Prop. 26. They also asked him to promote it in his upcoming State of the State Address, stage a big public announcement of his endorsement and perhaps hold a joint press conference with former Gov. Pete Wilson.

They waited for the governor's reply. And waited. Then gave up. Davis honored none of their requests.

Finally on election eve, March 6, Davis' written response was dropped in the mail. Addressed to Hein and Hauck, it read:

"Dear Friends, Thank you for your correspondence. I appreciate the time you took to write.

"Government works best when citizens take the time to express their views and share their experiences with elected representatives. I am able to do a better job when I know your concerns . . .

"Sincerely, Gray Davis."

*

"It was incredible," says Johnson, a longtime social studies teacher at Hamilton High School in West L.A. "He'd extended his invitation to help. Then on March 6 we get this."

Voters narrowly rejected Prop. 26 by a 2.4% margin. The next day, when campaign manager Gale Kaufman walked into her office, she saw Davis' letter on her desk. "I said, 'OK, who's pulling a joke?' I just stood there and stared at it."

Kaufman already was boiling from reading what Davis had told a Sacramento Bee reporter on election night. The failed proposition campaign "was not my handiwork," the governor said, adding that he'd offered to help, but never gotten a response.

Davis was, "in effect, constructing a lie," says Hein.

It's possible Davis never saw the Prop. 26 letter because of a mail room foul-up, his aides suggest. Hein and Hauck clearly got the same insipid written reply any ordinary citizen would.

But at minimum, Hein asserts, "he has an office that is not functioning. How do you not recognize the names 'Business Roundtable' and 'CTA' in a functioning office?"

And regardless of whether Davis ever saw the letter, his top aides knew about it, CTA officials say.

Garry South, the governor's chief political advisor, informed Hein before the State of the State Address that Prop. 26 would not be mentioned. Davis decided only to promote the state bond issues.

The governor also felt Prop. 26 did not need his fund-raising help, South says. The campaign raised $23 million and outspent opponents 20-1.

Beyond all that, notes South, "a letter's not how things get done in Sacramento. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. I'm the governor's political guy. I broker and arrange his political activities. If people want something, they know who to talk to. Everybody has my number."

Responds Johnson: "You send the governor a letter requesting things. Then you don't hear back. You're a little hesitant to start badgering the guy. The State of the State sent us a message: He's not real anxious to help."

*

It's all bizarre and also indicative of increasing animosity between two old allies, Davis and the CTA. The union spent $2 million-plus helping him get elected. But last year, while Davis was soliciting an unprecedented $13.2 million for his 2002 reelection race, the CTA gave him zilch.

"If we'd given him money, our membership would have been after me with a rope," Johnson says. Teachers feel "insulted" and "betrayed" by some of Davis' school reforms, he explains.

Prop. 26 obviously had worse problems than lack of wholehearted gubernatorial backing. A conservative voter turnout, L.A. school district chaos, questionable ad strategy and an unfriendly ballot description all hurt.

Now, there's talk of possibly offering voters a "new and improved" proposal in November when the turnout is more politically moderate.

The governor will do what he can to help. Just let him know.

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